Tips for Success

Maggie Convey and Sarah Malo

“If you study to remember, you will forget, but, if you study to understand, you will remember.”

— Author unknown

Why do some students earn good grades and others do not? Students with poor grades often say students with good grades are born book smart. Students with good grades often answer that studying and hard work got them there. What do you think?

Everyone likes to earn an “A” grade. Despite the stigma of being a “nerd,” it feels good to receive good grades. Take pride in your preparation, take pride in your studying, and take pride in your accomplishments. Students know many things they need to do in order to achieve good grades – they just don’t always do them.

This section is about good study habits. It encompasses much of what is being discussed throughout the text. If you make these practices into habits, it will serve you well throughout your student life.

Be Prepared for Each Class

Complete your assigned reading ahead of the deadline. Follow the course outline so that you’ll have familiarity with what the instructor is speaking about. Bring your course syllabus, textbook, notebook and any handouts or other important information for each particular class along with a pen and a positive attitude. Become interested in what the instructor has to say. Be eager to learn. Sleep adequately the night before class and ensure you do not arrive to class on an empty stomach. Many courses, both in person and online, use digital platforms called Learning Management Systems (LMS’s). Examples of these are Canvas, Blackboard, and Moodle. Students then have access to course notes, and Power Point slides, and often videos of the class lectures. These are great to access for missed classes, and for review of materials; you can listen to the lecture again while doing dishes or vacuuming. It is important for students to check their email regularly as well as announcements or notifications from their instructor through the LMS.

Attend Every Class

Attending each and every class requires a lot of self-discipline and motivation.  Doing so will help you remain engaged and involved in course topics, provide insight into what your instructor deems most important, allow you to submit work and receive your graded assignments and give you the opportunity to take quizzes or exams that cannot be made up. This applies whether it’s a face-to-face class or whether it’s a synchronous online class.

Missing class is a major factor in students dropping courses or receiving poor grades. In addition, students attempting to make up the work from missing class often find it overwhelming. It’s challenging to catch up if you get behind.

Sit Front and Centre

Author’s Story

Full disclosure: I loved to sit in the back of the classroom when I was in college. I felt more comfortable back there. I didn’t want to make eye contact with my instructor. I didn’t want to be called on. But I learned that if I wanted to give myself the best opportunity to see, hear, understand and learn, then I needed to sit in the front and centre. And in order to make sure I sat in the front and centre, I needed to arrive to my classes early.

— Dave Dillon, author of Blueprint for Success in College and Career

Your instructor may say, “Sit wherever you want — sit where you are most comfortable.” But if you were to attend a concert for your favourite artist, where would you like to be? It’s always right in front of the stage, because the best experience is closest to the band. That’s why front-and-centre tickets are the most expensive. There are some reasons sitting in the back works for some students. But you run the risk of sitting behind someone you cannot see over. And if you’re sitting in the back so that you can send text messages without being seen, so that you can work on something else, or so that you can disengage (not pay attention without the instructor noticing), then you’re sitting in the back for the wrong reasons. Rather than hiding, you want to create the best learning environment, from seeing and hearing perspectives.

Take Notes in Class

Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist, scientifically studied how people forget in the late 1800’s. He is known for his experiments using himself as a subject, and tested his memory by learning nonsense syllables. One of his famous results, known as the forgetting curve, shows how much information is forgotten quickly after it is learned. Without reviewing, we will forget. Since we forget 42% of the information we take in after only 20 minutes (without review), it is imperative to take notes to remember.

Take Notes When You Are Reading

For the same reason as above, it is helpful to take notes while you are reading to maximize memorization. Sometimes called Active Reading, the goal is to stay focused on the material and to be able to refer back to notes made while reading to improve retention and study efficiency. Don’t make the mistake of expecting to remember everything you are reading. Taking notes when reading requires effort and energy. Be willing to do it and you’ll reap the benefits later.


Summarize your notes, your class discussions, your text chapters, and your thoughts on a topic. Summarize what you are learning about to people you know. Anytime you get the chance to summarize, you are taking the opportunity to think through what you know about a topic and  sort it out in your brain, which helps you understand it better and remember it better.

Know What the Campus Resources Are and Where They Are, and Use Them

Make use of campus resources.

