Staying on top of schoolwork can be tough.
Whether you’re in high school, or an adult going back to college, balancing coursework with other responsibilities can be challenging. If you’re teetering on the edge of burnout, here are some study tips that are scientifically proven to help you succeed!
2020 Ultimate Study Tips Guide
In this guide, we explore scientifically-proven study techniques from scientific journals and some of the world’s best resources like Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Cornell.
In a hurry? Skip ahead to the section that interests you most!
- How to Prepare for Success
- Create Your Perfect Study Space
- Pick a Study Method that Works for You
- Effective Study Skills
- How to Study More Efficiently
- How to Study for Tests
- Memory Improvement Techniques
- Top 10 Study Hacks Backed by Science
- Best Study Apps
- Study Skills Worksheets
- Key Takeaways
This comprehensive guide covers everything from studying for exams to the best study apps. So, let’s get started!
Part 1 – How to Prepare for Success
1. Set a Schedule
“Oh, I’ll get to it soon” isn’t a valid study strategy. Rather, you have to be intentional about planning set study sessions.
On your calendar, mark out chunks of time that you can devote to your studies. You should aim to schedule some study time each day, but other commitments may necessitate that some sessions are longer than others.
Harder classes require more study time. So, too, do classes that are worth several credits. For each credit hour that you’re taking, consider devoting one to three hours to studying each week.
2. Study at Your Own Pace
Do you digest content quickly, or do you need time to let the material sink in? Only you know what pace is best for you.
There’s no right (or wrong) study pace. So, don’t try matching someone else’s speed.
Instead, through trial and error, find what works for you. Just remember that slower studying will require that you devote more time to your schoolwork.
3. Get Some Rest
Exhaustion helps no one perform their best. Your body needs rest; getting enough sleep is crucial for memory function.
This is one reason that scheduling study time is so important: It reduces the temptation to stay up all night cramming for a big test. Instead, you should aim for seven or more hours of sleep the night before an exam.
Limit pre-studying naps to 15 or 20 minutes at a time. Upon waking, do a few stretches or light exercises to prepare your body and brain for work.
4. Silence Your Cell Phone
Interruptions from your phone are notorious for breaking your concentration. If you pull away to check a notification, you’ll have to refocus your brain before diving back into your studies.
Consider turning off your phone’s sounds or putting your device into do not disturb mode before you start. You can also download apps to temporarily block your access to social media.
If you’re still tempted to check your device, simply power it off until you’re finished studying.
Research shows that stress makes it harder to learn and to retain information.
Stress-busting ideas include:
- Taking deep breaths
- Writing down a list of tasks you need to tackle
- Doing light exercise
Try to clear your head before you begin studying.
Part 2 – Create Your Perfect Study Space
1. Pick a Good Place to Study
There’s a delicate balance when it comes to the best study spot: You need a place that’s comfortable without being so relaxing that you end up falling asleep. For some people, that means working at a desk. Others do better on the couch or at the kitchen table. Your bed, on the other hand, may be too comfy.
Surrounding yourself with peace and quiet helps you focus. If your kids are being loud or there’s construction going on outside your window, you might need to relocate to an upstairs bedroom, a quiet cafe or your local library.
2. Choose Your Music Wisely
Noise-canceling headphones can also help limit distractions.
It’s better to listen to quiet music than loud tunes. Some people do best with instrumental music playing in the background.
Songs with lyrics may pull your attention away from your textbooks. However, some folks can handle listening to songs with words, so you may want to experiment and see what works for you.
Just remember that there’s no pressure to listen to any music. If you do your best work in silence, then feel free to turn your music player off.
3. Turn Off Netflix
If song lyrics are distracting, just imagine what an attention sucker the television can be! Serious studying requires that you turn off the TV.
The same goes for listening to radio deejays. Hearing voices in the background takes your brainpower off of your studies.
4. Use Background Sounds
Turning off the television, talk radio and your favorite pop song doesn’t mean that you have to study in total silence. Soft background sounds are a great alternative.
Some people enjoy listening to nature sounds, such as ocean waves or cracks of thunder. Others prefer the whir of a fan.
5. Snack on Brain Food
A growling stomach can pull your mind from your studies, so feel free to snack as you work. Keep your snacks within arm’s reach, so you don’t have to leave your books to find food.
Fuel your next study session with some of the following items:
- Lean deli meat
- Grapes or apple slices
- Dark chocolate
Go for snacks that will power your brain and keep you alert. Steer clear of items that are high in sugar, fat and processed carbs.
