How To Study Effectively In College

At one point or another every college student will have to study. Higher education brings a long series of events where a student is evaluated on what they have learned during their classes. In order to do well on these, students will have to be skilled at learning the information all on their own. The reality is that college is more independent learning than classroom instruction, yet not all students are clear about what they should be doing to study, or even what “studying” actually means. It’s one of those subjects that is never explicitly taught, it’s just implied that a student will know how to do it if they make it through high school. There is never dishonor in wanting to improve, wanting to do better in your classes, and the first step is to understand exactly how to study effectively for your classes.

A Simple Definition Of Studying

In reality, what is “studying?” For college students, it’s the act of mentally acquiring information that can be used to do well in your classes, like scoring points on exams. Studying is the process of learning deliberately, of taking in information with a goal, so it is purposeful. It is comprised of actions or activities, ones that are meant to help a student to absorb the information and store it in their long-term memory so that they can use it later during classroom tasks like exams. Studying, however, brings more payoff than just scoring points on a test. Learning information for a class will make it easier when it comes time to write papers, complete weekly quizzes, or finish other assignments that can be required for modern college classes.

But what makes studying effective? This is a key concern, since many students say that they studied but then they did poorly on an exam, or that they didn’t remember as much as they should have. There are common reasons for this, like they may have not studied enough, or their efforts may have been of poor quality. For example, being distracted while studying, using study groups where most of the time is spent chatting, or just skimming class notes before a test are not considered to be quality studying. Also, not applying the principles of effective learning to study efforts can also bring a bad result, which is why it is critical that college students understand key concepts about the human learning process so that they can optimize their efforts. Fortunately, these concepts are simple, but can bring a huge benefit if enacted correctly.

Understanding Human Memory

In order to make study efforts effective, we need to know something about our memory since it is the destination for the information we want to learn. For studying, the goal is to get information in to our long-term memory, which is a vast storehouse of information. The name of your first grade teacher, what your pets look like, the concept of an ocean – all of these live in your long-term memory, which can last for decades. In order to reach this destination, information must pass through others first. Visual and auditory memory, which only keep information for milliseconds, are important precursors for remembering. After passing through these, information enters short-term memory, which – contrary to what some may think – only keeps information for about thirty seconds. Information must be “elaborated” upon while in short-term memory, like being repeated or reviewed again, in order to increase the odds of it making it to long-term memory, which is the destination for effective studying.

For college students, the best benefit will come if you try to take advantage of knowing these memory processes. There are related actions that can help memory to retain information as well. You can highlight key terms and definitions to engage the visual level of your memory, and colors also take advantage of the novelty effect, which means memory likes outstanding stimuli. While you hold the information in your mind – in short-term memory – repeat it to yourself, which is called rehearsal. And if you say the information out loud, this taps the auditory memory channel to long-term memory as well.

The Importance Of Attention For Studying

The common denominator that links all levels of these memory process together is attention, and strong attention is critical for quality studying. Attention is the conduit to long-term memory, and it is the process that makes all learning possible in humans. The role of attention in learning becomes evident if we look at how we talk about attention: We paid attention or didn’t, our attention lapsed, or we were highly focused. Top college students know that focused attention helps them to work and learn, but poor attention only leads to half-hearted efforts. This has an implication for studying as well, since an environment that has many distractions will fragment attention, making studying efforts ineffective and results poor.

By engaging your attention fully, you can increase the odds of remembering the information that you are trying to learn. You can do this by minimizing distractions that divert your attention away from studying, and maximize what will engage your attention deeply like highlighting information while you are reading. Beware of what you feel might be “good” studying, like study groups, because these may only result in paying less attention to what you are trying to learn compared to studying on your own. Remember, attention is a limited resource, and if something splits your attention away from studying, you’re attending less to what you’re trying to learn.

Use Effective Learning Principles When Studying

In order to make your study efforts effective, applying what we already know about human memory and learning will be key. There are some classic principles that have been proven in research over many years, and these come from the fields of education, psychology, physiology, and others. By understanding these principles, you can apply them to your own efforts to get a better result from studying. One hour of high quality studying will create very strong memories that you can use on upcoming exams, but even several hours of a poor quality effort will not achieve anywhere close to that result.

Basic principles for studying in college that can help to you to improve grades include:

Keep It Simple

  • Despite us having many modern tools and conveniences, the human learning process is the same as it has been for thousands of years. Our central nervous system and sensory inputs don’t care if you work on an expensive computer, use an app, or other gadgets while you work. In fact, to create strong memories, paper-and-pencil seems to work best. Taking notes in a notebook, making flashcards using index cards, and creating your own diagrams on paper are often more effective for remembering than trying to do all of this in a convenient, high tech way. Why? Because the act of working with the information engages your attention deeply, and since attention is the conduit to your long term memory, this creates the best memories (a process called active learning). Some studies have shown that students remember information better when they make their own study materials, but you’ll have to try this for yourself to be a believer.

Fit The Method To The Information

  • Human memory likes organized information and acquires it much more easily than if it is disorganized. Every type of information “looks” like something when it comes to studying. For example, and progression of events for a history class will look like a timeline. The confusing names of neurotransmitters for a Physiology class may be more sensible when organized in a table, where you can write in the other columns their function or purpose. The parts of the brain or a nerve synapse may be easier to remember once you draw a diagram and label the parts. As you begin to see what you are learning in this way, you’ll get a sense of what the information you have to study will “look” like when you start working with it. Creating these visual representations will help you to retain the information best, since you’re working in an organized way that your memory likes.

