How do great students study without pulling all-nighters? How can you avoid cramming for tests? What’s the secret to acing exams?
Well, it’s not magic. The most successful students have a consistent, ongoing process of learning that helps them absorb information as it’s presented throughout the class. This process requires thought, time, and effort throughout the semester, but it can save a lot of headache and heartache in the end.
The challenge to great studying is that this approach is rarely taught. Our goal is to give you a clear picture of what good studying looks like.
REVIEW CONCEPTS BEFORE, DURING, AND AFTER CLASS.
Do you ever look ahead to get a jump on the material you’ll be covering in class? That’s an important part of high-level studying. Anytime that information is available, make sure you are skimming the material before class to see what questions you might have.
While in class, you should be taking clear, thorough notes. Then in order to fully absorb the material, review your notes that evening, while the class is still fresh. If you have questions or difficulties with certain topics, you can bring them into class the next day, before the teacher has moved on to other content. This may sound like a lot of work, but we promise it’s much more efficient (and less stressful!) than cramming for 48 hours before an exam.
Some students find it helpful to record lectures and re-listen to them at home, particularly if you have difficulty concentrating in class. Be sure you have permission from your teacher before recording any lecture! If the teacher agrees, a simple voice recorder or the voice recording function on a smartphone works nicely, but you could also consider purchasing a LiveScribe pen.
TAKE PROCESS NOTES.
Regardless of subject, re-typing—or at least tidying up and annotating—class notes is a great way to clarify concepts and help the material sink in so you actually remember it (this is called retention). The best students focus on extracting what is most important from their notes, as well as what they think may be covered on future tests. You can also annotate your textbook or handouts by adding explanatory notes in the margins (provided you own the book!).
Keep in mind that processing isn’t simply rereading, but rather being able to synthesize information on your own. One good way to practice synthesizing is to put your notes into your own words. You can write this down, or talk it out with a parent, friend, or tutor. Rereading isn't enough to create retention; the process needs to be active.
We recommend doing this the same day as the class or reading in question. Ideally, this should become a part of your daily routine. You might come home from school, take a quick break, then start your daily homework session by annotating your notes from class, before moving on to the day’s assignments. Whatever your process, regularity is key!
Once a concept has been introduced, thread it into your study and review program on a regular basis. For some classes (and students), this means reviewing all of your course notes every week. For other classes (and students), you’ll want to work with concepts in other formats, such as response papers or discussions.
Returning frequently to previously covered concepts will keep them fresh as you progress through new content. Building connections between concepts helps retention and also helps to broaden your understanding of the material. The greater the web of knowledge you can create for yourself, the better.
You can also keep a running glossary for each class, where you write down any unfamiliar vocabulary words or concepts. Again, for retention, it's important to write them down in your own words and review them often.
Just as with annotating notes, regularity is key for reviewing and consolidating concepts. We recommend that you set aside time for review on a weekly basis.
The goal of homework is NOT to complete the assignment. What? you may say. Don’t I want to finish my homework? Well, yes. But the ultimate goal is to learn and internalize what's being taught.
You should only consider homework done when you have both completed the assignment AND learned the concepts or skills the homework was designed to practice. This means working at a reasonable pace and taking time to let things sink in. Even if your teacher doesn't grade homework, you should treat every homework assignment like it's going to be thoroughly reviewed and graded.
Nothing beats flashcards as a study tool, and they are an easy way to notate important concepts for future studying and review. It’s like the glossary we discussed above on steroids! However, just making flashcards won’t do much unless you set aside regular time to review them—this means throughout the semester, not just right before an exam.
NIP CONFUSION IN THE BUD.
If you don’t understand something, address it immediately. Go to office hours, work with a friend, or hire a tutor. Going through a semester without understanding a core concept is like building a skyscraper on a shaky foundation. The longer confusion persists, the more learning will get derailed, and the more ground you’ll need to make up before an exam.
SCHEDULE REGULAR TIME FOR STUDY.
Schedule time every week to review and do work for each class. If there isn’t any homework or material to review, that time can be used to annotate notes, consolidate or plan ahead, or to review your glossary.
When preparing for a specific quiz, test or exam:
Work backward from the test date and schedule specific times to review. Broadly speaking, we recommend studying for quizzes two days in advance, for tests three days in advance, and for final exams two to three weeks in advance. This will vary somewhat from class to class, but it’s a good starting point.
RE-WORK PROBLEMS/REVIEW FLASHCARDS.
For technical classes (like math), you can start with a previously assigned set of problems and redo them, making sure you’re comfortable with everything that was assigned. For fact-based classes (like history), review notes or flashcards that you made throughout the semester.
LOOK AT PAST EXAMS.
Many instructors make past exams available to students for practice. If past materials are available, you should work through them thoroughly. Be careful though, because the current exam will be different—maybe slightly, maybe entirely—so other forms of review are important as well.
One really important note: it's imperative that your approach to studying be both comprehensive AND sustainable. If you try to do too much and burn out, that doesn’t help in the long run. Better to start slow than to go overboard and then quit.
We hope you have found the above “toolbox” of study techniques helpful. As you may have noticed, most of our advice boils down to being proactive and keeping to a routine.