Guide to Good Study Habits, Part I

By the time the average student reaches college, they have generally had over twelve years of experience in school. That’s probably in the range of 15,000 hours in school, not counting time spent on homework. And that’s well past the 10,000 hours normally required to become an expert on something. So you’d think that a college student should be an expert on going to school, studying, taking tests, and so forth. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case. Many students arrive at college completely unprepared for the rigor of the college experience. Despite all the hours they have logged, they haven’t ever developed solid study skills. This blog will provide some tips on how students can overcome this skill deficit and become successful at studying.

The first thing you’ll want to do is go to class. This might seem very obvious, but unfortunately it’s not. By mid-semester, many courses, especially lower level ones, can witness a 30-40% drop in attendance. That means that on any given day, only 60-70% of students show up for class. Going to class is the single most important thing you, as a student, can do. It gives you a better grasp of the expectations of the professor, a basis on which to begin the process of reviewing the material, and can give you hints as to what to expect on the exams.

Another great way to aid in studying is to participate in a study group. As long as you are focusing on the material and not merely socializing, working in a group can give your study time a serious boost. Check out the following percentages. We retain:

  • 10% of what we read
  • 20% of what you hear
  • 30% of what we see
  • 50% of what we see and hear
  • 70% of what we talk about with others
  • 80% of what we experience personally
  • 95% of what we teach to others

So, when you work together, you are reading, hearing, and seeing the material. You are talking about it with others. And sometimes you are even teaching it to others. That is a massive boost to your retention of the material.

Similarly, read any assignments and do the homework in advance of the class period. By doing this you’ll be more familiar with the material and more able to participate in class discussions about it. And as shown above, talking about something boosts your retention, so being part of the class discussion will greatly benefit you.

The place you study is also very important. As mentioned in a previous post, you need to find a place that will be conducive to studying. Some place that is quiet and free from distractions. Feel free to listen to music if it will help remove noise distractions. Some researchers believe that you should actually find multiple places to study and then alternate between them. Different environments stimulate your learning in different ways, so alternating between locations can provide multiple learning experiences, again boosting your retention.

Make a learning schedule. Figure out when assignments are due and study periodically in advance, putting in time studying daily or every other day well in advance. Don’t want until the last moment or the night before to study. Cramming is all about rote memorization which doesn’t last. Conversely, if you take the time to really learn the topic, spreading out your studying over a period of days, it’ll stick with you, you’ll be learning the material and not just memorizing it. And when you understand the topic, you will be able to do better on exams.

The final study tip may sound slightly counterintuitive: don’t study all the time. Take breaks, socialize, have fun. As this New York Times article mentions, mental concentration is like a muscle that needs breaks. As you push yourself longer and harder, you’ll experience diminished returns. You need to give your mind some rest. During a study session, perhaps stand up and stretch on the half hour. Then get up and walk around for five minutes on the hour. And then, after you’ve put in a few hours, get up and do something else, giving yourself a mental break.

The key to studying is to do it in such a way that you’ll enjoy it. Pulling an all-nighter and cramming isn’t fun. You generally don’t as well and you’ll feel worse for wear. Similarly, studying in front of the TV or other technological distraction (computers, phones, tablets, etc.), will just make you want to ignore the studying and focus on the entertainment. Put yourself in a good environment, work with friends and classmates, and then give yourself a reward when you’re done; you’ll find studying considerably more enjoyable and productive.