How to study better at college or university

or see this page for study skills for school age : - : and this page for advice on help with maths.

Accept your study techniques can be improved

You have graduated from school and are now at a stage where a new approach to learning is required. You will need to be an efficient and independent learner, and to excel you will need much improved study skills.

Learn here about the importance of BREAKS, REVIEWS, and REWARDS in helping you learn much more easily!

At this level most of your information will come from computer based resources. You need to learn how to use these efficiently.

At the bottom of this page you will find a link to download a pdf document that will show you how to study much better - in only 6 pages. No catches, no adverts, just free. Get it now if you wish, or read on.

How we learn to study - and why it doesn't work

Basically, we mostly base the way we learn (and teach) on the processes used in school. Sadly, these processes are not effective at helping us learn. There are other priorities, such as managing discipline, showing governing bodies that the material has been "covered", or assessing our learning.

Most of our study skills are developed through that experience; but that experiential learning - if unsupported by instruction - can lead you to develop strategies that are completely ineffective, partly through "superstitious learning".

Could you make a flint axehead? Would you know how to find - or even recognise flint? How long would it take you to learn the right way to do it just by experience - and how many mistakes would you make along the way? Suppose you had your first taste of success at the full moon; you might "learn" that was an important factor.

Many of your present approaches to studying will be driven by that kind of superstitious learning - so inefficient, time wasting, useless.

So what are the objectives of studying?

Try to write down your own answer - and I'd be delighted to hear it! Here is mine:

Mainly, to develop new or extended knowledge and understanding, or new skills. Fundamentally this requires the storage and organisation of information in your brain. So, you need to:

  • enter information to your brain which passes via short term memory (like your keyboard entry and RAM)
  • transfer information to your long term memory (thats like your hard drive); but it cant get reorganised there!
  • recall the information so it can be reorganised; like getting a stored document back into word etc.
  • retrieve the information when its needed so you can use it!

Lets look at some good and bad approaches to study from lectures, notes, books and online media. Think about what parts of your brain are actively being used.

Classroom learning

Teacher preparing, THEN talking, using blackboard, slides, handouts, book etc. Students making written notes.

Directed or independent study from media

Reading book, using media, making notes, essays, answering questions etc.

Good and bad classroom learning

A lecture often gives you a good overview of material, but if you try to transcribe it you cant just listen. Your brain is trying to do too many things at once. However there ARE good ways of taking notes -

see the reference to the Cornell system below.

Best if supported by prepared notes, handouts, media etc.

Importantly, is a MUCH more effective learning process if you can do an immediate review at the end of the session.

How to use media - books, online text, videos etc.

I'm often asked what is the best way to use these: copy and paste, or retyping. Lets look at how your brain is being used.

Copy and paste: this is a bit like the storage and re-organisation that need to happen in your brain; but its happening on a computer. Maybe the computer is learning.

Retyping: reading and typing a word or few words at a time only requires it to pass through short term memory. Very inefficient, a big waste of time. Better just use character recognition and let the computer learn it.

Highlighting: has the paper learnt? Or the highlighter?


So how to learn more efficiently??

First, you need to develop skill at gathering the right information, and storing it effectively in your brain.

Remembering is a good start; but it isn't enough - we need to integrate the new information into our existing body of knowledge. In the attached document you will read about the "three R"s -
Read, Review, Reflect.

Rewards help you learn!

Your study techniques are often not rewarding. We respond better if we are promptly rewarded for our efforts, especially if there is a more appealing alternative. Would you rather do coursework, or socialise with your friends? Where is the reward in handing in coursework?
PROMPT rewards will help develop a positive attitude towards study.

Keep a learning log

As a student in higher education you will be expected to provide references to your sources. You will also need to refer back to them.

The time spent in maintaining a log of your sources will be repaid many times over. Its important to keep these references according to the standard approved by your institution. Most use the Harvard referencing system or some variation.

A reference manager such as Endnote, Mendeley or Zotero will be invaluable.

Improving your study skill set; Becoming a better learner.

Studying is a set of skills. You learn skills through practise - like riding a bicycle or playing an instrument. So reading the document won't make you a better student. You will need to read it to find out HOW to do better, then use and practise the skills and techniques described there. The good news - it wont take long to make a big difference.

The best way to use the document.

Prepare - Scan it; THEN Read it. You may immediately identify things you are doing wrong, such as not taking effective breaks. Then pick ONE of the techniques that seems most useful to you, and try it. Not just once, these are skills that improve with use. If you feel its not beneficial or appropriate to your subject, try another.

Techniques described in the document:

  • How we remember - and why we mostly forget.
  • Preparation for study
  • Scheduled study, breaks and rewards
  • Review
  • Multi-sensory learning & mind maps

Taking notes

Much of your time at college or university is spent taking notes using very old-fashioned and time consuming methods. There are better ways to do this, and I've been very impressed with this method developed by the learning strategies centre at Cornell University. It brings together many of the ideas described in my notes. The site also has useful information about other aspects of study.

I would not link off my own site if it wasnt valuable information! Here it is:

The Cornell Note-taking System