Use these helpful study tips to organise your university work, revision and ease your workload. Work smarter not harder.
From starting university in Australia to finally graduating, I was in and out of uni for a total of seven years. Having changed courses part way, I’ve also dabbled in a range of faculties from advanced sciences, to philosophy, web design, drama, through to law and business studies.
Sure, mastering the English RP accent may seem very different to an hour’s lecture in media law and ethics, but through the years, I’ve picked up a few tricks on how to most effectively learn new concepts and study for exams that help ease the stress you might find yourself under.
So to help you with your upcoming exam season, here are some of my top battle-tested (and research-validated) study tips to help you get those top marks.
Study Tip #1 Start With Great Notes
Grades weren’t built in a day. It’s easy to get lulled into thinking the secret to passing with flying colours is to nail an assessment or kill it in the final exam. The truth is, consistency is key and will make learning that much more enjoyable. For me, the secret is taking great notes that help you process the information at each and every tute or lecture.
There’s no right or wrong way to take notes and everyone has their own system, but there are a few key pointers I can share.
How do I write notes for university?
Firstly, write your notes by hand – don’t type. The typical adult writes around 13 words per minute but can type between 50 to 80 words per minute. That extra time gives you a chance to process that information, draw conclusions and gives your brain time to encode that information.
Pro tip: just because it’s better to write, it doesn’t mean you can’t write digitally. Get the best of both worlds by writing your notes on a tablet using a stylist and pair it with an app for students like Evernote or Goodnotes so you can file your notes digitally and not have worry about losing your notes or carrying different notebooks with you everywhere.
Remember to write it down in your own words to help you better process and retain concepts, too.
I’m more of a visual learner, so my notes actually take a form of a concept map. This also doubles as a planning tool for me in exams, and I even use it now after uni in my work life. For example, here is my mind map for this very article!
Ok, so it’s not very pretty, but it doesn’t matter. If I was using this as a study session, I’d also group similar concepts in the same colours too to help me remember it later.
Mind maps help you see the big picture and chunks information into meaningful connections. I’ve found that the more detailed and more connections you can make between concepts, the more likely you will recall and remember it later.
There are lots of different way to draw a concept map – here are some great ideas and keep trialing until you find a system that works for you.
One final thing on note-taking; it’s a great tool to jot down ideas during a lecture, but it won’t stick if you don’t review your notes later. So as soon as you can after taking your notes – like when you’re back at the dorm after the lecture, review your notes and add in anything else you may have missed before it falls out of your brain for good. For bonus points, (and something I always do to prep for exams) rewrite and try to condense your notes on a fresh page. This will give you another opportunity to review the material and put it in your own words, helping you recall it better later in the exam.
Study Tip #2 Find Your Study Sweet Spots
Once it’s time to buckle down and study, time of day is very important. For me, I’m most alert in the afternoon and well into the night so I’m a night owl; and I find there’s less distractions too, since I would have gotten most the day’s errands or social visits done by then. Some people are morning larks – I had friends who would get up at 5:30 in the morning to do a yoga session and get their study out of the way before the day starts. So that they feel less guilty for the rest of the day.
The trick is to find out what works for you… and stick with it. By studying around the same time every day, you build up a mental habit where you tell your brain this is the time to focus. The more it becomes a habit, the quicker you get into the zone. I find acoustic or instrumental music the best way to quickly get into the study zone no matter where you are. Not sure what you like? Check out these playlists that’ll get you focussed whilst studying.
Speaking of where you are, it’s good mix up where you study too. Research has shown that studying in a variety of locations can actually help encode memory; by engaging more senses and giving you a novel setting, you create more cues to help you remember the material better. So create a space in your room, or find a convenient study hall, or your favourite corner of the library… variety is key.
When it comes to studying specifically for an exam though, psychologists have found that studying in an environment that is similar to or (ideally) the same as where you will be taking the test increases your ability of remembering the information that you learned. Ironically, I learnt that in my Psych lecture and it was one of the few things I remember to this day!
Study Tip #3 Test Yourself
Speaking of tests, when it comes learning new information, researchers believe Active Recall is the best compared to more passive methods like reading (and rereading) material. This means actively trying to test yourself through tools like flashcards or practice tests.
Both of these methods force you to recall new information, but there are additional hacks to make it even more effective. First is to try to say your answers out loud. Once again, using more than one senses give you more (and stronger) synaptic connections to help you better encode the information.
Practice exams also helps you a trial-run at answering questions on the material without the pressure of time (or consequence if you get the answer wrong). And at this point, don’t treat wrong answers as failures – they’re there to help you point out gaps in your knowledge so it’s actually helping you get better, not a thing of shame.
