Learn How to Study: 30 Proven Tips and Techniques for College Students

By CVO Staff

Key Takeaways:

  • Effective study tips involve active engagement with material, such as creating study guides, explaining concepts aloud, and creating diagrams.
  • Reading is considered a pre-study activity; active studying techniques like creating concept maps and teaching content enhance learning.
  • Planning and organization are crucial for effective studying; setting goals, avoiding cramming, and seeking help improve academic performance.

Studying in college should be a breeze, right? After all, you’ve been doing homework and studying notes in elementary through high school for 12 years now. 

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College is a whole different ball game, with different rules and expectations. In many classes, your entire grade is dependent upon just a few tests and papers. This means good and effective study habits and study techniques are crucial to finding success as a college student. 

In this article, we break down 30 proven study tips and techniques, including popular techniques like visual aids, mind mapping, and retrieval practice, that college students can use to improve long term memory and ensure straight As at the end of the semester. To make things even easier, we organized our tips into three categories — organization and good habits,  notes and study materials, and active studying. 

Happy Studying!

How to Study

30 Proven Study Techniques for College Students 

Organization & Good Habits  

1. It Takes More Than a Bunch of School Supplies to Stay Organized 

Buying school supplies is one of the most exciting parts of the entire semester, but unfortunately, all of the Post-Its, flash cards, and highlighters in the world won’t make you organized on their own! Staying organized throughout the semester takes discipline and practice, but the extra work is worth it and saves you time in the long run. 

When developing study habits, many students find it helpful to have a dedicated binder for each class. Using dividers, organize your class binder into sections for notes (further divided into units or chapters), graded tests and quizzes, and papers. If you like to handwrite your notes in your own words, include a stack of college-ruled paper or a spiral notebook. Keeping each class separated will make studying easier because there will be less to sift through, distinguish, and lose.

2. Utilize a Planner 

There is a ton that happens during a college semester! Stay on top of it all by finding a planner you like, and using it to organize your classes, study times, work shifts, and more. 

Look over the syllabi for your classes, and record in advance any noted exams and due dates. If you are a student-athlete, jot down practice times and game dates. Hours you are meant to work, volunteer shifts, parties, and club meetings should also be written down into your planner. 

By organizing your life and study plan on a calendar, you will find it easier to stick to a study schedule. Knowing how long you have to compose a report or study for a test is extremely helpful, and will (hopefully!) help you avoid having to cram. 

Finally, don’t forget to schedule some “me” time in your planner, too. College can get overwhelming quickly, and it’s a good idea to take care of yourself by making time to do things you enjoy. And of course, get a good night’s sleep.

3. Make To-Do Lists 

If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed by all there is to do on your study schedule, then put together daily and weekly To Do Lists! Having a list of tasks that you can physically check or cross off is a great motivation for getting everything done.  

Each Sunday night, look over your planner and put together a checklist of things you hope to accomplish that week. Separate your list into things that can be done at any point during the week, and things that need to be done on a certain day. 

Creating a week-long list will also help you to organize study sessions in preparation for an upcoming quiz or test. 

If planning out an entire week doesn’t work for you, then end each day by creating a To Do List for the following day. You can even do this on your cell phone!

4. Always Plan Ahead 

Cramming for a quiz, test, paper, or presentation is one of the worst things you can do in college. Not only are you not likely to do well after a cram session, but you are also more likely to burn out and develop negative feelings towards your classes or the subject matter. 

Avoid burnouts by planning ahead using your planner and/or To Do lists. Figure out how long you have until an upcoming assignment, how many hours you will likely need to prepare, and then schedule that time into your life. This is the key to figuring out how to study effectively.

For example, if you know you have an upcoming French exam that is going to be tough, you may need more time to prepare. Set aside a half hour each day for two weeks before the exam to just review notes for French. 

On the other hand, an upcoming math quiz might be looking like it will be a breeze. In this case, you may want to set aside just 10-15 minutes per day for self testing and reviewing.