There are many campus resources at your college or university and often students don’t know they exist, where they are or that most of them are free. Find out what is available to you by checking your school’s website for campus resources or student services, or talk to a counsellor about what resources may be helpful for you. Check to see where your campus has resources for  Education Advising, Counselling, Tutoring, Writing assistance, a Library, Admissions and Records (or Registrar’s), Financial Aid, Health Centre, Career Centre, Accessibility Support Services (for people with disabilities), and other support services. If you see a sign in your school marked, Student Services, go and check it out. Talk to someone at the desk about the services that are offered there. It really is what it says…… Student Services!

Read and Retain Your Course Outline

In addition to acting as a contract between the instructor and you, the course outline is also often the source of information for faculty contact information, textbook information, classroom behaviour expectations, attendance policy and course objectives. Some students make the mistake of stuffing the syllabus in their backpack when they receive it on the first day of class and never taking a look at it again. Those who clearly read it, keep it for reference and review it frequently find themselves more prepared for class. If there is something in the syllabus you don’t understand, ask your instructor about it before class, after class or during their office hours.

Place Your Assignments on Your Master Calendar and Create Plans for Completing Them Before They Are Due

Place all of your assignments for all of your classes with their due dates in your calendar, planner, smart phone or whatever you use for organization. Successful students will also schedule when to start those assignments and have an idea of how long it will take to complete them. They will schedule to complete the assignments several days BEFORE they are actually due. (This eases a lot of stress if unexpected circumstances arise on the last day of the deadline – and they often do!)

Complete All of Your Assignments

There will be things that you are more interested in doing than your assignments and unexpected life happenings that will come up. Students who earn good grades have the motivation and discipline to complete all of their assignments.

Work done outside of class time is every bit as important as work done in class.

Proofread Numerous Times and Then Have Someone Read Your Papers Before You Submit Them

Proof-read your assignments several times before submitting them, preferably with time in between each read. You will catch mistakes, and things that need further clarification when you read it with fresh eyes. You might be surprised to learn how many students turn in papers with spelling, grammar and punctuation errors that could have been corrected easily by using a spellchecker program or extra proof-reading. Many schools offer writing centres or tutors who will read your paper and give feedback, make suggestions, and help shape ideas. Take advantage of these services if they are offered. Another strategy is to read your paper aloud to yourself. You may catch errors when you read aloud that you might not catch when reading your writing. Or get a classmate to proof it. Agree to proof-read each other’s. (This requires having them finished well before the actual deadline.) Remember that it is always the student’s responsibility to have papers proofread, not someone else’s.

Author’s Story

I have been told numerous times that I am a good writer – “a natural”. Several of my Master’s instructors commented about that on my papers. But the truth is that it is not natural. I proof-read my papers at least four times before submitting them, and I make changes every time. When I read them with fresh eyes (the next day, or hours later), I catch mistakes, and more importantly I see when ideas don’t link together smoothly. Often they need a little more information or a better explanation to link them together. Or I notice where I’ve been redundant. The paper gets better every time I go through it. By the end, it is a much more polished product than when I first thought I was finished.

I am a college instructor and I mark other people’s  papers all the time. I am accustomed to looking for mistakes and they pop off the page at me. And yet, I find the very same errors in my own writing. I don’t know how these mistakes end up on the page – but they do! Fortunately, I can catch these errors in a proof-read (or two), but I am very well aware that I’m capable of making them in the first place. Assume your paper needs to be checked and polished. If you have the opportunity, have someone else read it. They can let you know if something doesn’t make sense or leaves the reader confused. They will let you know if you need to condense it and be more succinct. Then fix it.

A good paper seems to flow naturally, and though that may be true, it didn’t necessarily start out that way!

— Mary Shier, College of the Rockies

Ask Questions

Many students feel like they are the only one that has a question or the only one that doesn’t understand something in class. I encourage you to ask questions during class, especially if your instructor encourages them. Other students who are too intimidated to ask will be thankful you did. If the instructor doesn’t encourage questions during class, make the effort to ask your questions before or after class or during your instructors’ office hours.

If you take a class offered online, it is wise to ask a lot of questions via the preferred method your instructor recommends. Since the delivery method is different to what most students are used to, it is natural for students in online courses to have more questions. Online students may ask questions to understand the material and to be able to successfully navigate through the course content.

