My knee-jerk reaction when we first got an email asking about the best ways to study in college was it’s the same as studying for anything else. We used to direct them to our general guides on studying and improving your grades.
But, when we started to think about it, while the basic principles still do hold true there are some definite changes you can make to make your studying easier.
First up, however, I really do suggest checking out this (free) audiobook. A chess grandmaster breaks down how to improve your memory and get twice the results in half the time. No matter what you’re studying or when – I suggest using this.
Note that I say easier. Not ways you can study for longer because sitting at your desk or in the library for x number of hours more does not mean you’re being any more productive. It’s about what you get done – not how long you do it for.
To be effective with studying at any stage of life it’s about planning your sessions (both for the long and short-term) and improving your focus and retention. I’ve covered this to death in the past and I’ll no doubt touch on them again as people are always experimenting with new techniques. I won’t go too deep into the same generic stuff but for a rough idea before we look at the specifics for studying in college:
Planning, Planning and Planning.
I know what you’re thinking. No doi dumbass.
But how you plan your studying is the most important thing you’re ever going to do. Not just planning out when you’re going to study and how many hours you’re going to commit to it but what you’re actually going to study.
First is obvious. Your long-term goals. What segments of the topic you need to cover at what points. This is likely to change over time as you find some parts too easy to spend time on and others requiring extra work.
The long-term planning goals are obvious but it’s too tempting to leave it as a rough idea in your head. Get it in writing. Check back and update it often. It doesn’t need to be a work of art like the planning people post on Instagram – I’d settle for a scrap of paper with some dates and topic goals on it.
Next up is the short term study planning and this is at least as important. Arguably more so.
A study session plan should not be sitting at the desk for 5 hours and working on a subject. Even the best of us are not going to be productive like that – we’re not wired that way. In order to maximize our focus, we need to know what you’re looking at and when.
If you’ve ever tried cramming the night before an exam in a panic (be honest, we’ve all been there) you’ll have seen you’re able to focus a lot better than you were two weeks before the exam when you know you should have been studying.
Planning your short-term goals and knowing you’re meant to cover a certain topic or segment by a certain point in the session will give you that same focus more consistently. Sometimes you might need to work in a reward or penalty system to keep yourself on track – which leads me on to my next point.
Experiment With YOUR Studying
If I’ve learned one thing from my years in academia and running one of the biggest sites on studying it’s not everyone is going to learn the same way. And even if your current study routine seems to be working – making a few changes might help it work even better.
There are advantages to studying first thing in the morning. There are advantages to being a night owl and studying at 2 AM.
Some people incentivize themselves to stick to a plan. If they cover a certain topic or score a certain grade they can go on that weekend away or whatever it is. If they don’t they give $10 to charity or volunteer at a shelter the upcoming weekend rather than relaxing.
Whatever it takes. Play around with your studying and see what works for you. We have more than enough suggestions here for you to try.
The Differences Studying in College
But this is the kind of advice I’d give anyone on studying. And college gives you some advantages that you don’t really get again in life so it’d be kind of crazy not to take advantage of them.
The Professors (Again, Doi)
Make use of your professors and TA’s. If you’re stuck on something camp outside their door if you need to. Bring a sleeping bag and be there before they’ve had their morning coffee if that’s what it takes. They’re there to support you. You have their experience and guidance there which most people don’t have outside of college.
I often talk about studying in groups and for the vast, vast majority of us studying alone is more productive. It might not be as fun but studies have shown it’s far more productive and the best students are ones who are able to get their heads down themselves.
The one exception to this rule is your ability in college is you’re very unlikely to be in that situation again in your life. Surrounded by people with similar goals to yourself and a chunk of them studying the same subjects at the same stage.
While I advocate studying solo and I’ve already covered finding (or making) your study environment extensively there is something to be said for studying solo when surrounded by others.
You know why one of the reasons so many people choose to work in coffee shops (aside from the coffee of course)? It’s the accountability. If I’m working by myself from a laptop I’m far more likely to flip open a Netflix or Facebook tab if I’m sitting at home than I am if I’m sitting with others studying or working on their own thing.
I’m studying solo (probably with headphones) but I still have the benefit of the unspoken accountability of the others around me.
There’s also something to be said for the occasional study group. Whether you want to get a baseline of where others are in their studies (not that judging your performance against others is necessarily useful) it gives you an opportunity to learn from others if they’ve got a better understanding of a topic. It’s rare you’ll have such a situation outside of college.
At the end of the day, the biggest thing you can do for your studying is developing and improving your study habits. Motivation is fleeting especially when it’s last minute panic or the promise of a good career years down the line. Habits and routines are consistent and require little energy to maintain once formed (best done at the start of the year).
Since writing assignments are a big part of studying in college (moreso than general lifelong learning anyway) it wouldn’t be a complete guide if we didn’t look at that.
- You can have the best content in the world – but if it’s not easy to read it will affect your grade. I know it sucks but take your time and proofread your work. You might even swap papers with classmates and proof each others work.
- Walls of text are hard to read (I mean – look what you went through to read this). Break it up with whitespace and illustrations where you can. But don’t stick the font size to 20 and try and stretch a page worth of writing into a book.
- While most colleges won’t let you quote Wikipedia it can still be a great source to learn from. Just check the citation section on Wikipedia and cite the original source if it’s reliable.