When 160,000 undergraduates in the University of California system were asked to name the obstacles that impeded their academic success, the students listed things like work, stress, and depression. But the number one reason, which was given by 33% of the students, was that they simply didn’t know how to study.
When I first arrived at college, I was one of those 33 percenters who really didn’t know how to study. I was a stellar student in high school, but during during my first semester of college I nearly flunked Business Calculus, got a C- in Intro to Logic, and barely scratched by with a B in Spanish. I ended the semester with a 2.75 GPA.
Knowing that I was headed down the path of academic ruin if I didn’t change something, I threw myself into learning all I could about how to learn and study effectively. I read anything I could get my hands on. The effort paid off. After that initial semester, I earned straight A’s throughout the rest of my college career, even while working 20-30 hours a week. When I went on to law school, I managed to graduate ninth in my class while also working, starting the Art of Manliness, and writing a book during that time.
I share this not to brag, but to show that there’s a ton you can do to turn your academic career around, even if it’s had an inauspicious start.
Many of our readers will be heading back to school for the start of a new semester next week. So I thought it would be helpful to offer some friendly study advice for those young men who might find themselves among the 33% of students who don’t know how to study effectively and might be struggling like I did. Even if you have some solid study skills, you’ll hopefully get something out of this article too.
The advice I provide is based on my own experience in college and law school. Maybe it will work for you as well. Of course, if you already have a study system that works for you, then use it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Note: Fair warning. This post is long. Double the length of a normal article long. I thought about breaking it up into multiple posts, but then decided it would be more useful to create a one page, single resource article that would be an easy reference to return to. So take it slow–you don’t have to read the whole thing in one go–although doing so wouldn’t be bad practice for your studies!
Time & Energy Management
In high school, your schedule is pretty well set for you, and your parents are always around, looking over your shoulder.
Then you get to college and each day is an ocean of time that is all yours to decide what to do with.
This is both a wonderful, glorious freedom and a great challenge. But mastering that challenge by learning how to successfully manage your time will reap you great benefits not only in school, but for the rest of your life.
Following the advice below, it’s possible to excel in school, while working part-time, and while still having a social life.
Create a master weekly study schedule before every semester. In his book, First Things First, Stephen Covey introduces the idea of “Big Rock” planning. The gist of it is that you should set aside time for your most important things first (your Big Rocks) and then plan everything else in your life around them. Watch this video to see Covey explain it.
When you’re young and in school, your biggest Big Rock is your education. You should (ideally) plan everything else around your schooling. To ensure that you actually make school a priority, block off the time during the week that you’ll devote to class and studying before the semester starts. During the semester, plan around these blocked off times. Here’s what I suggest blocking time off for:
1. Block off your class and lab times. The most important appointments of your week. Schedule everything else around your class time.
2. Block off reading time for each of your classes. If you have a Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule, you’ll probably want to block off an hour or two on Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday for reading.
3. Block off time for note review/outlining/homework for each class. You’ll want to set aside time so you can synthesize class notes, do some outlining, and complete any homework assignments you might have. I typically blocked off an hour right after each class for this. If a class was lecture heavy, like ancient Greek philosophy, I’d use that hour right after class to review my notes and update my class outline. If the class was heavy on problem sets, like calculus or symbolic logic, I used the hour to do that day’s assignment and any additional practice problems.
The amount of time you need for note review/outlining/homework will vary. I recommend setting aside at least one hour for each hour spent in class. If you need more time, schedule it.
4. Other possible permanent time blocks. If your work schedule is the same throughout the semester, you might as well block it off on your master schedule. I also blocked off time for exercise on my master schedule.
Make these times re-occurring events in your calendar. You should only change or modify them in extreme cases. Treat them like doctor’s appointments. If a friend wants to get together during your reading time, tell them you have a prior engagement and suggest another time.
Plan weekly. Once you have your master weekly schedule set up, every week set aside time for planning out the week’s variables–those activities that change from week to week. Write down in your schedule when you have to work or the times for any extracurricular meetings. Remember, try to plan around your Big Rocks if possible.
Reverse engineer big projects and final exam prep. Throughout the semester, you’ll probably have big projects like term papers to turn in. One thing that helped me complete these tasks on time and with little stress was reverse engineering the task. As soon as I knew the due date for a paper, I marked it in my calendar. Working backwards from that due date, I established mini-deadlines for myself. For example, a week before the actual due date, I might have a deadline to complete the rough draft. Two weeks before the actual due date the mini-deadline might be to write half of the paper. Three weeks before the actual due date, the mini-deadline might be to have the research complete. And so on.
I did this sort of reverse engineering for my law school finals as well. About mid-way through the semester, I sat down and planned out my finals prep for the subsequent six weeks, working backwards from the final exam and creating tasks for myself to complete as I got closer and closer to finals.
This takes some discipline, but this approach is much less stressful than waiting until the last minute to complete a project or study for a final.
Apply the 45/15 rule. People can focus on something for a solid 45 minute block before their brains start getting pooped and antsy, and their mental performance starts to diminish. To keep your brain running on all six cylinders, implement the 45/15 rule, or Pomodoro Technique. Under the 45/15 rule, you work nonstop for 45 minutes, and all your focus is on the task at hand for that block of time. When the 45 minutes is up, take a break for 15. Surf the web or get up and go for a quick stroll outside. As soon as the 15 minutes are over, get back to work. Just knowing that you always have a set break coming up can keep you on task. Check out these nine free online timers that help you implement the 45/15 rule easily.
