Some students pick up good study habits in high school, but others are able to coast through to graduation without doing much work. College is a whole different beast, though, and those who don’t study will have a hard time being successful. In fact, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), only 59% of students earn a degree within six years of starting an undergraduate program.
Some students transfer, drop out for financial reasons, or leave for personal reasons. However, academic struggles certainly account for some students’ decisions to leave; this data from the NCES shows that 69% of students who left after completing one or fewer years of college reported leaving for non-financial reasons.
Consider this article published by The Washington Post in 2016, which attributes many of these students’ departures to poor study habits. What exactly are poor study habits? A study published in 2013 actually examined the efficacy of several study techniques. Researchers found that summarizing information, highlighting notes and textbooks, memorizing keywords, creating mental imagery, and rereading materials were not effective ways to study. This might come as tough news, since rereading and highlighting seem like good ways to remember information.
But don’t stress just yet! If you didn’t learn how to study in high school, or simply need a refresher, look no further!
1. Make flashcards. This might seem weird or silly, but it really works! Repetition is the key to learning new information, and flashcards are an easy way to get that repetition in. Write the term or topic on one side of the card, and the definition or important notes on the other. It’s best to keep the definition as short as possible, but if there’s lots of important information, break it up and put it on multiple cards. Learn by flipping the card back and forth a few times while repeating the information on each side out loud. Do this activity several times a day (really, as much as possible) for several days, and you’ll have it memorized! Make sure you really know the material by stacking your flashcards definition-side up and forcing yourself to recall the term or topic that goes with each definition!
2. Use your flashcards to make a puzzle. For more complex material, part of learning is knowing how terms and topics relate to each other. Test questions are not always as straightforward as “What does (term) mean?” Instead, there may be multiple-choice questions that will describe a scenario and give you answer options or essay questions that require you to describe something in great detail. If you can only define the term, you’re not going to get very far. Group your flashcards into sections, laying the cards of related topics next to each other. Or, set them all out and pick up one, then choose another card that is related to the first, and so on until you’ve used them all. If you have a large space, you could even lay all of the cards out in a ‘web,’ and use strings or draw lines to connect them!
3. Apply the information to another topic or real-life scenario. Are you a psychology major? Diagnose your friends and family with all of the conditions you’re learning about! (Just kidding. Sort of.) Applying abstract topics to real things that you can see and experience helps you understand the information better, and you’re more likely to remember it too.
4. Understand the difference between recognition and recall. There are two distinct processes at work when you learn: recognition and recall. Recognition is when you see something and it triggers a sense of familiarity. Recall, on the other hand, is when you’re able to remember something without seeing it. This is important to know, because multiple-choice questions typically rely on recognition; you see the information written, and can recognize it as being correct or incorrect. Short answer and essay questions, though, force you to recall information. Your study method should change depending on how you’ll be tested on the material.
5. Learn from past experience. Taking the first exam in any course is always a learning experience in and of itself. Every professor writes exams differently, and you can never know for sure what the exam will look like until you take it. After you take that first exam, though, you’ll have a much better idea of how to study for the next one. You could also ask students who have already taken the class about what to expect. For more information, check online teacher reviews for helpful tips about the professor’s teaching and testing style. Don’t take them too seriously, though.
6. Ditch the laptop and write your notes instead. Although on the surface it seems like you are internalizing as much information by typing your notes as you would by physically writing them down, that’s not the case. Scientists in 2014 published research showing that students who wrote their notes performed better on questions than those who typed during lectures. Plus, you’re less likely to get distracted by social media, emails, and everything else on the internet!
7. Speaking of multi-tasking… a 2015 study at the University of Connecticut found that students who multitasked while doing homework took longer to finish their work, and students who frequently multitasked during class had lower grades than those who did not multitask as often. In fact, numerous studies have examined the relationship between multitasking and learning in recent years. Spoiler alert: The research didn’t find any benefits, only lower grades, lower retention of information, and more time spent on tasks. Instead of trying to do multiple things at once, break your study time into smaller chunks. Focus only on studying for a certain amount of time, and then do something else!
8. Space out your studying. There is no perfect study schedule or method that works for everyone. However, it’s a good idea to spread your studying out as much as possible. Set an alarm for the amount of time for which you’d like to study, and then take a break when you’re done. Adjust the amount of time spent studying and the length of your breaks until you find what works for you!
Use some of these tips to boost your learning the next time you study! And if you’re in college and struggling, check with your school to find out what resources are available to help you; colleges often offer a certain number of (or unlimited!) free tutoring lessons to students. If there is a particular class that you’re struggling in, it’s usually a good idea to speak with the professor as well. Lastly, talk to other students in your classes. If you find others to study with, you may pick up on some new study strategies from them.