The right study methods are critical if you’re going to get the most from your time in education. Here, we look at the study tips that make the difference!
Have you ever noticed that some students are better at studying than others? They might have access to the same resources over the same period of time – but the information just seems to sink in more easily.
You might explain this with reference to intelligence, dedication or environment. But the truth is that even the most gifted students working in the best possible settings will struggle if they lack the skills necessary to study effectively. That’s because studying is a skill (or a series of skills) that can be honed with practice…and a little bit of patience.
If you’re going to get the most from your studies, you’ll want to identify exactly what those skills are – and how you can acquire and improve them. Having done this, it’s then a matter of learning as many tips and tricks as possible.
That way, you’ll give yourself every possible advantage to get the most from the time you spend at the books!
Table of Contents
How to study
The methods you use to study are vital. They’ll vary depending on the subject you’re learning and the medium of instruction. Some subjects are more skills-based, while others rely more on building a knowledge base.
For example, if you’re going to get the most from your online studies, why not look into a few courses designed with this kind of learning in mind?
- Digital Skills Awareness for Starting Higher Education by Bloomsbury Learning Exchange
- Learning Online: Communicating and Collaborating by the University of Leeds
- A Digital Edge: Essentials for the Online Learner by Dublin City University
For remote learners, the University of York’s tips for studying with technology are worth considering. If you’re a university researcher, then you might also look at the University of Southampton’s tips on what to think about before you get started on research.
What are study skills?
Getting better at a few core study skills will help you get a lot more out of your time as a student. What’s more, they can all be applied to the world of work, too. So, what are the skills you need to study effectively?
If you can’t effectively manage your time, then you’re not going to be able to get the best from it. This doesn’t just mean being punctual but structuring your independent study so that you cover all of your bases while still diving deep into the materials.
Effective study is organised study. You’ll need to have all your materials within easy reach, and you’ll want to have a system for absorbing them. This might mean skimming through everything, identifying problem areas, and circling back. It might mean dividing your days up into key topics and poring through them, one by one.
When you’re taking on board information, being able to take notes effectively will be hugely helpful. It will give you something to refer to later, and, if you’re writing by hand, help drive the information deeper into your brain.
Essays are a great way of demonstrating that you know what you’re talking about. Writing them can also help you figure out exactly where the gaps in your knowledge lie.
If your essay-writing skills could use a bit of fine-tuning, you might look at the University of Reading’s Beginner’s Guide to Writing in English for University Study. We’ve also written on the subject in our Essay Writing 101 post.
The importance of study skills
Most of the advice you find online will be geared towards the average student – a young person who spends their time surrounded by other young people. If you don’t fit into this category, then it’s worth tweaking your approach until you find a method that works for you.
First-time adult learners
It might be that you didn’t spend much time in the education system during your formative years. Perhaps you didn’t consider it worthwhile, or perhaps you were denied the opportunity.
Whatever the reason, you might not yet have picked up the study skills you need to really thrive – so tips such as these can come in very handy. It’s often a good idea to form bonds with other students in your position, which is why interacting with other students is one of the major study tips for online learning set out by Leiden University.
Adult learners returning to education
If you’ve already been through the education system, you might have an idea of what to expect. While a few more miles on the clock might make it harder to fit learning into an already busy schedule, you’re ahead of the game in many ways. If you’ve come back to education, you’ve got a strong drive to learn. That will help you to focus during those late-night study sessions.
If you’ve been away from education for a while, you might be surprised to discover how much has changed. Getting acquainted with modern study methods can help you to close the gap – especially if you’re relying on a few familiar, though outdated, techniques.
If you’re neurodivergent (as opposed to neurotypical) then you’ll be aware that in some situations you tend to think differently to other people – by definition. This could mean that taking a different approach to studying will bear significant fruit.
Finding the right study process for you might require a little bit of experimentation until you find an approach that works. If you’re really struggling with conventional means, then try tweaking things a bit – or even tearing up the rulebook entirely.
How can you improve your study skills?
We offer plenty of courses designed to help you get the most from your study sessions, and teach you how to study effectively. Students of all ages and abilities can benefit from them. Even if you think that you have studying down to a fine art, there are always additional benefits to uncover.
Here are a few courses that can help you improve your study skills:
- Why Research Matters by Griffith University
- Skills to Succeed at University by the University of Leeds
- Improving Your Study Techniques by the University of Groningen
- Critical Thinking at University: An Introduction by the University of Leeds
If you’re studying for a Futurelearn Microcredential, there’s also a blog on preparing for Microcredential Study that’s worth exploring.
More specific niches will require more specific approaches. If you’re starting a career as a teacher, you should look at the University of East Anglia’s strategies for effective learning, which is a part of their course on Professional Development for Early Career Teachers.
To find out how best to prepare for studying, try the quiz in the University of Groningen’s open step about study prep – if you’d like a preview of what you can gain, this is an excellent place to start!
Top 10 best study tips
Over the years, students have come up with all kinds of novel ways to study more effectively. Some of these methods have been so reliable that they’ve become widespread. Try them all, and keep the ones that work for you.
1. Be consistent
If you try to cram, you’ll set yourself up for failure. It’s far more effective to get a little bit done every day than it is to get a lot done in a single frantic studying binge. This is because your brain needs time to shuffle all that information into your long-term memory – which it’ll do while you’re sleeping.
2. Sleep properly
If you’re sleep-deprived, you won’t be able to focus, and you’ll have difficulty absorbing new ideas and information. In short, you won’t be able to study as effectively. So, get as much sleep as you can.
Ironically, learning about the importance of sleep can bring on peoples’ sleep anxiety. So don’t set yourself a target of getting to sleep – just make sure that your sleeping environment is set up just right.
