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Each student’s strengths and preferences when it comes to studying and note-taking will vary. While it may take some time through trial and error to identify the systems that work well for you, here are some tips and techniques to consider trying to enhance your current habits.
Create a study schedule
Work backwards. Set the date of the exam on your calendar, then work backwards to schedule in study sessions for at least two weeks prior to the exam. If you give yourself enough time to study, you will have more time to ask for clarification and support from your TA or faculty member to work through it prior to the exam.
Replicate test conditions
Try to replicate the test conditions as much as you can when you are studying. Set a timer and quiz yourself for the anticipated length of time that you have for the exam.
Review your lecture notes to create your study materials. Using methods such as creating flash cards and completing practice problems can be a more meaningful way to study, as they actively quiz your knowledge throughout the studying process.
The Feynman Technique
Though study strategies depend entirely on each student's individual preferences and learning styles, one popular technique is the Feynman Technique. It can be broken down into four steps:
- Choose a topic you want to learn about or are actively studying
- Explain it as if you are teaching it to a middle school student, or ask a friend / family member to allow you to explain it to them
- Identify any gaps in your explanation or topics that you are unclear on; Go back to the source material, to better understand it.
Summarize in your own words
When reading your textbook or reviewing lecture notes, be sure to summarize the content in your own words. Textbooks are written by leading scholars in the field, just as lectures are given by instructors who have mastered the content. To summarize these concepts effectively it will challenge you to have a deeper level of understanding to paraphrase and grasp the topic. Furthermore, by putting these concepts into your own words, you will have a higher chance of remembering your own explanations, then the jargon-filled explanations that are found in a textbook.
The goal of effective note taking is not to capture all of the content and transcribe the lecture or content shared by the instructor. You want to capture main themes and topics that will provide a structure for you to then go back through and fill in supplemental content later from readings and other assignments. Be sure to pay close attention to things that are not on the slides that the professor shares, like a definition, example or explanation. The powerpoint is typically a guide for the instructor, and not necessarily indicative of the main points the student needs to take note of.
There are many popular systems out there for note taking, including: the outline method, the Cornell method, the "writing on the slide" method, etc. You are encouraged to do a little bit more research into the various methods that exist and try them out until you find one that fits your learning preferences well. If you would like additional assistance with identifying which note-taking system would work best for you, make an appointment with a Peer Success Coach on Starfish, as they can provide additional support.
Time management and organization
Time management and organization are words that have become so common in our day-to-day lives that sometimes they seem like buzzwords, lacking real value or depth. Each topic holds resources and techniques that can allow you to better identify and manage progress towards your personal, professional or academic goals.
Here are several ways you can keep yourself organized in terms of keeping track of what's due when, important class materials and the best way to prioritize your work.
- Keep track of your tasks and events (using a planner, for example — see the next section for more information). Some choose to have a combined task and event manager (like a paper planner), or you might choose to have two separate resources (for example, a Google Calendar for events and places you need to be and a task manager app, to-do list or notebook with all of the tasks that need to be completed and their deadlines, that you can work on whenever you have the time).
- Keep track of notes and handouts for class. You can use a notebook and folder system, a binder or organize your virtual files if you take notes on your laptop.
- Multi-step prioritization
- Typically the first step of prioritization will be based on due date.
- Next consider the value/importance of each item. (For example, a project that is worth 50% of your grade may rank high on your priority list.)
- Finally, prioritize based on difficulty. It's tempting to want to complete the easy tasks first. However, if you get caught up in completing all of the easy tasks first, it leaves less time to tackle the more difficult tasks. Instead, work on completing the difficult tasks first and the easy tasks will come as a reward.
Organize Your Physical [and Virtual] Workspace
Consider dedicating 20 minutes at the beginning of each week to organize your physical and virtual work space.
- Create a virtual and/or physical folder for each of your courses
- File documents in their appropriate folders. Be sure to move virtual assignments from your "downloads" folder into their appropriate virtual class folder!
- Tidy up your designated work area. Remove any unnecessary clutter or gargabe.
- Set up your workspace with any items that you know you'll need while working (i.e. laptop/cell phone chargers, ear phones, course notebook, text books, etc.)
