How to Study: A Guide for College and Adult Learners
If you’ve completed high school or your GED and you’re beginning—or already immersed in—your postsecondary education, chances are you’ve spent a lot of your time studying already. But studying in college is a bit different from studying in high school, thanks to the increased independence, different type of educational environment, and for many, additional obligations in their everyday lives. Even if you think you have this thing down, there is always room for improvement. This guide is here to help you improve your study habits, including a list of what to do, some information about what to avoid, and additional resources.
Tip #1: Manage Your Time
Many programs require not just classroom time, but also hands-on experience, even if you’re learning online. This could include labs for your science classes, observations at job sites, or attending outside events that supplement your learning. You may also have obligations you didn’t have before you entered your program, like holding a part- or full-time job, extracurricular activities, or raising a family. Because of this, you need to become skilled in time management.
The first thing to do is create a calendar. You can do this in a planner, on a wall calendar, in an Excel spreadsheet, on an app, or whatever works best for you. Begin by inserting your commitments with immovable start and end times. Then, add in strict study times. Make sure these are in reasonable chunks, such as two hours as opposed to eight, and divide them by subject or class so you don’t get overwhelmed by any one thing. Build in breaks as well—and hold yourself to both the study and break times.
You can also speed up the studying process by coming to class prepared, so be sure to include time in your schedule to review what is coming up, not just what is coming due. The Learning Center at the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill suggests looking at the syllabus before each class, figuring out what you’re going to be learning that day, preparing questions, and doing any required reading. So, you should build in time for that, because if you’re ready for class, you may not have to do as much catch-up studying afterward.
Tip #2: Improve Your Note-Taking Skills
Just like coming to class prepared with questions can help speed the studying process, so can having an effective note-taking system. If you can jot down important information quickly and clearly during class, you may not have to try to remember details—or interpret your handwriting!—in an intensive way.
As technology becomes more accepted in the classroom, consider recording lectures on your phone or tablet. If your professor has slides or images they show but don’t post online, take photos of those (with instructor permission). Note: Taking photos and recording lectures shouldn’t replace taking your own notes! Studies show taking notes by hand helps students retain and interpret information better than any other method, including typing—so do this even if you’re learning online.
What to Take Notes On
Many students think they need to write down every single thing said by a professor—you don’t. Learn to sift through what truly matters and what doesn’t, writing down the major ideas. Some indicators that certain ideas should be in your notes are:
Class introduction content
The professor will often give an overview of what will be covered, and this should give you an idea of what will be essential.
If a teacher is emphatically pointing at something on the board, it’s probably important.
When your professor emphasizes certain words, those words matter.
If your instructor is saying something over and over, this is a good indication that the information needs to be written down.
Signal phrases are those that say “this is important”—in fact, your professor may say that exact phrase. Other ones include “in summary,” “the main points,” “major reasons are,” and, of course, “this will be on the test.” As you get to know your professor’s habits throughout the course, you’ll learn what their personal signal phrases are.
Class conclusion content
Lecturers often summarize what was said in class at the end, and those are the ideas you should definitely leave with.
How to Take Notes
There are many note-taking methods, and unless your professor requires a certain one, you can use whichever works best for you. A few popular methods include:
With the Cornell method, you create two columns on your paper. On the right, you take extensive notes, generally as paragraphs. On the left, you go back to insert important keywords that stuck out while you learned. Those keywords are the important details. This is great if you learn best via reading and writing.
This method is best for visual learners. You draw a bubble with the main topic, then draw lines to bubbles with sub-topics and key points for each.
If you’re a linear thinker, this method may work best. Like the map method, you write the primary topic, but instead of drawing bubbles, you list out subtopics and key points beneath them.
If you’re in a class where things are divided clearly—for instance, you’re studying a set of diseases—the chart method may work well. You create columns and rows on your paper, with the column titles being the overarching ideas—e.g., name of disease, symptoms, and treatment methods. Then, in each column, you write the relevant information. When the teacher moves on to a new topic, draw a line and create a new row.
Every new idea is a sentence, divided into separate lines.
