On Studying Effectively

by Amber Sheu, College, TX

I often get questions from classmates on how I study for specific exams, or how I approached a certain class when I took it. Usually I’ll offer a simple answer that they’ll want to hear, but truly studying effectively is a discipline that is developed over time. And it may be a long time - to be honest, I don’t think I had a great way of studying for classes until I reached college. It’s a time when you are truly “on your own” besides the few times you meet for class per week.

To study effectively when no one is monitoring you, you must develop a discipline and habit for doing so, which can’t be taught. The reward when you do have one, is that your system for studying can be used for any course that you encounter, yielding good results (provided your instructors, exams, and other factors are fairly reasonable). I’ll expand on some of the practices that influenced my studying methodology here.

I should add a couple notes: it will be very difficult (or impossible) to implement every “tip” I provide if you have a lot of things going on outside of school, unless you are a wizard of application and time management. Regardless, hopefully at least one of my statements can be helpful going forward. Additionally, nearly all courses I take are STEM classes. If you’re looking into humanities, these may or may not help you.

1. Try reading the textbook chapter in its entirety before taking notes. This may not be helpful for everyone, especially if your textbook chapter is 100 pages (in that case though, I’d break it up into sections and apply the same tip here). This “tip” requires you to do something that may be undesirable: doing the same reading two times. The idea behind reading the chapter completely the first time without talking notes is that while I’m reading, I can get an idea of what concepts are important in the big picture, and what details I should probably write down, before writing them down. The second time I go through the chapter, I write down what I identified as “important” during my first read-through. Reading like this helps cement the material a lot more effectively than simply reading, or taking notes as you read. However, if you’re short on time, you should definitely take notes as you read. What qualifies as “important” really depends on the class you’re taking. For me, they may include formulas, definitions, explanations of a concept, or an example I thought was helpful.

2. Don’t highlight everything, you’re just gonna make it worse I’ve never been a proponent of highlighting. However, I’ve seen a lot of people highlight entire paragraphs of text, which is not helpful in the slightest if you’re rereading and need to identify important points *quickly.* If you must highlight, don’t highlight more than a sentence. I limit myself to less than 10 words at a time when highlighting. Again, identifying what is important to highlight really depends on the class, and like developing a study system, it is a skill to be honed.

3. Identify where your strengths/weaknesses are as a learner

This can be interpreted many ways. I hear people claim they are “visual learners,” and to that I respond, “how do you even know that?” So I’m not specifically talking about visual/auditory/kinesthetic/etc. types of learning, but simply small things that help or hurt you when learning.

I’ll provide a couple of examples. Say your class is very memorization heavy, and you are really great at applying, but terrible at memorizing. Rather than brute-forcing with flashcards that may never help you, try to justify exactly how/why you go from point A to point B, or from the question to the answer, as you review. You won’t have to really “memorize” anything if you know the process of getting there.

Sometimes I’ll have a hard time absorbing something from a textbook. Perhaps an explanation of the concept, rather than reading it in text, may help me more, so I’ll search up a video covering what I need to learn. If there are no videos available, I’ll ask my instructor. Identifying where you are stuck and finding the solution to get “unstuck” is undeniably important.

4. Make sure you can explain a concept in your own, simple words A lot of other people offer this same “tip” so I won’t speak too much on it. It does help if you have a friend you can explain a concept to. If you don’t like telling other people what you learned, even writing down a justification on paper is sufficient. Integrate what you learned and find a way to deliver it in words a fellow student could understand.

5. Develop a note-taking style where it’s easy to find information you need … if you are a note taker, that is. In the digital age many people use tablets to take notes, which is completely fine - the same “tip” applies. I use notebooks. To take notes in a way that I can find everything I need, I use a combination of pen, colored pen, and pencil, and each plays a specific role. Dark pen for general explanations and definitions. Colored pen for ease identifying formulas and vocabulary terms. Pencil for less important details and worked through examples. Come exam time, and I’m flipping through my notebook, the color helps me find what I need very quickly. It makes the note-taking process less painful as well.

6. Get into the habit of not procrastinating This is by far the most difficult one. I make it a big deal for myself to preview the text or take preliminary notes the weekend before I learn the material in class. This way I’m not rushing to take all my notes during lecture, and I can treat the lecture as a time to review what I learned over the weekend. This also provides time to ask questions early as they develop. I also like doing assignments soon after they are released, so I have plenty of time to make changes. This practice also makes time for the other extracurricular activities you may desire to fulfill outside of class. Who likes worrying about more than one thing at a time?