Nobody wants to devote their entire college life to preparing for classes, papers, and college exams. The payoff of good grades and a fancy Latin distinction next to your name at graduation seems hardly worth this kind of effort. However, there’s a difference between studying hard and studying smart, with the latter potentially taking up less time and producing better results.
For many college students, studying means holing up in your room or library the night before a test and pulling an all-nighter to cram previously unseen course material. All too often, students arrive at tests ill-prepared, over-tired, and over-caffeinated, running primarily on a combination of anxiety and sugar. Surprisingly, this is not the recipe for college success.
Give Yourself Time
One of the best ways to study smart is to avoid cramming. Spread your studying out over the course of the entire term, reviewing your notes after each lecture or reading assignments (yes, you should be taking notes on these things) and periodically refreshing your memory of what’s been covered so far in the course as you integrate new material into your understanding of the subject.
However, nobody’s perfect and I’ve yet to meet a student who is this flawlessly on top of all of her work for every class. You may be balancing work and college, and you certainly have other courses and a life to attend to. Plus, it’s human nature to procrastinate a bit. So if you realize you have a test coming up and you’re not entirely prepared, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, clear a bit of room in your schedule each evening for a week or two before the test to review material. The most effective studying is done in blocks of 45 minutes or less, with retention abilities decreasing the longer you cram without a break. By scheduling a bit of studying into each evening, you’ll not only save yourself the all-nighter, but you’ll also be more likely to remember what you read.
Effective studying takes place in a quiet and well-lit setting with ample space and few distractions. In a communal living situation, however, this space can be hard to come by. Even if you do manage to find a secluded corner of your dorm room, the library, the student union or your favorite coffee shop, the college lifestyle doesn’t always mesh well with quiet studying. You still may have to contend with a host of distractions, ranging from your cell phone to your laptop to your study partners.
Depending on what you’re studying, you may want to study alone, or limit group time to the time it will actually be productive. Turn off your TV and your phone while studying and refuse to let anything less important interrupt. Take breaks when you find yourself getting distracted, and consider employing one of a number of methods to get distracting thoughts out of your way (writing them down for later comes highly recommended). If you find yourself surfing the Internet instead of reading or writing, a number of programs are available to forcibly block all distracting programs until you’ve completed your homework.
Take Care of Yourself
People study best when they’re awake and alert. They don’t study best immediately after a huge meal or immediately before bed. Skipping meals and missing sleep can reduce your powers of retention and comprehension. Overdoing it on alcohol, caffeine, or carbohydrates can also make your brain sluggish and less able to absorb new information. Luckily, despite what you may think, it is possible to work “brain food” into a college budget diet. However, while getting plenty of sleep and eating brain food can help you learn more easily, lifestyle changes won’t necessarily result in good grades without the study skills to back them up.
Learn How You Learn
Everyone has a different learning style, but there are a number of tips and tricks that can make studying easier for you. Lists of mnemonic devices and study strategies with adorable names abound online, but ultimately, your choice of study method comes down to trial and error and personal preference. The more you know about yourself as a learner, though, the easier it can be to make sure you’re retaining information. Some students do well with flashcards, others with transcribing their notes into an outline or with finding ways that the items to study relate to each other. Your roommate’s study tips may work better for her than for you. Learn about different study strategies and try a few out. Once you’ve settled on methods that work, you’ll see a difference in how much time it takes you to be prepared for exams.