Part 3 – Pick a Study Method That Works for You
Mindlessly reading through your notes or textbooks isn’t an effective method of studying; it doesn’t help you process the information. Instead, you should use a proven study strategy that will help you think through the material and retain the information.
Strategy #1 – SQ3R Method
With the SQ3R approach to reading, you’ll learn to think critically about a text.
There are five steps:
- Survey: Skim through the assigned material. Focus on headings, words in bold print and any diagrams.
- Question: Ask yourself questions related to the topic.
- Read: Read the text carefully. As you go, look for answers to your questions.
- Recite: Tell yourself the answers to your questions. Write notes about them, even.
- Review: Go over the material again by rereading the text and reading your notes aloud.
Strategy #2 – PQ4R Method
PQ4R is another study strategy that can help you digest the information you read.
This approach has six steps:
- Preview: Skim the material. Read the titles, headings and other highlighted text.
- Question: Think through questions that pertain to the material.
- Read: As you work through the material, try to find answers to your questions.
- Reflect: Consider whether you have any unanswered questions or new questions.
- Recite: Speak aloud about the things you just read.
- Review: Look over the material one more time.
Strategy #3 – THIEVES Method
The THIEVES approach can help you prepare to read for information.
There are seven pre-reading steps:
- Title: Read the title.
- Headings: Look through the headings.
- Introduction: Skim the intro.
- Every first sentence in a section: Take a look at how each section begins.
- Visuals and vocabulary: Look at the pictures and the words in bold print.
- End questions: Review the questions at the end of the chapter.
- Summary: Read the overview of the text.
Ask yourself thought-provoking questions as you work through these steps. After completing them, read the text.
Although these three study strategies can be useful in any setting, studying online has its own set of challenges.
Dr. Tony Bates has written a thoughtful and thorough guide to studying online, A Student Guide to Studying Online. Not only does he highlight the importance of paying attention to course design, but he also offers helpful tips on how to choose the best online program and manage your course load.
Part 4 – Effective Study Skills
1. Highlight Key Concepts
Looking for the most important information as you read helps you stay engaged with the material. This can help keep your mind from wandering as you read.
As you find important details, mark them with a highlighter, or underline them. It can also be effective to jot notes along the edges of the text. Write on removable sticky notes if the book doesn’t belong to you.
When you’re preparing for a test, begin your studies by reviewing your highlighted sections and the notes you wrote down.
2. Summarize Important Details
One good way to get information to stick in your brain is to tell it again in your own words. Writing out a summary can be especially effective. You can organize your summaries in paragraph form or in outline form.
Keep in mind that you shouldn’t include every bit of information in a summary. Stick to the key points.
Consider using different colors on your paper. Research shows that information presented in color is more memorable than things written in plain type. You could use colored pens or go over your words with highlighters.
After writing about what you read, reinforce the information yet again by reading aloud what you wrote on your paper.
3. Create Your Own Flashcards
For an easy way to quiz yourself, prepare notecards that feature a keyword on one side and important facts or definitions about that topic on the reverse.
Writing out the cards will help you learn the information. Quizzing yourself on the cards will continue that reinforcement.
The great thing about flashcards is that they’re easily portable. Slip them in your bag, so you can pull them out whenever you have a spare minute. This is a fantastic way to squeeze in extra practice time outside of your regularly scheduled study sessions.
As an alternative to paper flashcards, you can also use a computer program or a smartphone app to make digital flashcards that you can click through again and again.
4. Improve Recall with Association
Sometimes your brain could use an extra hand to help you hold onto the information that you’re studying. Creating imaginary pictures, crafting word puzzles or doing other mental exercises can help make your material easier to remember.
Try improving recall with the following ideas:
- Sing the information to a catchy tune.
- Think of a mnemonic phrase in which the words start with the same letters as the words that you need to remember.
- Draw a picture that helps you make a humorous connection between the new information and the things that you already know.
- Envision what it would be like to experience your topic in person. Imagine the sights, sounds, smells and more.
- Think up rhymes or tongue twisters that can help the information stick in your brain.
- Visualize the details with a web-style mind map that illustrates the relationships between concepts.
5. Absorb Information in Smaller Chunks
Think about how you memorize a phone number: You divide the 10-digit number into three smaller groups. It’s easier to get these three chunks to stick in your mind than it is to remember the whole thing as a single string of information.
You can use this strategy when studying by breaking a list down into smaller parts. Work on memorizing each part as its own group.
6. Make Your Own Study Sheet
Condensing your most important notes onto one page is an excellent way to keep priority information at your fingertips. The more you look over this sheet and read it aloud, the better that you’ll know the material.
Furthermore, the act of typing or writing out the information will help you memorize the details. Using different colors or lettering styles can help you picture the information later.