Make sure that you’re going to bed at the same time every night, that you don’t expose yourself to bright blue lights before bed, and that you generally have a nice wind-down routine.
Those looking to optimise their sleep hygiene might look into the University of Michigan’s course on sleep deprivation and how to avoid it.
3. Try the Pomodoro method
In the 1980s, a student named Francesco Cirillo came up with the ‘Pomodoro’ technique. This word comes from the Italian word for ‘tomato’ – because that’s the shape of the timer he used.
Yes, this is a time-management method. The Pomodoro technique involves breaking your study time into twenty-five minute ‘sprints’, during which you’ll work intensively on a task. Then, when you’re done, you’ll take a five-minute break. After a couple of hours of this, you can then take a slightly longer break.
For some of us, this method is a reliable concentration booster. When you know that you’re going to have a short break in ten minutes, it can help you to push through any boredom or distraction that might start to set in.
4. Create the right environment
Effective study means having a dedicated space to devote to the practice. If you’re sharing your work and leisure spaces, you make it more likely that one space will bleed into the other. Even if you’re not closing the book and firing up YouTube, the idea of doing so might come more readily to you. Battling temptation will use up brainpower that could be better devoted to your studies.
Your workspace might be a small corner of the house, or it might be an entire room that you’ve devoted to studying. You might decide that you work better with a certain kind of music or in complete silence. Noise-cancelling headphones (or earplugs) can be invaluable.
Creating the environment right is the first thing covered in the University of Groningen’s video on how to prepare for a study session. Get it right, and you’ll set yourself up for success!
5. Create flashcards
Flashcards provide an easy way to familiarise yourself with key concepts and pieces of information. You can also use them to quiz yourself later. You can create digital flashcards – but many people believe that the pen-and-paper version is more effective.
Flashcards are one of the six revision techniques highlighted in an open step from the University of Groningen.
6. Break everything down
Readers of a certain age might remember an episode of friends in which Chandler challenges Ross to name all 50 US states. It turns out to be quite a difficult thing to do, even for Americans. In fact, naming all seven dwarves in Snow White, or all seven wonders of the Ancient World can be tricky.
If you’re studying something that requires a large base of knowledge, then you’ll be expected to memorise far more than 50 things. Chemistry students will have to contend with 118 elements in the periodic table, and foreign language students might need to grapple with thousands of words.
If you break down long lists of information into groups, then you’ll find it much easier to retain the knowledge. Think about how you think of landline phone numbers: they’re made up of a five-digit area code, and then two clusters of three digits for the rest. This is called ‘chunking’, and it’s essential if you want to commit lots of things to memory in a short period.
Also, consider systems and categories. You can use this to prompt yourself when you come to test yourself later. For example, if you are trying to remember the names of every European Union member state, you might remember that four of them begin with an S, and three of them begin with an L.
7. Teach other people
You only fully understand something when you can explain it to someone else. It’s a well-worn piece of advice, but it’s true: the surest way to expose gaps in your knowledge is to try to convey that knowledge to another person. Find a willing volunteer (maybe a friend or family member) and have them ask you questions about the topic.
Often it’s only when you come to explain something that you really appreciate the depths of your understanding. Like angled torchlight exposing a shoddy decorator, an outsider’s scrutiny can help you see where you should focus your studies in the future.
8. Get some exercise
Your mind is going to be in better condition to focus and to take on board new information if your body is in good shape. You don’t have to dedicate yourself to achieving sporting excellence – but going for a brisk walk every so often will allow you to return to your studies feeling refreshed.
In the long-term, regular exercise will improve your memory and concentration, as well as fending off the stress that’s associated with intensive study. You’ll become better able to come up with creative solutions to problems, and you’ll feel better about yourself. So, find a form of exercise that you enjoy and make it a part of your study schedule.
Naturally, exercise should be supported by a healthy, balanced diet – something covered extensively by the University of Aberdeen’s course on nutrition and wellbeing.
9. Set yourself deadlines
In 1955, Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote an essay for The Economist. The first line said, “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
While Parkinson might not have been the first to make this observation, his succinct description of it led to this maxim being named after him. If you have a lot of time to do something, then Parkinson’s Law makes it clear that you’ll fill the available time – or waste it.
Setting yourself short-term deadlines will allow you to avoid procrastination and the stress that comes with cramming. Do the work right now, get it done ahead of time, and come back to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s just before the real deadline hits.
When it comes to studying, you should have a timetable laid out. Within this schedule, you should set your study goals and when you expect to have conquered them. If it turns out that you’re not making progress as rapidly as you’d hoped, then you’ll be motivated to knuckle down. If you’re ahead of schedule, you can double-down, emboldened by the knowledge that you’re an overachiever.
We’ve already talked about exercise for the body. But what about exercise for the brain? Mindfulness practices are sweeping through the modern world of work. They’re associated with lowered stress levels, improved concentration, and general improvements in wellbeing.
Even a small amount of meditation can make a huge difference if you’re doing it consistently. You might get an app to help you reap the benefits, or you might look into online instruction. Mindfulness has never been more accessible – and it might provide just the boost that your study sessions need.
Monash University provides two courses that focus explicitly on mindfulness, namely: Maintaining a Mindful Life and Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance. If you’d like to start from the ground floor, then Leiden University’s Demystifying Mindfulness is also well worth considering.
Learning to study effectively will provide benefits that will far outlast your time in education. Aiming to improve your study skills will make you a more productive and desirable employee, and it’ll also bring benefits to your personal life. Many of the tips we’ve run through are echoed in our previous blog post on how to succeed with online learning. So, be sure to check that out if you’d like to learn more.