Create a plan to study effectively and stick to it.

5. Routine, Routine, Routine!

Routine is one of the most important points for students looking to develop better study habits. People thrive on routine, and this is especially true for college students looking to develop study skills. While you may fancy yourself a spontaneous person, for the most part, your days and weeks should follow a healthy routine. 

Consider these study tips: Wake up at the same time each day and get something accomplished right off the bat. Consume a nourishing breakfast before your day of classes, then study according to the study schedule you have planned out in your planner. End your day with dinner, some “me” time, and a good night’s rest. 

Sticking to a routine with your study habits and other activities lets your body know what to expect at any given time. From your metabolism, to your sleep cycles, to your energy level, this is an important part of success, and allows your brain to focus on other things — like that upcoming Lit paper!

Creating weekly or daily To Do lists can help you manage your study sessions.

6. Exercise Before Studying 

Even the shortest study session can feel exhausting. Fight fatigue by exercising for a short time before you sit down to work.

Not only does exercising on a regular basis increase your energy levels, but it also kickstarts brain function, improves your memory and cognitive performance, reduces stress levels, and improves your mood. 

If you aren’t up for a full gym sesh, that’s okay. A quick, 20-minute workout does the job, as does a brisk walk around your campus or neighborhood. The bottom line is to exercise and then start studying. If you’re like mosr people, you’re almost guaranteed to perform better as a result.

7. Space Out Your Study Sessions 

“Distributed practice” is a good study tip for avoiding last-minute cram sessions, and also helps our brain to more permanently remember the important information we are studying. Studies have shown that distributed studying is most effective over a two-week time period. For example: 

Day 1: Attend class and learn the material
Day 2: Review the material
Day 3: Review the material
One week later: Review the material
Two weeks later: Review the material

Keeping up with this review takes planning and organization — yet another reason to use a planner and to stay organized!  

8. Prioritize Good Sleep 

Sleep is so important when you are a college student, yet it is often the first thing many young people put off. 

Studies have shown that there is a positive relationship between how well a student does in school and how much sleep they are getting. But it is important to note that this doesn’t mean sleeping eight hours the night before a big test will help you to earn an A. Rather, it is getting enough sleep consistently that primes your brain for successful studies. In other words, you need sleep for your brain to function properly! Plus, if you’re not getting a good night’s sleep, you’re more likely to fall asleep in class and miss important material.

9. Stick to Healthy Snacks 

Food is fuel, and you’ll need fuel to get through studying. But think again before you make a trip to the campus store for candy and energy drinks. 

Things like coffee, candy, and sodas are a bad idea in the long room. They may give you the temporary energy boost you think you need to get through tonight’s study session, but these foods will ultimately end in a sugar crash. And with sugar crashes can come total brain farts. 

Instead, snack on healthier snacks like apples, nuts, and edamame before you start studying. If you can, just drink water or tea while you’re studying. Foods like this will provide you with energy that is both focused and sustainable.

10. Take (Good!) Notes

Even if you are the most effective studier on the planet, it won’t mean much if you don’t have good notes from which to learn. Whether you are hearing about a topic for the first time in class, or just reviewing, come up with a consistent method for taking notes, then stick to it. This is the first step toward retaining information, and you’ll be glad you did it when it’s time to start preparing for the final exam.

Some study tips for learning the material by taking notes include:

  • Notice Verbal Cues: When your professor begins a section of their lecture with something like “This is important…,” or when they repeat something more than once, they are basically telling you to write down what they are saying, so pay attention. Take notes on these points, and consider them key concepts for upcoming tests.
  • Write Down Anything That Goes on the Board: If your professor takes the time to write something on the whiteboard, then make sure it gets written into your notes, too. The same goes for anything included on a PowerPoint presentation, practice questions, or similar.
  • Write Your Notes By Hand: To the best extent you can, write your notes by hand. Research shows that writing by hand helps with memory formation. In other words, your brain will remember the material more effectively, giving you a better understanding of the content.
  • Take Margin Notes: As you are reading, make notes on main ideas in the margins of your book. These notes could be connections you’ve made, thoughts and opinions, or additional information offered by your professor. This is a good way to take an active approach to your learning.
  • Color Code Your Notes: You may find it helpful to study effectively for exams and compose papers if you have color-coded notes. You can use different colored pens or highlighters for different sections of a chapter or unit. You can also use different colors for your ideas versus your professor’s ideas. For example, pink highlighter and red pen practice problems or for things your professor has said, and yellow highlighter and black pen for your own thoughts. These visual aids can really be helpful when it comes time to study for the big test.
Writing or re-writing your notes by hand can help your brain to better remember the material.

