Is it just me, or do most study tips just say the same thing?
I mean, we’re coming into exam season so there are tons of articles like “how to study for exams” and the like that are great and all, but most of them just present stuff that you should be doing anyway. Like “go to class” or “read the textbook.” I’ve written tons of posts about just general college habits you need like those, but I don’t really consider those actual study tips.
And although all of those things are really important, I want to take it a step further. I’m in my final semester and only weeks away from my last exam season ever, so I’ve got a lot of experience to share with you guys. I’ve managed to keep an excellent GPA throughout my academic career, and I’ve taken pretty much every type of course there is–I was originally a BSc in psychology, switched into a BA in psychology with a minor in English, and now I’m a specialization in psychology and have taken electives in religions courses, languages, leisure studies, and even economics.
Throughout all of these courses, I’ve found that there are some things that just work but not enough people do. These are the 10 best study tips that I think really separate the students with good GPAs from the ones with great GPAs. And I’m so excited to be sharing them with you today!
1. Do not copy down the textbook word for word
Good note takers know how to take notes without just copying the textbook. If you want to do well in college, you’ve got to be taking notes from your textbook, but instead of just skimming until there’s a key word or phrase and copying it down, here’s how I do it:
- Read the index at the beginning of the chapter and write out all of those headings. This is your outline.
- Read one paragraph at a time. Summarize that paragraph in 1-2 sentences maximum, even if there are no key terms in it.
- Write out key words and their definitions
- See if you can answer any questions at checkpoints in the textbook. My books often have a quick box at the end of sections to test if you can critically think about what you’ve just studied. If you can’t, go back and review it again.
- Make flash cards out of the key terms/theories from each section.
And that’s all I do. I don’t colour code or anything–I find that more distracting than anything else. By the end of your note-taking session you want to have a document that contains all of the ideas that you’ll need to understand from the textbook but is about 1/10 of the length.
2. Only study what you need to
This goes against almost everything that most study tips tell you to do, but it’s true. For example, I’m taking a religions course right now where the midterm consisted of two parts. First, there were a bunch of excerpts from primary sources and then there was an essay. We were given the two essay topics, with the knowledge that only one would be on the exam and were told that the primary sources would be ones he covered in class.
So I only read the stuff about the primary sources that we covered in class and enough from the textbook to write my essays. Nothing else. I probably went over 25% of the material from the course up to that point. And I got a 95% on the exam.
Now, that being said, I am also taking a psychology course right now where I need to literally memorize every single slide because there is no textbook and absolutely no indication of what is important and what isn’t. So I studied for days, and memorized over 30 pages worth of lists and also got in the 90s for that one.
The point is, you need to figure out what you need to know for the exam and only study that. Sometimes that’ll mean that you hardly have to study at all, sometimes it means you have to just buckle down and absorb as much information as is humanly possible. But figure out what is required and don’t do more. That way, when you do have a very memorization-heavy course you’ll have more time available to dedicate to it!
3. Use flashcards
I know, everyone says this, but there is a reason it’s so popular among study tips! I’m always amazed by how few people actually use flashcards. If you study effectively, making flashcards (especially if you do it online) only takes a few minutes. My grades went up 5% when I started using flashcards. I’m not even joking. It changed my life.
The trick with flashcards is to only hit the key points. You don’t want to have an essay on the back to try and remember. Rather, put your term or concept on the one side and then bullet points on the other so that it’s easy to count how many of your points you hit or how many you still need to learn.
As soon as I can get through my flashcards 3 times without getting them wrong, I know I’m ready for the exam. I make them for everything–key terms, theories, concepts, studies, statistics, and arguments from secondary readings. Try it this exam season and see how it helps!
4. Compile all of your notes into one document
From textbooks, slides, and secondary readings. Seriously, do it. The reason this is important is that you need to understand concepts based on category, rather than where you read it. Very few professors are going to have long answer questions that give you any indication of what source you need to take it from. Rather, long-answer questions generally require you to piece together information from the textbook, lectures, and secondary readings if you want to get full marks.
I do this in one of two ways, depending on how the course is set up.
If the slides are based off of the textbook headings, I add the textbook material not covered in class into the notes section of the powerpoint slides. This helps me not duplicate material. I can see what we covered in class so that I don’t waste time taking notes on things I’ve already learned. Efficiency is key, people!
If the slides have nothing to do with the textbook, I add the slides’ information to my textbook notes. From my experience, if slides aren’t well organized the textbook helps to illuminate what the professor was trying to say. The textbook also adds some structure to the topic so that studying is easier. Then, I go through my slides and add the material that wasn’t covered in my textbook notes!
