Developing effective study skills is vital for academic success

Developing effective study skills is vital for academic success

Effective studying means more than just covering the portion of the curriculum that the test is covering. It requires students to be reflective, strategic and active--no matter the subject or content.


Do reflect on your learning profile

Even if you have never had a formal learning assessment, you know more about your learning than you may realize. So whenever you study, consider your strengths and weaknesses--or what has worked for you in the past and what has not.

For example, visual formats, such as diagrams, might work very well for you. Or you may benefit from dialogue about the content with classmates. Also think about where and when you should study, such as a quiet library carrel or bustling coffee shop- during the early morning hours or late at night. The psychological term for this type of thinking is meta-cognition and includes self-awareness about the learning process. Good studiers are meta-cognitive.

Do identify the type of test for which you are studying

When studying for an upcoming test or exam, it is essential to know the scope of content for which you will be responsible. But just as critical is figuring out whether the test will be factual or analytical.

Factual tests are like quiz shows, meaning you need to pull information, such as facts or definitions, from your memory. This is similar to downloading from a hard drive. Analytical tests are like a performance because you will have to do things, such as solve problems or share your thinking. Factual tests often show up in biology and history classes. And analytical tests are commonplace in math and English, such as explicating a short passage or poem. 

Do plan how you will study

Rather than jumping right in, you must plan how you will study. The first step is to clarify the scope of material for which you are responsible--usually given by the teacher or professor.

The next step is to pin down whether it will be a factual or analytical test (or a combination). If it will be an analytical test, figure out where you will get practice problems, such as from homework assignments, classmates, or online. If it will be a factual test, decide on the kinds of strategies you will use to grapple with the information so you can really embed it in memory.

And with either test type, plan how you will determine if you know what you need to know. For example, ask yourself how many practice problems in a row you should solve correctly to feel prepared. 

Do study in active ways

When memorizing, grapple with the material so you understand it and remember it. Lots of mnemonics are available to help memorize things, such as acronyms. For example, you can use H-O-M-E-S for the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan and Superior.

But if you invent your own tricks, the information will definitely stick in your mind. One of the best ways to actively study is to shift the format of the information. For instance, if you have some material in a textbook paragraph, shift the format to a compare/contrast table or diagram. Shifting the format pushes you to understand the material and loads it into your memory. 


Do not ignore the difference between understanding and memory

Part of being reflective as a learner is realizing that understanding and memory are separate, but related. For better or for worse, a great deal of content for school just needs to be memorized. It is similar to uploading information to a mental hard drive and downloading it on a test. But other content must be understood--processed, comprehended, and analyzed.

To be sure, memorizing something is a lot easier if you understand it. But if the test or exam will assess your understanding of content, studying must involve more than just memorization.

Do not assume that studying for factual and analytical tests looks the same

To prepare for a factual test, you need to memorize, memorize, memorize. And the best way to do this is to be an active studier. To prepare for an analytical test, you must practice, practice, practice. For example, simply reviewing class notes for an algebra test won’t be nearly as effective as solving a lot of practice problems--or even taking a practice test. Analytical tests are performances, and you will need plenty of rehearsal to perform well when the curtain rises.

Do not underestimate the importance of study groups

There’s no doubt that you will need to fly solo for most of your studying, whether you are memorizing or practicing. But sometimes collaboration can help, especially in that latter stages of studying when you need to gauge your level of preparation.

Keep your study group small (2 to 5 people) so everyone has plenty of airtime and can better stay on task. Select study partners with focus and productivity in mind. You may need to establish ground rules about such things as taking breaks and staying on-topic. Collaboration can help with active studying, like mentally transforming material to understand it better. And study partners can develop practice problems for each other.

Do not just "go over" the material

Passive studying is a surefire way to get mediocre results. Examples include just making a stack of flashcards or re-reading material without taking notes or shifting the format. Passive studying is boring, while active studying makes the entire process more interesting, engaging, and even fun.

Jumping cartoon

Studying effectively means more than just covering the portion of the curriculum that the test is covering. Successful students are reflective about themselves as learners, strategic in planning and organizing how they will study, and active as they practice what they need to do on tests and push themselves to grapple with the material. It is always important to keep your studying interesting and make it as fun as possible.

More expert advice about K-12 Education

Photo Credits: Student - Young Asian man in library with laptop and headphones learning by Kzenon via BigStock; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Craig Pohlman, Ph.D.CEO

Over his career as a psychologist, Craig has helped thousands of struggling learners through assessment, consultation, therapy, and advocacy. He believes in describing learners in terms of strengths and weaknesses, not just with labels and diag...

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