11. Re-Organize Your Notes 

Here are some more tips regarding notes: The more you look at your notes, the more you are likely to remember the material. Within a day or two of taking notes in class, take some time to re-organize your notes so that everything makes sense. Re-write your notes if you’ve typed them, turn your bullet-pointed notes into an organized outline, or create flashcards with important notes and points. You can use these later as practice tests. This is especially helpful if you happen to be a visual learner.

12. Review Your Notes Daily 

The most effective way to really learn anything is to review it frequently. To study smart, try re reading the material frequently over a period of time, as opposed to just cramming before a quiz or test. 

Between creating your notes and being tested on them, read through your re-organized materials for each of your college classes for 10-15 minutes each day. To make the most of your study time and study efficiently, self-test and use retrieval practice to call to mind what you know about course concepts. Then, sit back and watch as your academic performance soars!

13. Learn From Your Mistakes 

Everyone makes mistakes, but students have the unique opportunity of learning from theirs. Be sure to keep every quiz and test you take in each class. This includes those short reading quizzes that can sometimes seem a little trivial. 

When you receive back a graded quiz or a test, pay attention to the items you missed. Then, take some time during your next review session to look over your answers and correct any that have been marked wrong. Then add these to your notes to review before the next exam or the final. Professors love to include frequently missed quiz questions on future exams. 

14. Use a Color Coded System in Your Notes 

A color-coded organizational system can really help you to distinguish between parts of a topic, making this one of the most effective study techniques. 

Use different colored highlighters, pens, and Post-It notes for different parts of your notes and reading to create a useful study guide. For example, you may choose to highlight the main points in yellow and supporting details in blue, or one argument in pink and the second argument in green.

15. Create a Glossary or Vocabulary List 

While you should of course review every part of your notes, studying vocabulary is especially important. Not only do most professors include a vocabulary section on quizzes, exams, and finals, but vocabulary words appear in multiple-choice questions, short answer questions, and essay prompts. If you have not mastered a chapter’s relevant vocabulary, then you may not understand a question well enough to answer it! 

Master vocabulary by creating a glossary or vocabulary list from which to study. Your list can be as simple as words and their definitions written on a piece of paper, or they can be flashcards. There are even some apps and websites that can help you study vocabulary with your smartphone, laptop, or tablet.

Studying with classmates is a great way to study, and to gain a new perspective on class material.

16. Make and Study Flashcards

Flashcards are an excellent tool for studying just about anything, from main points to vocabulary and everything in between. Though flashcards make a very effective study tool when they are carried around and reviewed over a few spare moments, they can also be beneficial when used with the Leitner System

The Leitner System is a study method using three stacks or boxes. You can label the stacks as you would like — perhaps “Needs Work,” “Almost There,” and “Mastered,” or “Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays;” “Wednesdays and Fridays,” and “Fridays.” 

However you label your stacks or boxes, the goal is to end up with all of your flashcards in the far right box. Using the above examples, those would be “Mastered” and “Fridays.”

First, create flashcards of your study materials. If you answer a flashcard incorrectly, then it should go in the left-most box or stack (i.e. the flashcards that will need more frequent review). Once you answer that same flashcard correctly, you can move it to the second group in the middle. Flashcards that you are answering correctly on a consistent basis can go in the right-most box, that is the box that needs the least review. 