Just like flashcards, a study sheet is portable. You can pull it out of your bag whenever you have a spare minute.
7. Be the Teacher
To teach information to others, you first have to understand it yourself. Therefore, when you’re trying to learn something new, challenge yourself to consider how you’d teach it to someone else. Wrestling with this concept will help you gain a better understanding of the topic.
In fact, you can even recruit a friend, a family member or a study group member to listen to your mini-lesson. Reciting your presentation aloud to someone else will help the details stick in your mind, and your audience may be able to point out gaps in your knowledge.
8. Know When to Call It a Day
Yes, you really can get too much of a good thing. Although your studies are important, they shouldn’t be the only thing in your life. It’s also important to have a social life, get plenty of exercise, and take care of your non-school responsibilities.
Studies show that too much time with your nose in the books can elevate your stress level, which can have a negative effect on your school performance and your personal relationships.
Too much studying may also keep you from getting enough exercise. This could lower your bone density or increase your percentage of body fat.
Part 5 – How to Study More Efficiently
1. Take Regular Breaks
Study sessions will be more productive if you allow yourself to take planned breaks. Consider a schedule of 50 minutes spent working followed by a 10-minute break.
Your downtime provides a good chance to stand up and stretch your legs. You can also use this as an opportunity to check your phone or respond to emails. When your 10 minutes are up, however, it’s time to get back to work.
At the end of a long study session, try to allow yourself a longer break — half an hour, perhaps — before you move on to other responsibilities.
2. Take Notes in Class
The things that your teacher talks about in class are most likely topics that he or she feels are quite important to your studies. So, it’s a good idea to become a thorough note-taker.
The following tips can help you become an efficient, effective note-taker:
- Stick to the main points.
- Use shorthand when possible.
- If you don’t have time to write all the details, jot down a keyword or a name. After class, you can use your textbook to elaborate on these items.
- For consistency, use the same organizational system each time you take notes.
- Consider writing your notes by hand, which can help you remember the information better. However, typing may help you be faster or more organized.
Recording important points is effective because it forces you to pay attention to what’s being said during a lecture.
3. Exercise First
Would you believe that exercise has the potential to grow your brain? Scientists have shown this to be true!
In fact, exercise is most effective at generating new brain cells when it’s immediately followed by learning new information.
There are short-term benefits to exercising before studying as well. Physical activity helps wake you up so you feel alert and ready when you sit down with your books.
4. Review and Revise Your Notes at Home
If your notes are incomplete — for example, you wrote down dates with no additional information — take time after class to fill in the missing details. You may also want to swap notes with a classmate so you can catch things that you missed during the lecture.
- Rewrite your notes if you need to clean them up
- Rewriting will help you retain the information
- Add helpful diagrams or pictures
- Read through them again within one day
If you find that there are concepts in your notes that you don’t understand, ask your professor for help. You may be able to set up a meeting or communicate through email.
After rewriting your notes, put them to good use by reading through them again within the next 24 hours. You can use them as a reference when you create study sheets or flashcards.
5. Start with Your Toughest Assignments
Let’s face it: There are some subjects that you like more than others. If you want to do things the smart way, save your least challenging tasks for the end of your studies. Get the hardest things done first.
If you save the toughest tasks for last, you’ll have them hanging over your head for the whole study session. That can cost you unnecessary mental energy.
Furthermore, if you end with your favorite assignments, it will give you a more positive feeling about your academic pursuits. You’ll be more likely to approach your next study session with a good attitude.
6. Focus on Key Vocabulary
To really understand a subject, you have to know the words that relate to it. Vocabulary words are often written in textbooks in bold print. As you scan the text, write these words down in a list.
Look them up in a dictionary or in the glossary at the back of the book. To help you become familiar with the terms, you could make a study sheet with the definitions or make flashcards.
7. Join a Study Group
Studying doesn’t always have to be an individual activity.
Benefits of a study group include:
- Explaining the material to one another
- Being able to ask questions about things you don’t understand
- Quizzing each other or playing review games
- Learning the material more quickly than you might on your own
- Developing soft skills that will be useful in your career, such as teamwork and problem solving
- Having fun as you study
Gather a few classmates to form a study group.
Part 6 – How to Study for Tests
1. Study for Understanding, Not Just for the Test
Cramming the night before a big test usually involves trying to memorize information long enough to be able to regurgitate it the next morning. Although that might help you get a decent grade or your test, it won’t help you really learn the material.
Within a day or two, you’ll have forgotten most of what you studied. You’ll have missed the goal of your classes: mastery of the subject matter.