Another good idea, regardless of which method you choose, is to create a shorthand that you understand. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just abbreviations or symbols representing words that come up often. For instance, for the word “change,” you could draw a delta Δ—this is commonly used in math but can apply to note taking for any class. If you’re studying elder care, you could abbreviate it “EC.” If you’re focusing on the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, you could write A. Ham and A. Burr.
Go over your notes as soon as you can after class and write down any additional information that comes to mind, underline, circle, or highlight key points that stuck out, and write down any questions you need to ask. Be sure to review them again within 24 hours, while the information is still fresh, to help with retention.
Additionally, keep your notes, even when the class is over. These may help you prepare for your finals or any licensure examinations.
Tip #3: Set up a Study Area in Your Home
Having a designated study area in your home may help you get into “study mode.” If you’re taking online classes, attend them in this same location. Make sure the area is comfortable and as distraction-free as possible, with little to no view of things like televisions, piles of laundry, or other people. Try to have your phone off or, better, in a different room. This space should not be in your bedroom if avoidable, as having your work and sleep space be the same can disrupt sleep—you may find yourself thinking about how you “should be studying” rather than getting some shut eye.
If there isn’t a place in your home where you can quietly study, see if there’s a spot in your community where you can do this. Public or school libraries are literally built for this, and some people find coffee shops where they can pop in their earbuds and drink a latte to be great places to focus.
But what about housemates? Or children? If your housemates are adult, teens or older children, explain to them that when you’re in your study area, you need to focus, and they should only talk to you if there’s an urgent matter. For teens or older kids, it might be helpful for them to know your exact study schedule so they can mentally plan for it. For kids who are in that in-between age, where they kind-of get it but also want attention, consider having toys or screen time they can only use while you’re studying or attending class. And for littles, ideally, you should find someone to watch them while you work. If that’s not possible, set up a play area in or near your study room and stock it with things that will let them entertain themselves as much as possible.
Tip #4: Join a Study Group
Study groups serve a dual purpose: sharing information and networking. Everyone catches different key points during class, so discussing notes, asking questions of each other, and quizzing one another can help you understand ideas better than if you were flying solo.
The relationships formed in study groups may also help during your job search. These peers can serve as job references and speak to your study skills, knowledge, and willingness to help others. And later, someone in that group may be in charge of hiring new employees at their job—perhaps you!
Tip #5: Use Your Campus Resources
Most colleges have on-campus resources, like tutors and writing centers, and all schools—including online ones—have professors and advisors. The costs of these are built into your tuition, so you may as well use them to their fullest extent!
There are two good places to learn about resources like tutoring and writing centers: your school’s website and your academic advisor. School sites often tout their student resources and show students how to use them: hours they’re open, whether they need to make an appointment, what kind of help they can get, and so forth. Your academic advisor can also direct you to these types of assistance, or, if your campus doesn’t have official ones, help you find outside resources.
Your professors and advisors want you to succeed—not only did wanting to help students succeed likely guide their decision to work with them, but it also helps these professionals and the school look good when their students graduate and pass exams. If you’re confused about anything, from a specific topic to your overall academic path, these people are your best resources. And, like study groups, getting to know them is a great way to network. Employers want recommendations from those who helped you along your academic path.
Tip #6: Improve Your Memory
With so much information entering your brain during school, you may find yourself forgetting details—and deadlines. So, improving your memory may be a great way to help yourself succeed in your program.
There are two types of memory: short-term and long-term. Short-term memory is why you forget where you put your keys two minutes after you put them down—it only lasts about one minute max. So, when you leave a class and can only remember fragments, that’s because the information is new. Your brain is programmed to focus on the now, not the past, as a survival mechanism. However, short-term memories can be converted into long-term ones, which can stick in your brain for days or even years. But how can you help this process along? Here are a few ways:
Focus during class, focus on your readings, and focus on your notes. Taking notes by hand is a big part of this, as you must focus more to write than to type or record. Your quiet study space is also helpful in this, as fewer distractions allow you to really digest that information.
Relate things to your life.