17. Practice Mind Mapping 

Mind Mapping is a very effective strategy for organizing study material in your mind to ensure that you are really understanding things. 

What is a mind map? Mind maps look a lot like the “spiderweb” outlines your elementary school teacher taught you. The center of the map is the main concept, and the spokes coming off of that center are the supporting details. Your map can have as many spokes as you need to fully outline an idea. 

Use mind mapping as a method for reorganizing your notes, or use it to test your understanding closer to an exam. In addition to helping you study smarter, mind mapping is also an effective strategy for preparing for a paper.

Active Studying

18. Study With Classmates – study group, make a friend in every class

Mix things up a bit by holding a study session at your school or a local library with friends and/or classmates! It is helpful to make at least one friend in each class, but if you haven’t already met anyone, forming a study group is a great way to do just that. Some benefits of holding a group study session include:

  • Hearing the material in a different voice, with different words used to summarize
  • Bouncing ideas off of a peer, and hearing different perspectives 
  • Discussing for clarification
  • Learning in a positive study environment
  • It’s fun! 

19. Don’t Just Memorize 

While memorizing material may work for your upcoming quiz or test, it doesn’t always equal long-term understanding. 

Certain things like vocabulary definitions, names and dates, math facts, etc. can be memorized. However, you are better off ensuring that you understand the whys and hows of other things. This will help you to actually retain information.

Mind mapping, re-organizing your notes, and quizzing yourself are all effective ways to practice your understanding of certain concepts.

20. Try to “Teach” the Material 

One of the most efficient ways to check our understanding of something we have learned is to try to summarize it, and one great way to do that is to attempt to re-teach it. When we attempt to explain an idea on our own, as simply as possible, we are more likely to understand it better. 

This is called The Feynman Technique, and it works in just four simple steps. 

  1. Give the concept you are studying a short title, and write that title at the top of your paper.
  2. Explain the concept in your own words, as if you were teaching it to a class or to another person. 
  3. Review what you have just “taught,” and try to identify the parts where you made a mistake and/or missed an important detail. Return to your textbook or your official class notes, and attempt to correct your mistakes. 
  4. Finally, re-read your summary and identify any complex language, technical terms, or more advanced vocabulary words. Take a moment to simplify these terms. 

The Feynman Technique is theoretical re-teaching and uses paper, but you can also attempt to summarize material for a friend, classmate, pet, or even an imaginary or stuffed friend.

Mind Mapping is an effective study method for ensuring you fully understand a concept.

21. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

College is expensive, and there is no point in spending all of that time, effort, and money if you don’t graduate having understood what you were meant to. If you are not understanding a concept in a class, then do not be afraid to ask for help. 

Your professor has office hours especially for this reason, and should make him- or herself available to help students who are having some trouble. If you aren’t comfortable with the idea of approaching your teacher, then it can help to ask someone else, like a classmate who is understanding better. If that’s not possible, then your university’s academic services can help you set up a study session with classmates or a tutor. 

However you get some extra help, it will be worth it. Sometimes it helps to hear someone else explain a concept, too. 

22. Rotate Study Spots (and Get Out of Your Dorm!)

According to multiple studies, rotating your study area can help with recall performance — that is, the percentage of information you remember after learning and studying it. While it can be tempting to always grab the same study spot, try to alternate your study area throughout the week to maintain good study habits. One day in your favorite cafe, and another in the library, perhaps. 

The one place you shouldn’t study often is your dorm room. Not only are you most likely to find distraction in the place you call home, but studying where you sleep can train your brain to associate your dorm room with work, rather than rest.  

23. Eliminate Distractions! 

Distractions are an effective destroyer of concentration and hard work, making them the opposite of good study skills. With distractions around, studying will both take longer and prove less effective. 

Turn off or silence your phone and social media while you are studying. Silence, too, any radio or television noise that might prove to commandeer your attention. Don’t allow yourself to check social media until one of your scheduled breaks.  