5. Rethink the music
Listening to music while studying is super popular, but may not actually be very helpful and may actually be harmful. I personally suggest just bringing ear plugs to the library instead of listening to music but if you need to listen to something, go for movie scores or classical orchestras without lyrics.
The truth is, we’re not actually very good at multi-tasking. Music may seem like something in the background, but it actually can distract you from what you’re trying to study. Especially if you’re trying to memorize a list for an exam. This article does a good job of summarizing a lot of the different viewpoints on the topic.
6. Focus on one thing at a time
Don’t have facebook open in one tab and your flashcards open in another. Turn your phone on “do not disturb” while you’re studying. This is one of the best study tips that I actually learned by watching how one of my friends studied–she literally turns off her computer, phone, tablet, everything and just sits there with books and her notebook and takes notes until it’s done. I’m not quite that dedicated, since I do take notes on my computer to save time. But I have started putting my phone and laptop on do-not-disturb so that only my family can contact me (yay for advanced settings) if there’s an emergency. That way I don’t get distracted by Instagram notifications, texts from classmates, or facebook.
I’ve talked about it before in my post about the best apps for college students, but one of my best tools for this is the self-control app (for Mac users). It blocks websites that you put on a blacklist for a set period of time. So you can say “Ok, no Netflix for the next 3 hours” and then you will not physically be able to load Netflix for 3 hours. It’s amazing.
7. Break it up by section
Figure out how many sections you have to get done for your course before your exam and then plan accordingly. For example, I had a midterm a few weeks ago where I had 5 chapters to read and 10 sets of slides. So I did one chapter and two sets of slides a day for the 5 days leading up to the midterm. That way is much less overwhelming than what I did for another midterm merely days later, which was not open the textbook until about 9:00 the night before the exam. Yup, I cram too, sometimes.
The reason you want to split it up by section rather than time for things like studying from a textbook is that you can’t slack off. It’s easy to “study” for an hour and feel like you’ve done so much only to realize that you’ve actually been on facebook for 30 minutes of that hour. If you say to yourself “Ok, I’ll stop for lunch after I finish this chapter,” though, that chapter gets finished before you have lunch. I find that for me, this helps me be more productive and just get through it more than if I’m watching the clock.
8. Don’t make it harder than it has to be
I become anxious just LOOKING at some people’s binders and backpacks. Loose pieces of papers with notes just crammed in there, nothing where it’s supposed to be. These people also tend to be really stressed when midterms come, too, since studying is 10x harder when you don’t even know where all your notes are!
There’s a super easy solution, too: be streamlined and organized with your notes. There are lots of different ways to do this. Some people have a binder with separators for each course. Some people like to have a different notebook for each course. I just have one notebook that I take all my notes in. Then, when it’s time to type up the lecture notes for that class, I go through the notebook and know that all of my notes are right there. In courses where there is powerpoint available for the slides, I just take notes right on the slides themselves so it’s even easier later.
Then, of course, you become even more streamlined later by putting those notes into one giant document with your textbook notes and the information on the slides. By the time you’re reviewing for midterms, you want it to be as simple as possible. Don’t waste brain power just trying to figure out where your notes are.
9. Test your understanding by trying to explain the concept
It can be really easy to just skim over information and say “Pfft I’ve totally got that down” but then on the exam there’s a 7-point question on it and you just blank. No matter how easy something is, if you don’t understand it to the point where you could explain it to someone who is in a completely different major than you are, you don’t know it well enough.
Go through your notes and see if you know the material well enough to explain it without just quoting what the textbook says. If you can do this, you should know it well enough to think critically about it on the exam! This study tip works because it helps you make sure that you actually have digested the material instead of just memorizing it. When you’re stressed in a test, you’re less likely to blank out on things that you truly understand than you are on things you’ve just memorized.
10. Personalize your studying
The best study tip I can honestly give you is just to do what works for you. It helps me to speak out loud while I’m studying and to pace and use my hands. Some people just remember whatever they read. Some people prefer to hand-write notes. I’ve written more about this in my post about how to study for midterms, but at the end of the day you’ve got to fine-tune it to your personality, how your brain works, and what has worked for you in the past. As long as you’re willing to put in the time and effort, you’ll figure it out.
Yes, this is a really really long post. I just wanted to give you something that was really and truly the best study tips I could give you! I hope you enjoyed this and that it helps you this coming exam season!
What are some great study tips you’ve learned? What are some study tips that DIDN’T work for you? Let me know in the comments below!
(Also, yes, mom, I totally am stealing your Top 10 Tuesdays thing. With your permission. That is all.)