Use Multiple Ways To Learn The Same Information

  • The process of creating a memory, in technical terms, is called encoding. Information enters through our senses, then has to pass through visual, auditory, and short-term memory in order to reach long-term memory where a vast amount of information is stored. In order to give the greatest chance of being permanently kept in long-term memory, using multiple ways to encode the same information is the most effective approach. You can use a visual way, like drawing a diagram, table, or other graphic then add color to it with highlighters. If you recite the information out loud to yourself, you then add an auditory way that gives a second chance for it to be kept in memory. If you try to understand its meaning, or associate it with things you’ve learned already, this is a semantic (meaning-based) way of also learning it. The more ways you try to learn the same information, the greater the odds of it being in your memory when it comes time for a test.

Go “Deep” When Studying

  • When it comes to human memory and studying, memory likes “deep dives” more than anything. You’ve probably had times when you were so fully immersed in something that the world seemed to disappear, and because you were concentrating so deeply nothing else even registered in your senses. This is because your attention became deeply engaged, and sustained attention is merely deep concentration. This is the type of state that brings the best results from studying. Attention is the pipeline to long-term memory, but if it’s a weak connection too little if anything gets recorded permanently there. If you can eliminate distractions and sustain your attention during serious studying – the deep dives – you’ll find that your focus, which is just also another word for concentration, will allow much more information to be retained in memory from your efforts.

Don’t Try To Cover It All In One Shot

  • Classic research shows that we learn the most at the beginning and ending of study sessions, so we need to have smaller but more frequent ones over the course of hours or days – a principle called distributed practice. This latter point links well with another called repeated exposures, which means that remembering is enhanced by encountering the same information over and over again. A simple analogy is going to the gym: Most people go a few days a week to gain strength, with rest days in between. Exercising for eight consecutive hours on a single day is counterproductive, it must be spread out in order to maximize the benefit. Memories are the same, they take time to congeal, and they solidify even when we’re sleeping. Having frequent, shorter, but consistent efforts at studying the same information over time gives the best chance for creating reliable memories that can be used later.

Create Your Own Study Materials

  • Some studies show that we remember information much better if we create our own study materials, compared to someone just handing us completed ones. Those pre-made flashcards at a quiz site you’ve been using? You’ve been making a sub-optimal effort at remembering the information because you didn’t make them yourself. Information will be remembered better if you make your own flashcards, study guides, charts, diagrams, or other study materials rather than just use what the Professor gives you. Knowledge is like clay, you have to get your hands on it and work with it for it to be remembered. Using convenient routes to try and save time might feel good at that moment, but when it comes time to recall the information for an exam, you might find that you aren’t remembering as well as you hoped.

Create Your Own Study Guide

  • Not all Professors give study guides for tests, but in the absence of one you can create your own, which can be a very effective tactic for getting organized for an exam. Identify which chapters or sections will be on the exam, then make a list of all of the key concepts, people, terms, and definitions for each chapter. Next, go back and write in the relevant information for each term or concept. One you do this for each chapter you’ll see your work build upon itself, ultimately resulting your own study guide. Augment this with any other study materials that you have already created, like your lecture notes or hand outs, and you’ll wind up with a top notch study guide that can help you on quizzes, exams, and even for writing essays.

Cover The Information Multiple Times

  • As mentioned above, having repeated exposures to the same information will create very strong memories. What would this process look like? Imagine studying for one hour, taking a ten minute break, then continuing for another hour. Then the next day doing the same, repeating this over several days before an exam. You can also take a “break” by switching to a different subject, like if you’re studying history and feel yourself getting stale on it, switch to math for a very different feel for the work. What’s most important is to have multiple, spread out study sessions for the same information, and incidentally, this is why cramming doesn’t work very well. Having one long marathon study session doesn’t create strong and reliable memories, so when you sit down to take an exam you might realize that you didn’t absorb as much information as you thought.

Quiz Yourself

  • When you’re ready to test out what you’ve learned you can quiz yourself using your study materials, or have a friend ask you questions out of your notes or the readings. This self-check can help you to gauge whether you’re ready to be tested on that information, or it will show if you’re not quite as prepared as you thought. If you aren’t, brush up on the areas that you feel that you know the least so that you have a uniform level of strong knowledge across all topics. It’s natural to revise your views on how long you must study, what methods you use, or other aspects of your learning effort to get the results you want. It’s all about perfecting your study technique, and once you do, you can apply it to all subjects that you take to earn good grades.

Do Your Part Every Day

There is no magic for studying in college, it’s all about hard work. There are many students who did very well in high school based on their “natural talent” like a good memory, but when they got to college they suddenly realized that they actually never learned how to study. In college, hard work will beat natural talent every time, so you don’t have to be naturally bright to earn good grades. It’s the daily, ongoing work that wins it, so if you work hard to finish readings, take notes on what you read, make study materials, and thoroughly cover all of the required information you’ll start to see your grades improve. Top students know that getting A’s makes their efforts all worth it, but it’s the hard work that earns those grades. Establish your study routines, be precise, cover everything, and soon you will see those good grades coming to you.

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