Other distractions will vary by student. While some students focus better with some classical music playing, others need complete silence. Some other common distractions include friends, food, the ability to people watch, and your computer. If you find something is becoming overly distracting, find a way to turn it “off” during the times you are meant to be studying.

24. Reward Yourself for Effective Study

There is nothing wrong with bribing yourself every once in a while! If it gets you to sit down and practice effective study skills, then schedule in some rewards. For example, a longer period of study such as one solid hour of review can be rewarded with an episode of your favorite television show or a quick trip to the campus coffee shop. Or allow yourself an M&M for each math problem completed. The most effective bribe will depend on your likes and finding what motivates you. And remember, better grades is the biggest reward!

25. Take Frequent, Small Breaks 

There isn’t a prize for who studies the longest, so allow yourself to take a five to ten minute break every once in a while. Your breaks can be as frequent as you would like — every 20 or 30 minutes, perhaps — but make sure you are not abusing your own reward system. A short period of rest at regular intervals is best.

Set a timer for the amount of time you want to study before taking a break, then set another timer for the length of your intended break, which shouldn’t be longer than 5-10 minutes. Once your timer goes off letting you know it’s time to return to studying, re-set your timer for the same amount of study time and get back to your books. Don’t be afraid to take a break–you’ll be amazed at the difference a five minute break can make!

You may find it helpful to motivate yourself with short breaks and your favorite treats.

26. Quiz Yourself 

Every once in a while, set your books and notes aside to quiz yourself. A self-administered quiz can be a helpful method for gauging how well you are understanding the material.  This is a good way to utilize retrieval practice–that is, bringing important information to mind in order to retain it longer.

You can use flashcards, or have a friend come up with questions while reading your notes. Keep track of which questions you answer correctly, and which need a little more practice.

27. Chew Gum While You Study

Wait, what? 

Believe it or not, studies have shown that chewing gum while you study can help with memory and recall. Stock up on your favorite gum at the campus store, then chew a little guilt-free during your study session and look forward to better marks on your next test. Just make sure your chewed gum ends up in the nearest trash can once you are done with it.

28. Read Material More Than Once

College students learn constantly, and the amount of new information can get overwhelming. Give yourself the best shot at retaining everything in your long term memory by going over your reading material more than once.

Many students prefer to read a chapter for the first time before class. This way, your professor’s lecture is actually the second time you are hearing the information. Then after class, you can re-read the material to go over it a third time.  

29. Know the Test Format 

Answering questions and figuring out a test format can really take its toll. Once you have taken a test in a class, spend some time studying its format. 

For example, would you lose more points missing a short answer question or an essay? Are dates part of your history test? Did your professor take questions from the charts and footnotes of your textbook chapters? 

Knowing these things will help you focus your studying and score high on assessments. 

30. Practice the SQ3R Method

The SQ3R Method is a study tool of which every student should be aware in order to study smart. It is a reading comprehension technique that helps students retain information beyond short term memory and identity the most important parts of what they are studying. The method’s name, SQ3R, stands for the five steps of the reading comprehension process: 

Survey — Before you read a new chapter in your textbook, begin by surveying — or looking over — the assigned pages. Look at any images and charts, and note the headings and subheadings. 

Question — In your head, begin to formulate questions around what you are seeing in your initial survey. What is this chapter going to be about? What do you already know about this topic? What questions do you expect the chapter might answer? 

Read — Begin reading the chapter completely. Pay attention to the answers to any questions you formulated in the above step. 

Recite — After each section in your text, summarize what you just read using your own words. Your summary does not need to be long but should include major points and your answers to your questions. This is a good way to practice retrieval of information in your short term memory.

Review — Once you have finished reading the assigned material, review it once more to make sure you fully understand. Re-read any confusing portions, and quiz yourself on important elements. The more practice retrieval before the big test, the better!

We hope you found this article helpful! As a final note, we encourage you to try each of these study tips, but know that not all of them will work for everyone. It may take a little experimental psychology on your part to determine which strategies and techniques work best for you as an individual. Good luck!