By the way, remember mind maps? They’re not just a great learning tool, they’re also great for reviewing and studying for exams too. Before an exam, try to draw the concept map again from memory. From there, go back to your notes and see what may be missing. It’s a great way to test yourself and see what information you’ve retained and where your gaps might still be.
Finally, my best study tip for recalling information is to try to explain it as simply as possible. As Einstein staid, “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” Find someone who is totally unfamiliar with the topic and try to explain it to them! Not only will you better remember the information by explaining it to them, you also get to practice your response for the exam itself, too. Win-Win. Just make sure they’re a really good friend and you buy them a drink or dinner before you try to explain the ethics of media globalisation to them…
Study Tip #4 Turn Off To Turn On
Out of all the study tips, this one is so important it needed its own section. When you’re in your study zone, turn off your notifications. I don’t just mean Facebook or WeChat – I mean everything. Put your phone on Do Not Disturb or silent mode, or better still have it in a different room and check back when you’re on a break.
When you’re studying, achieving a state of flow is key. When you’e learning or creating work, distractions rob you not just of your time, it disrupts the coding of your memory because you waste time switching and reorienting yourself back to the concepts at hand.
Studies have also shown that interruptions increase the time it takes to complete cognitive tasks and lead to more frequent mistakes in skill tasks.
It’s one of the learnings I carry with me all the way through into my working life. If you’re trying to ideate or focus on a task, just turn off all notifications. Multitasking – whether you’re male or female – is a myth. Honestly, I manage millions of dollars of my client’s budget these days and still there’s nothing so urgent in the world that it can’t wait an hour or so.
Study Tip #5 Break It Up
When you’re in a state of flow, you can often lose track of time. I’m like that now when I’m playing the piano or reading a good book. But when you’re studying, research has shown that taking a mental break every 75-90 minutes can boost productivity and improve your ability to focus. It turns out that your brain is much better at coding synapses in short bursts than in long sessions, so work with your brain.
Out of all the study tips and techniques, this one was a game changer. I used the Pomodoro technique. Yes, for you language students, that’s the “tomato” technique in Italian, because it’s named after the shape of the kitchen timer the technique’s inventor, Francesco Cirillo, had. It goes like this: structure your study session into chunks of half an hour: study for 25 minutes, and take a 5 minutes break. After 3 rotations, increase your break time to 15 minutes and repeat. I find that 25 minutes is just enough time for you to stay focused on a concept or component, and then take 5 minutes to catch up on your socials or missed calls if you’re really that popular.
Even if you don’t use the Pomodoro technique, chunk up your study session and be sure to have a study goal in mind each time you have a study session. You need to master this statistical technique? Learn the life of Rembrandt? Or master how to build CSS classes? Having a specific module or concept to focus on in each “sprint” will be much more effective than a vague plan to “study Chemistry”.
Study Tip #6 Take a Break
After periods of study, taking a proper break is just as important to let yourself relax and recharge. It’s like cool-down after a game of sports; taking a mental break actually allows you to recharge quicker so you can get back to studying fresher and sooner.
Studies have shown that spells of exercise like going to the gym, playing a game of basketball, or a gentle yoga session can help boost learning.
Similarly, mindfulness meditation has been shown to boost attention spans and help reduce mind-wandering during exams itself. So if you’re looking for a less sweaty way to recharge, consider popping on a guided meditation or simple breathing routine instead.
Real talk: if all else fails…
Honestly, there are as many study tips as there are individuals in the world. The list above is just what has worked for me, but the key is to experiment and find what works best for you.
Sometimes though, in all honesty, no matter how much you plan and prep, you may find yourself in the middle of stu-vac and it’s the first time you’ve cracked the spine of your textbook. It happens. We’re all human. In which case, there’s really only one solution: GET STUCK IN, CRAM AND CRAM LIKE CRAZY.
I was particularly overwhelmed by my second year statistics course and avoided going to tutes and lectures because subconsciously I didn’t want to face the fact that the subject is dry but necessary. I left it till 4 weeks away from my final exam and honestly that was the toughest 4 weeks of my life. A lot of late nights, a lot of Diet Coke and snacks to help me stay up late. I used the above study tips and the pomodoro technique to break up the days and did more practice exam questions than I care to remember, but sometimes you’ve just gotta do what you gotta do.
At the end of the day, I passed and got a pretty decent mark, but the process scarred me so much I’ve never left another subject to the last minute again.