The Art of Studying More Efficiently

The way we study influences our comprehension of concepts and information. Simply capturing facts (i.e. taking notes) is not enough; we must internalize the information in a way that develops a deep understanding. This is why some people do poorly on exams despite studying for several hours.

Recording facts without processing the underlying concepts; inefficient note taking skills; poor time management; and not having a strategic study plan contribute to the phenomenon of students who study but still do not score high on their exams. The following tips will help you develop study habits that are more efficient and less time consuming.

Attend class and review course materials regularly.

For traditional on-campus courses, attending class is as simple as showing up during your scheduled meeting time. For online students, you should schedule regular times throughout the week when you will review your online course materials. If your online class has a live lecture or Q&A component, you should plan to attend all of these sessions.

Streamline your notes.

Develop a note taking strategy and streamline the way you record information. When participating in live lectures, on-campus or online, remember that note taking is not dictation. Instead of recording every word, only write down the important ideas behind what is said. When you understand the bigger picture, the little details (names, dates, places, etc.) will be more meaningful.

For reading assignments, adopt a method that allows you to read without stopping while noting important passages—like Cal Newport’s Morse Code Method. This will help you avoid the fatigue that usually occurs while trying to take notes on long passages of text.

Relate it back to something you already understand.

It is much easier to remember information that is meaningful to you. When you are having a hard time understanding a concept, try finding correlations in a topic you know more about. For example, a Star Wars fan could use their knowledge of the films to learn literary concepts like symbolism, foreshadowing, and the hero’s journey.

Start early.

You should start studying for an exam at least three weeks before the exam date. It is nearly impossible to learn the amount of information required for most exams in one night. Give yourself some time to study and break it up over several days. Not only will you have better recall during the exam, you will also have less stress beforehand.

Schedule study time.

Scheduling study time helps you avoid the stress of information overload caused by time crunches at the last minute. It also gives you a chance to assess the concepts you do and do not know and take steps to fill in the gaps in your understanding.

Minimize distractions.

You should study in a place that has minimal distractions, especially background dialogue. It is okay to have background noise as long as the noise has no distinguishable dialogue (i.e. like classical music). The human brain can only process one input source at a time. When you study in a place with a lot of background dialogue, the brain will try to focus on this audio input and it makes retaining information harder.

Make your notes mobile.

Consider recording your notes in an online Wiki or downloading the Dropbox application to your smartphone. This will allow you to access your notes any time from any place in the world. Moreover, it is a great way to kill time while waiting in line or at the doctor’s office.

Helpful Resources

If you want to learn more about some of the tips mentioned above, check out some of these articles from the authors at Study Hacks.

  • The Goal of Note Taking — Learn why most students don’t understand the real goal of note taking.
  • Test Prep Schedule — Find out how drizzling test preparation over several days can help you ace your next exam.
  • Studying is a Technical Skill — The art of studying more efficiently, just like any technical skill, is something anyone can learn.
  • Streamline Your Notes — Tips on how to streamline your notes for technical and non-technical classes.
  • Wikis and Smartphones — A case study on how one student used an online Wiki and his iPhone to access notes any time, any place.
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