Using a virtual or paper planner
Event management vs. task management
Although sometimes individuals use the same method to record both events and tasks, these two should be looked at differently when planning how to best use your time. Events are places that you need to physically be at a specific date and time (i.e. meetings, travel, appointments, classes, etc). Tasks are things that you need to spend time to complete. They often have a deadline attached to them but are fairly flexible in the time that you work on them (i.e. writing a paper, reading for class, studying, going to the grocery store, etc).
The most common form of event management is through a calendar planner: either something virtual like Google Calendar or a paper planner.
Add events to your calendar or planner as soon as you become aware of them. That means, at the beginning of each semester, you should add all of your class times, major exam or project due dates, student organization events, anticipated trips home or to see a friend, etc.
The most common form of task management is the to-do list. Others use a Google Calendar.
Record the task as soon as it is assigned or brought to your attention. If it is via email, MyCourses or shared verbally in class, take the time to write down a descriptive sentence about what it is and its due date. Then, remind yourself to come back to that task to fill in the rest of the details.
Planning ahead of time
Review your event and task management tools weekly to review the tasks that need to be completed and events that you need to attend throughout the week. Daily planning will become easier as you have a broader snapshot of all of the things that need to be accomplished throughout the week’s time.
Productivity is often filed under the topic of time management, but it's actually much more than just organizing your time; it's how you spend the time that you have available to you. You can put a three-hour block on your calendar to study, but how much of that time are you actually studying? Components like motivation, short-term and long-term goal setting, distraction management and focus all impact how you spend the time that you have, dictating your overall productivity.
Make sure the tasks on your to-do lists are S.M.A.R.T.!
Many students will list non-descript tasks like "study" on their to-do list, but what does "study" actually mean? If a task is not descriptive, or have a clear point of completion, it can easily become overwheleming to know where to even begin. This in itself can cause a great deal of procrastination. Instead, break down the tasks into actionable steps.
For example: re-read chapters 5 and 6, re-watch lectures from week 8 and 11, summarize lecture notes from week 9, etc.
BONUS: Not only will this allow you to have a clear place to begin taking action, it will also keep your motivation high as you will be able to clearly cross off tasks as you complete them!
Distraction and focus
Stop multitasking! Many arguments say multitasking is actually an inefficient way to complete tasks. Because of something called "attention residue," when you are switching your focus back and forth from one task to another it becomes increasingly harder to truly focus.
Instead, focus on one task for 30-45 minute chunks at a time with no distractions, then take a study break, or whenever you begin to feel your attention is lessening. Write down where you are leaving off in your workflow process and post it in front of your desk to easily jump back into the task after your break.
Be Mindful of your Physical Environment
Designate a specific study / class time area to mimic the experience of "going to class." Whether it is at your desk or at a kitchen table, this can allow you to get into "class mode" and hone your focus.
Minimize distraction around you by:
- finding a quiet place
- using noise canceling headphones
- turning off social media notifications
- turning off background entertainment (i.e. gaming systems, video streaming, cable television, distracting music, etc).
Did you know once your attention is broken from a task it takes on average between 15-20 minutes to return to a state of focused workflow? Ask yourself: if you're checking your phone/email every 10 minutes, are you ever reaching your full potential of productive, focused workflow? The great news is that your ability to focus is like a muscle. The more you work your "focus muscle," the easier it will become.
Burn out is a real issue among college students. Studies show that our optimal levels of focus tap out at anywhere between 50 minutes and 2 hours of continuous work. If you feel your focus weakening, give yourself 10-15 minute breaks during long periods of studying, completing an assignment, or writing a paper.
As we just learned above, study breaks are important to maintain optimum levels of focus for long periods of time. They should be considered part of your productivity strategy, not just a reward for getting things done.
However, are your study breaks helping or hurting your overall focus? Some non-distracting study break ideas include:
- give yourself a 10-15 minute break to make/buy a fresh cup of tea or coffee. Enjoy the first couple of sips without immediately jumping back into work.
- change your scenery! Take a quick 10-15 minute walk outside, through your neighborhood, in the nature preserve, around your residence hall, through Bartle Library, etc
- make a study break playlist. Curate a playlist of a few of your favorite songs. This will allow you to escape from the study stress for 10-15 minutes. Then when the playlist is over, it's back to work.