Studying to Learn

Liv Marken

Learning Objectives

  1. Structure daily study sessions.
  2. List some key study strategies for exams (and for learning).
  3. Form and participate in study groups.

You have truly learned material when you can readily recall it and actually use it—on tests or in real-life situations. Effective studying is your most important tool to combat test anxiety, and, more importantly, effective studying helps you to master the material and be able to apply it when needed.

Effective studying is an ongoing process of reviewing course material. To be effective, studying is something you do as part of an ongoing learning process, throughout the duration of the term, not just a few days before an exam.

Structuring Your Everyday Study Sessions

Studying happens everyday, and begins after each class or assignment when you review your notes. Each study session should involve three steps:

  1. Gather your learning materials. Take time to merge your class notes with your reading notes: how do they complement each other? What aspects of the material are you unsure about? Do you need to reread a part of your text? Write down any questions you have, and during office hours, pay a visit to your instructor, tutorial leader, or lab instructor. It’s better to get your questions answered soon after you are exposed to the material for three reasons: (1) the question or doubt is fresh in your mind; (2) instructors usually build their lessons on material already presented; and (3) you avoid irritating your instructors by asking last-minute questions before an exam.
  2. Apply or visualize. What does this material mean to you? How will you use this new knowledge? Try to find a way to apply it in your own life or thoughts. If you can’t use the knowledge right away, visualize yourself using the knowledge to solve a problem or visualize yourself teaching the material to other students.
  3. Cement your knowledge. If you use the Cornell note-taking method, cover up the right side of your notes with a piece of paper, leaving the questions in the left column exposed. Test yourself by trying to answer your questions without referring to your notes. How did you do? If you are unsure about anything, look up the answer and write it down right away. Don’t let a wrong answer be the last thing you wrote on a subject, because you will most likely continue to remember the wrong answer.

Studying in Course Units

At the end of each unit, or at least every two weeks or so, use your notes and textbook to write an outline or summary of the material in your own words.  After you have written the summary or outline, go back and reread your outline from the prior unit followed by the one you just wrote. Does the new one build on the earlier one? Do you feel confident you understand the material?

Studying before the Exam

At least a week before a major exam, review what the instructor has mentioned about the exam so far. Has the instructor said anything about what types of questions will be included? If you were the instructor, what questions would you ask on an exam? Challenge yourself to come up with some really tough open-ended questions. Think about how you might answer them. Be sure to go to any review sessions offered through the class or a student support service (often, these are called “Structured Study Sessions”).

Now review your course unit outlines, and then re-read the sections of your notes that are most closely associated with expected exam questions. Pay special attention to those items the instructor emphasized during class. Read key points aloud and write them down on index cards. Make flash cards to review in your downtime, such as when you’re waiting for a bus or for a class to start.

More Tips for Success

  • Schedule a consistent study-review time for each course at least once a week, in addition to your class and assignment time. Keep to that schedule as rigorously as you do your class schedule. Use your study time to go through the steps outlined earlier; this is not meant to be a substitute for your assignment time. Spacing out your studying consistently over the term — rather than cramming in the week or two ahead of your exams — will have a dramatic effect on your ability to synthesize and memorize what you’re learning.
  • Minimize distractions. Turn off your cell phone and get away from social media, television, other nearby activities, and chatty friends or roommates. All of these can cut into the effectiveness of your study efforts. Multitasking and studying don’t mix.
  • If you will be studying for a long time, take short breaks at least once an hour. Get up, stretch, breathe deeply, go for a short walk, and then get back to work. If you keep up with your daily assignments and schedule weekly review sessions for yourself—and keep them—there should be almost no need for long study sessions.

Studying in Groups

Figure 7-3: Book a study room on campus to work in a group. Study rooms often come equipped with monitors so that you can review class slides, and whiteboards so that you can put up important formulas or definitions. Source: Permission: CC BY 2.0

Study groups are a great idea—as long as they are thoughtfully managed. A study group can give you new perspectives on course material and help you to fill in gaps in your notes. Discussing course content will sharpen your critical thinking related to the subject, and being part of a group to which you are accountable will help you study consistently. Ideally, you will end up “teaching” each other the material, which is a powerful way to retain new material.

Here are some tips for creating and managing effective study groups:

  • Think small. Limit your study group to no more than three or four people. A larger group would limit each student’s participation and make scheduling of regular study sessions a real problem.
  • Go for quality. Look for students who are doing well in the course, who ask questions, and who participate in class discussions. Don’t make friendship the primary consideration for who should be in your group.
  • Look for complementary skills. Counter your weaknesses with another student’s strengths. When a subject requires a combination of various skills, strengths in each of those skills is helpful (e.g., a group with one student who is strong with statistics and another with creativity would be perfect for some marketing class projects).
  • Meet regularly. When you first set up a study group, agree to a regular meeting schedule and stick to it. Moving study session times around can result in non-participation, lack of preparation, and eventually the collapse of the study group. Equally important is keeping your sessions to the allotted times. If you waste time and regularly meet much longer than you agreed to, participants will not feel they are getting study value for their time invested.
  • Include some of the following items on your agenda:
    • Review and discuss class and assignment notes since your last meeting.
    • Discuss assigned readings.
    • Quiz each other on class material.
    • “Reteach” aspects of the material team participants are unsure of.
    • Brainstorm possible test questions and responses.
    • Review quiz and test results and correct misunderstandings.
    • Critique each other’s ideas for paper themes and approaches.
    • Define questions to ask the instructor.
  • Assign follow-up work. If there is any work that needs to be done between meetings, make sure that all team members know specifically what is expected of them and agree to do the work.
  • Rotate the role of moderator or discussion leader. This helps ensure “ownership” of the group is spread equally across all members and ensures active participation and careful preparation.

Media Attributions

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Studying to Learn Copyright © 2021 by Liv Marken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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