You also need to find ways your new knowledge is relevant to your lived experiences. After all, your life is yours, while new concepts may feel like they belong to someone else. If you can connect an idea to something that’s happened to you, you may retain it better. For instance, if you’re reading a book for a literature class, think of ideas in the book that relate to your own life. If you’re in a hands-on field, like nursing, think about a time you dealt with nurses and relate the materials to what they did or didn’t do during your care.
Talk to yourself.
Yes, out loud! Read materials aloud, quiz yourself aloud. Reading, speaking, and hearing activate different parts of your brain. The more parts of your brain that are involved in learning, the more you remember.
Tip #7: Relax!
College and career training are stressful. Even the most enthusiastic students can find themselves overwhelmed. This is why, as said above, you need to include breaks in your study schedule. Use those breaks as breaks. Yes, you have things you have to do, but ensure you make time for things you want to do.
Staying healthy is essential both for learning and for relaxing, so some of your break time should be spent moving. You don’t need to be a marathon runner—you can do yoga, go on a walk, or play a sport.
Many people suggest practicing mindfulness or meditation as part of your break time. These can be great ways to reframe your mind, calm yourself, and re-energize. However, if those aren’t your bag, that’s okay. You can find anything that lets you chill out and engage in it, whether it’s reading, watching trashy TV, or going to the park with your kids.
Stressed brains don’t function as well as calm ones, so relaxation is essential. And if you let stress go unchecked, you can fall into mental health challenges. If you feel your stress is turning into something more, check out our guide about mental health and CNA students—the information applies to everyone, not just CNA program members.
What Not to Do
Now that you’ve learned what to do, it’s important to point out some things not to do. These may be things you do without knowing it or they may be habits you need to break; either way, these issues can hinder your ability to succeed in school.
Don’t cram before a test.
Remember that short-term memory thing? If you’re trying to learn too much at once or in a short period of time, your brain doesn’t get a chance to convert information to your long-term memory. This means you likely won’t remember all the important details when the test comes.
Don’t stay up all night.
The Cleveland Clinic says you should “treat getting enough sleep as if it is as important as taking medicine.” In a way, sleep is your body’s natural medicine—it lets your body and brain heal from any mental or physical “injuries” they’ve been subjected to. Additionally, a tired brain is a foggy brain, and you’re likely to do less well in class or clinicals than you would if you were fully alert. Chronic sleep deprivation can also lead to health problems, and you don’t want to miss class because you’re too tired or sick to attend.
Don’t live on junk food and caffeine.
It can be hard to eat healthfully and stay alert, particularly if you’re constantly running from one class to another. But, it’s essential to take care of your body. Proper nutrition helps keep your mind alert, staves off distracting hunger, and helps prevent illness. So, if you’re constantly on-the-go, carry healthy snacks with you so you aren’t tempted by the cookies at the campus cafeteria. And while most people enjoy a good cup of coffee, having your body constantly bombarded by caffeine can cause negative effects. Best case, you may end up with caffeine crashes, in which you suddenly become beyond exhausted and pretty cranky. Worse, you may end up addicted, and you’ll constantly be jonesing for that next cup to the point of distraction. And, in the most dire situations, overdoing it on caffeine—especially energy drinks—can result in health problems like “increased anxiety, insomnia, headaches and even cardiac arrest.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Many people feel like if they ask for help, they’ll appear stupid or weak—this could not be further from the truth. Professors and employers often appreciate people who ask questions. It shows them you care about doing a good job and that you’re open to feedback—two things that are essential in being a healthcare provider.
This app allows you take your notes with you wherever you go. You can even scan in copies of your handwritten ones, so when you’re sitting on a bus or waiting for your kid to get out of practice, you can review without having to carry around your notebooks.
This is a one-stop-shop for everything you need to know about studying.
You may have worked with this program as a high school or younger student—but it’s great for college learners, too. This is because it allows you to create quizzes for yourself but turns them into games. You can also add in images, combining both visual and written information.
Quizlet is an app that allows you to search their pre-made flashcards or create your own. Their pre-made ones are for subjects like math, writing, and foreign languages, but you can make them for any topic you’re studying.