Study methods aren’t one-size fits all—what works for your classmate might leave you wanting to throw your highlighter at the wall. But another strategy could help you feel like a human textbook—trying different methods to find your perfect study strategy can help you reach your goals.
Even if you’d give your study skills a passing grade, dabbling in multiple strategies can help you stay on top of your study game. “Sometimes you get stuck in a studying rut,” says Amy Baldwin, director of the Department of Student Transitions at the University of Central Arkansas. “Even if you’ve had pretty good success, it can be good to branch out.”
Study the basics
Before you try a new study method, there are two things you should always keep in mind while studying. First up, make your studying active, says Baldwin. “I call it ‘active studying’ vs. ‘passive studying’—studying needs to produce a tangible product,” she explains. “That could be a practice test [or] a mind map of your notes or flash cards. The output should be something tangible you can hold in your hand.”
Secondly, many students get a boost from knowing the “why,” or purpose, of the material they’re being taught. “It’s very easy to dismiss something that doesn’t feel interesting or relevant,” Baldwin says. Before you start studying, take a minute to jot down reasons why knowing this material will help you achieve your future goals. If it’s not a skill directly related to what you want to do after high school or college, you might think about how the methodical problem-solving skills you’re honing in algebra will help you solve problems in other areas of your life. “Learning to learn is a useful skill everyone can walk away with,” says Baldwin.
Shake up your study strategy
Here are some creative ideas to rescue you from your studying rut and find the method that works best for you.
1. Test yourself 📝
Practice tests are a helpful way to quiz yourself and walk away with a tangible output from your study session. If you don’t have a pre-made practice test at the ready, ask your teacher for good online resources, or create another type of review. “I make full-color page reviews of every chapter of my textbook,” says Carol, a sophomore in Arizona.
2. Make it bright ☀️
Jazz up your notes with bright colors. “I always make colorful note cards to study with friends,” says Rosi M., a sophomore in Lacey, Washington. Color-coding materials can help you recall material better when it’s test time—and make studying look a lot brighter.
Color-code information in the way that suits you best. You can use highlighters, colored pencils, or pens.
One option is the stoplight method. It can be used three different ways:
- Use the colors to organize information by topic, theory, and/or perspective. For example, important author names and dates get one color, main themes from their works get another, and key plot points get a third.
- Indicate how one concept relates to another by highlighting them in the same color.
- Colors can indicate your level of comfort with the material. For example:
- Red: You’re lost. These are areas where you need to ask your teacher or a tutor for some help.
- Yellow: You’ve almost got it. You need to review this info a couple more times to feel confident.
- Green: You’re a pro. You have this information on lock.
Another clever way to use this method is by making three piles of flash cards. Color-code the cards based on this color scheme and circulate the red cards the most.
3. Acronyms 🔠
“For biology, to memorize the phases of a cell, I used an acronym—to memorize the presidents, I used a song,” says Ben, a senior in Logan, Utah. Breaking down information in an easy-to-remember way can help you stay on top of your study materials.
4. Concept sheet 📄
A more positive spin on the “cheat sheet,” this is a piece of paper with the most important points from your study material.
For a given assignment or class, create a concept sheet of essential information. Referring to it often will help solidify the concepts. Here’s an example for studying atomic structure:
- Key words—include key vocab words like proton, neutron, electron, atomic number, atomic weight and isotopes
- Diagrams—draw out the basic structure of an atom
- Pictures (to jog your memory)
- Charts and other data
Use the concept sheet to quiz yourself regularly. Just remember, you can’t actually bring it to an exam unless specifically permitted by the instructor.
5. Social studying 👫
Group studying can be a game-changer for your study rut. Not only is it more enjoyable to share the workload, but also, “when you’re explaining a concept to other group members, you’re more likely to retain it,” explains Baldwin. “When you have to teach something, you’ll likely be digging into it more.” Just be sure you’re studying before meeting up with your buddies so you can contribute.
- Quiz one another.
- Debate different perspectives.
- Teach one another concepts.
6. Playback 🔉
If rereading your notes never seems to stick, hearing the material multiple times can be helpful. “I have recorded myself reciting class notes to listen to them later on,” says Danny, a sophomore in Opa Locka, Florida. This way, you can turn the time when you might be stuck in traffic or waiting for a dentist appointment into an impromptu study session.
7. Break it down 🕑
Trying to cram a semester of studying into one or two major cram sessions won’t set you up for success, says Baldwin. “It’s brain science. A lot of studies have shown that you can only hold five to nine items in short-term memory—deep learning requires taking that information and putting it in a different part of the brain,” she explains. “You just can’t do all of your studying the night before to do the kind of deep learning that you’ll need for a bigger test.”
8. Get personal ☝️
One of the best strategies for remembering everything in your notes is to make them personal. “Reorganizing your notes and adding to your thoughts from class when you review can help you make personal connections with the material,” Baldwin says. “If you can relate it to something you’ve done or learned before, you’re more likely to retain that information.” After class, go over your notes to draw connections between previous material you’ve covered.
Amy Baldwin, director of the Department of Student Transitions, University of Central Arkansas, Conway, Arkansas.
Dr. Damien Clement, assistant professor of sport and exercise psychology, West Virginia University, Morgantown, West Virginia.
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