Instead, commit yourself to long-term learning by studying throughout the semester.
2. Begin Studying at Least One Week in Advance
Of course, you may need to put in extra time before a big test, but you shouldn’t put this off until the night before.
Instead, in the week leading up to the exam, block off a daily time segment for test preparation. Regular studying will help you really learn the material.
3. Spend at Least One Hour per Day Studying
One week out from a big test, study for an hour per night. If you have two big tests coming up, increase your daily study time, and divide it between the two subjects.
The day before the exam, spend as much time as possible studying — all day, even.
4. Re-write Class Notes
After each class, you should have fleshed out your notes and rewritten them in a neat, organized format. Now, it’s time to take your re-done notes and write them once again.
This time, however, your goal is to condense them down to only the most important material. Ideally, you want your rewritten notes to fit on just one or two sheets of paper.
These sheets should be your main study resource during test preparation.
5. Create a Study Outline
Early in the week, make a long outline that includes many of the details from your notes. Rewrite it a few days later, but cut the material in half.
Shortly before the test, write it one more time; include only the most important information. Quiz yourself on the missing details.
6. Make Your Own Flashcards
Another way to quiz yourself is to make flashcards that you can use for practice written tests.
First, read the term on the front side. Encourage yourself to write out the definition or details of that term. Compare your written answer with what’s on the back of the card.
This can be extra helpful when prepping for an entrance exam like the GRE, though there are a growing number of schools that don’t require GRE scores for admission.
7. Do Sample Problems and Essays from Your Textbook
There are additional things you can do to practice test-taking. For example, crack open your book, and solve problems like the ones you expect to see on the test.
Write out the answers to essay questions as well. There may be suggested essay topics in your textbook.
Part 7 – Memory Improvement Techniques
1. Study Right Before Bed
Although you shouldn’t pull all-nighters, studying right before bedtime can be a great idea.
Sleep helps cement information in your brain. Studies show that you’re more likely to recall information 24 hours later if you went to bed shortly after learning it.
Right before bed, read through your study sheet, quiz yourself on flashcards or recite lists of information.
2. Study Small Chunks at a Time
If you want to remember information over the long haul, don’t try to cram it all in during one sitting.
Instead, use an approach called spaced repetition:
- Break the information into parts
- Learn one new part at a time over the course of days or weeks
- Review your earlier acquisitions each time you study
The brain stores information that it thinks is important. So, when you regularly go over a topic at set intervals over time, it strengthens your memory of it.
3. Tell a Story
Sometimes, you just need to make information silly in order to help it stick in your brain.
To remember a list of items or the particular order of events, make up a humorous story that links those things or words together. It doesn’t necessarily need to make sense; it just needs to be memorable.
4. Change Study Locations Often
Studying the same information in multiple places helps the details stick in your mind better.
Consider some of the following locations:
- Your desk at home
- A coffee shop
- The library
- Your backyard
- A park
It’s best to switch between several different study spots instead of always hitting the books in the same place.
5. Swap Topics Regularly
Keeping your brain trained on the same information for long periods of time isn’t beneficial. It’s smarter to jump from one subject to another a few times during a long study session.
Along those same lines, you should study the same material in multiple ways. Research shows that using varied study methods for the same topic helps you perform better on tests.
6. Quiz Yourself
Challenge yourself to see what you can remember. Quizzing yourself is like practicing for the test, and it’s one of the most effective methods of memory retention.
If it’s hard to remember the information at first, don’t worry; the struggle makes it more likely that you’ll remember it in the end.
7. Go Old-school: Use a Pen and Paper
The act of writing answers helps you remember the information. Here are some ways to use writing while studying:
- Recopy your notes
- Write the answers to flashcards
- Make a study sheet
- Practice writing essay answers
Writing by hand is best because it requires your attention and focus.
8. See It & Hear It
Say information out loud, and you’ll be more likely to remember it. You’re engaging your eyes as you read the words, your mouth as you say them, and your ears as you hear yourself.
Scientists call the benefit of speaking information aloud production effect.
Part 8 – Top 10 Study Hacks Backed by Science
1. Grab a Coffee
Drinking coffee (or your preferred high-octane beverage) while you study may help keep you alert so you don’t doze off mid-session. There’s even evidence that caffeine can improve your memory skills.
However, avoid sugary beverages. These could cause your energy level to crash in a few hours.
2. Reward Yourself
Studies show that giving yourself a reward for doing your work helps you enjoy the effort more.
Do it right away; don’t wait until the test is over to celebrate. For example, after finishing a three-hour study session, treat yourself to an ice cream cone or a relaxing bath.