Complete All Assigned Reading at the Time It Is Assigned

College courses have much more assigned reading than what most high school students are accustomed to, and it can take a while to become comfortable with the workload. Some students fall behind early in keeping up with the reading requirements and others fail to read it at all. You will be most prepared for your class and for learning if you complete the reading assigned before your class. Staying on top of your syllabus and class calendar will help you be aware of your reading assignment deadlines. There is a difference in assigned reading between high school and college. In high school, if a teacher gave a handout to read in class, students would often read it during class to prepare to participate in a class discussion. In college, more reading is assigned with the expectation it will be done outside of the classroom. It is a big adjustment students need to make in order to be successful.

Study Groups or Study Partners

Study in the environment that works best for you, but ensure that you try a study group, especially if you are taking a class in a subject in which you are not strong. Study groups can allow for shared resources, new perspectives, answers for questions, faster learning, increased confidence, and increased motivation.

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.

Review for Exams

Students study an desks near big windows in the library
Library cubicles are great places to review and study for exams.

Preparation for an exam should begin on the first day of class, not when the exam is announced nor the night before an exam. Review your notes frequently to keep material fresh in your head. For the days leading up to the exam, test yourself to see if you can generate the answers. Don’t just passively read your notes and textbook.

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 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

Schedule Time for Studying

Effective studying is an ongoing process of reviewing course material. The first and most important thing you should know is that studying is not something you do a few days before an exam. To be effective, studying is something you do as part of an ongoing learning process, throughout the duration of the term. It’s easy to put off studying if it’s not something you schedule. Block specific times and days for studying. Put the times on your calendar. Stick to the schedule.

Don’t Do Anything Academically “Half-assed”

Half-assed is defined as poorly or incompetently done.

Think of it this way: You’ve made the decision to come to college. You’re investing time, energy and money into your commitment. Why would you want to half-ass it? Students who miss class, turn in work late or wait until the last minute are half-assing it. Make college a priority and do your best in all of your college work and preparation.

Apply these basic principles and you will be giving yourself the best opportunity to achieve success. Here’s a little secret: apply this to all aspects of life, not just academics and you’ll find success in life!

Author’s Story

When I returned to university for graduate studies, I knew I needed to adopt better study skills than what I used in my undergraduate studies many years earlier. For one thing, I never allotted enough time for reading. I am a critical reader, which can be time consuming as I stop, reflect, reread, problem-solve and connect things to previous concepts. Once I realized this about myself, I decided to schedule more time for reading than I usually anticipated. I even started timing myself to have a sense of how long it takes me to read a chapter, so I could effectively allot an appropriate amount of reading time. I divided up readings for each unit and made a study schedule each week which included daily readings, time in forums, and assignments.

It made a huge difference when I started doing this, because not only did I feel like it kept me on task, but just knowing that all required activities were on the schedule relieved anxiety. It became a necessary ritual on Sunday afternoons to lay out all the tasks in detail for the next week. It always felt doable and set me on the right mental course for the week ahead. This was especially important for the heavy load semesters. Before using this method, it was easy to focus on one course more than another, which then needed correction – which caused angst. Being scheduled in my tasks gave me a sense of control. I chose to make my program a priority. Having a study skills strategy that I stuck to worked!

Once committed to these study strategies, it was necessary to make them work in varied situations. Allotting more time to read the readings, sometimes meant having to read while in the passenger seat of a car, or listen to text-to-speech audio on my cell phone while doing housework or exercise, or reading through meals. Applying them in different contexts became natural. Readings and assignments were constantly part of life no matter what I was doing. Being creative and adapting solutions to varying situations is an important competency in adult education. You too will have to find strategies that work for you.

— Mary Shier, College of the Rockies

Text Attributions

  • This chapter was adapted from “The Basics of Study Skills” in Blueprint for Success in College and Career by Dave Dillon and Phyllis Nissila. Adapted by Mary Shier. CC BY.
  • Text under the “Schedule Time for Studying” heading has been adapted from “Studying to Learn (Not Just for Tests)” in University Success by N. Mahoney, B. Klassen, and M. D’Eon. Adapted by Mary Shier. CC BY-NC-SA.

Media Attributions

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About the authors


Foundations for Success in Nursing: Manual Copyright © 2021 by Maggie Convey and Sarah Malo. All Rights Reserved.

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