As I said in a previous post in this series, studying encompasses many factors, each of which could be presenting challenges to your successful learning of a subject. 

If you struggle while trying to study for a class, midterm, final, or standardized test, this series will present some questions you can ask yourself to try to pinpoint where the problem(s) may be. 

Besides overcoming obstacles with your subject materialstudy methods, and study environment, you need to be aware of your mental framework while you study. Read below to understand why. 

Your struggles with a particular subject may not be related to that subject at all; you may simply not be studying properly. Good study habits range from knowing when and how long to study to taking good notes and keeping your materials organized. The questions below cover time management, concentration, and anxiety issues. How good (or bad) are your study habits? Where might you improve?

1. Time Management

Are you:

  • Studying too much or too little?
  • Studying for too long or too short a time?
  • Studying at the wrong time?
  • Studying too late?

Timing is an important factor in effective and efficient studying. Although you shouldn’t study for eight hours straight, remember that 10 minutes a day isn’t good either. A good rule of thumb is to study two hours for every one hour of class time you have. Take reasonable breaks—like 10 minutes every hour, or five minutes every half an hour—if you have trouble focusing. But, stay disciplined and get right back to work when the break is over. Also, figure out whether your brain is more effective in the morning, afternoon, or evening, and study at the appropriate time of day. Finally, don’t study at the last minute; pace yourself and start studying early. You should regularly study for each of your classes, whether there is an upcoming test or not. That way, when the test does arrive, you’ll be ready for it and won’t need to cram.

2. Concentration

Are you:

  • Easily distracted?
  • Unable to sit still?
  • Doodling or daydreaming instead?

Your ability to focus for sustained periods of time is integral to your ability to study. Because of TV, smartphones, and the generally increasing pace of life, we all have to work hard on focusing intently on something for more than half an hour at a time. Look for focus exercises and strategies like the Pomodoro Method to help you increase your ability to concentrate. If you constantly feel the need to move, find a way to channel this energy into something useful. Try a standing desk, or get up and walk around during your study breaks. While doodling and daydreaming seem like obvious distractions from studying or listening, keep in mind that some research shows that doodling can actually be a helpful way to focus. Instead of drawing pictures, try drawing charts or diagrams that represent what you are studying. So, don’t be too hard on yourself, but don’t get carried away either.

3. Test Pressure

Are you:

  • Cramming the night before a test?
  • Surprised by material on the test?
  • Not reviewing your past exams?
  • Blanking when you get to the test?
  • Running out of time on a test?

Too often, we only study when there is an impending test on the horizon. Cramming and all-nighters can actually be detrimental to your performance on a test, so don’t stay up all night poring madly over your notes. Instead, study on a regular basis so that when the test arrives, you’ll only need to review the important points and do practice problems. Speaking of which, make sure to find good practice problems. Review your homework assignments (and figure out the questions you got wrong), do any exercises in your text, and definitely study any review material your instructor gives you. Further, reviewing past exams and correcting your mistakes can be a great way to prepare for a cumulative midterm or final. 

Sometimes, the stress of a test can make our minds go blank or cause us to fumble. Some students may also have trouble working within the allotted time for a test. The single best way to combat these problems is to practice. If you do a large number of practice tests (in a realistic, timed setting), the real test won’t carry so much pressure. You’ll know exactly what to expect and you’ll get faster with each round of practice. 

Note: If you still struggle with timing after doing a lot of practice, you may want to look into whether it is possible to get testing accommodations.

Be honest with yourself when answering the questions above. Try to bring your habits in line with the methods we’ve described above, and if you are still having trouble, consider talking to a study habits expert. 

Read on to Part 3 for help with study methods.