3. Study with Others
Working with a study group holds you accountable so it’s harder to procrastinate on your work.
When you study together, you can fill in gaps in one another’s understanding, and you can quiz each other on the material.
Besides, studying with a group can be fun!
It may be hard to imagine adding anything else to your packed schedule, but dedicating time to mindfulness practices can really pay off.
Studies show that people who meditate may perform better on tests, and they are generally more attentive.
Mindfulness apps can help you get started with this practice.
5. Hit the Gym
To boost the blood flow to your brain, do half an hour of cardio exercise before sitting down to study.
Aerobic exercise gives your brain a major dose of oxygen and other important nutrients, which may help you think clearly, remember facts and do your best work.
6. Play Some Music
Listening to tunes can help you focus. Studies show that the best study music is anything that features a rhythmic beat.
It’s smart to choose a style that you like. If you like classical, that’s fine, but you could also go for electronica or modern piano solos.
7. Grab Some Walnuts
A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids helps your brain do its best work.
Good sources include:
- Fish: cod liver oil, salmon and mackerel
- Vegetables: spinach and Brussels sprouts
To calm your pre-test jitters, eat a mix of omega-3 and omega-6 foods.
8. Take Regular Breaks
Your brain needs some downtime. Don’t try to push through for hours on end. Every hour, take a break for several minutes.
Breaks are good for your mental health. They also improve your attention span, your creativity and your productivity.
During a break, it’s best to move around and exercise a bit.
9. Get Some Sleep
Although studying is important, it can’t come at the expense of your rest. Sleep gives your brain a chance to process the information that you’ve learned that day.
If you don’t get enough sleep, you’ll have a hard time focusing and remembering information.
Even during busy test weeks, try to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
10. Eliminate Distractions
It’s hard to get much studying done when you’re busy scrolling Instagram. Put away your phone and computer while studying, or at least block your social media apps.
Turn off the television while you work, too.
If you’re studying in a noisy area, put on headphones that can help block the distracting sounds.
Part 9 – The Best Study Apps
1. iStudiez Pro Legend
Scheduling study time is a must, and iStudiez Pro Legend lets you put study sessions, classes and assignments on your calendar. Color coding the entries can help you stay organized.
For each class, you can enter meeting times and homework assignments, and you can keep track of your grades.
2. Dragon Anywhere
Instead of writing notes in the margins of your textbooks, you can use Dragon Anywhere’s voice dictation feature to record your thoughts and insights.
Just be sure to rewrite your dictated notes in your own handwriting later for maximum learning!
When you’re in school, you have a lot of responsibilities to juggle, but Evernote can help you organize them.
You can add notes and documents to store them in one digital spot, and tagging them will help you quickly pull up all files for a class or a topic.
4. Quizlet Go
Make digital flashcards that you can practice on your mobile device with Quizlet Go.
This means that you can pull out your phone for a quick study session whenever you have a couple of minutes of downtime. You don’t even need internet access to practice these flashcards.
5. My Study Life
Enter your upcoming tests and assignments into My Study Life, and the app will send you reminder messages.
The app has a calendar so you can keep track of your class schedule. It can even notify you when it’s time to go to class.
6. Exam Countdown Lite
You should start studying for tests at least a week in advance. Input the dates for your exams and assignments into Exam Countdown Lite so you’ll have a visual reminder of when you should begin your test prep.
The app can send you notifications as well.
With Chegg’s Flashcards+, you can make your own digital flashcards or use ones designed by others.
Because you can add images to your cards, you can quiz yourself on the names of famous artworks, important historical artifacts or parts of a scientific diagram.
Organize information into categories by creating a visual mind map on XMind. This can help you classify facts and figures so you see how they relate to one another.
This visual representation can also help you recall the information later.
Do you have piles of handwritten notes everywhere? Once you’ve written them out, consider scanning them into digital form. ScannerPro lets you use your phone as a scanner.
You can store your scanned files in this app or transfer them to Evernote or another organization system.
Part 10 – Study Skills Worksheets
Could you use more help to develop your study skills? Rutgers University has dozens of study skills worksheets online.
These documents are packed with tips that can help you become a better student. The checklists and charts can help you evaluate your current strengths and organize your work.
Part 11 – Key Takeaways
You’re a busy person, so you need to make the most of every study session.
By now, you should understand the basics of effective studies:
- Schedule study time
- Study regularly
- Minimize distractions
- Read for information
- Write the important stuff down
- Use creative memory tricks
- Quiz yourself
- Be good to your body and your brain
Put these study tips to good use, and you’ll soon learn that you’ve learned how to study smarter.