Reading Assignments and Homework
Try to get ahead on reading. If your schedule permits, try to get ahead on your reading by reading the entire week’s assignments on the weekend. I did this in law school and it freed up a bunch of time for me during the week. On Saturdays and Sundays, I’d devote a couple of hours to completing all the reading assignments for the coming week. That allowed me to devote more time to outlining, memorization, and even working on The Art of Manliness and writing our first Art of Manliness book during the week.
Read actively. When you read, read actively. Highlight, underline, and write notes in the margins. This will ready you for any class discussion or questions from the professor. Also, actively reading simply helps you better retain the information.
Learn to speed read. Speed reading is a skill that I suggest all college students learn. It’s a huge help in getting through those 100 page reading assignments. As with any tool, you should use speed reading with discernment. Some class material might require slow, concentrated reading. My philosophy classes in college were like that. Other classes you can speed read right through the text and be in good shape.
Quickly skim your reading notes and highlights before class starts. Before class starts, take a few minutes to quickly scan over any notes and highlights you made in your book. You want to be ready to answer any questions that come your way.
Do all your homework (even if it’s not graded). Your professors assign homework for a reason: to help you learn the material so you can pass the final exam. One big difference between high school and college is that professors will often assign homework problems but won’t pick them up for grading. For many college freshmen, it’s tempting to just skip this homework altogether. Don’t do this.
I succumbed to this temptation my first semester of college. My calc class had homework problems assigned every class. As soon as I learned that the assignments weren’t graded, I pretty much stopped doing them. Result? My first (and, thankfully, only) D grade.
Make the Most of Class Time
Attend all your classes. Another temptation that new college students face is regularly skipping class. Unlike high school, you don’t have parents or truancy laws making sure your butt’s in a classroom desk every day at college. It’s completely up to you whether you go to class or not. My advice is to make it a goal to go to every class during the semester.
Learning requires constant reinforcement. Class time is part of that reinforcement process. More importantly, attending class simply saves you time. Every time I missed a class, I often spent double the amount of time studying to make up what I missed. If you want a life outside of studying, go to class.
Sit near the front. Yeah, it’s cliché, but it really works. You’re more likely to stay focused and pay attention to the professor when you’re sitting near the front.
Take notes. I remember seeing so many students come to class without bringing anything to take notes with. They just sat there expecting information to download to their brain like Neo from The Matrix. While you might have been able to do this in high school and still succeed, it’s harder to do so in college and graduate-level classes. Learning is an active process and note-taking is one of the steps in that process. Moreover, taking notes forces you to pay attention in class. Even in the most boring of classes, taking notes will keep you awake and alert.
How should you take notes? For advice on note-taking strategies, see this post.
Ask questions. As you’re doing your reading or working through problem sets, write down any questions that you have about the material. Bring these questions with you to class, but don’t ask them right away. You’ll pay more attention in class as you listen to see if the professor will answer your question during his prepared lecture. If he doesn’t answer your question, ask it. Don’t feel embarrassed. Chances are somebody else has the same question. If you’re still having trouble understanding a concept, show some respect for the professor’s and your classmates’ time by waiting until after class to ask for more clarification.
Participate in discussions. Many liberal arts classes focus on classroom discussion. Participate! Don’t be the guy who sits in the back with his arms folded and doesn’t say a word. Discussing in class engages you with the content and helps reinforce what you’ve read and heard. Also, more and more college professors are making participation in classroom discussion a part of your overall class grade. Don’t miss out on an easy 10% of your grade. Speak up.
Eliminate all digital distractions. Turn off your cellphone when you’re in class and put it in your backpack. If you’re using a computer to take notes, eliminate the temptation to surf the internet mindlessly while in class by disabling your computer’s wireless router.
Getting Extra Help
Go see your professor during office hours. Want to guarantee success in your class? Go talk to your professors during their office hours. You won’t believe how much professors want to help students that they see making an effort to learn (and how often this effort is reflected in your final grade). To make your visit with your professor as efficient and as effective as possible, have a list of specific questions you need help with. Don’t just show up and say “I need help,” thus forcing the professor to spend 30 minutes figuring out what exactly you need help with.
Attend review sessions. As final exams draw near, many professors or teaching assistants will offer optional review sessions. Go to them! In my experience, the professor will pretty much tell you exactly what will be on the exam. Definitely worth the time.
Attend workshops and tutorials. Throughout the semester, departments offer workshops and tutorial sessions to provide students extra help. For example, my calculus class had a daily workshop manned by brainy math graduate students to help you with your homework. At the time, playing Call to Power 2 seemed much more important, so I didn’t go to these workshops, and it bit me in the butt. Any chance you have to get free extra help, take it.
Create an Outline or Study Guide
Create your OWN outline and study guide throughout the semester. When I was in college, studying for finals simply involved looking over my hodgepodge of class notes. It worked fine, but it was inefficient. My notes weren’t very organized, so I spent a lot of time thumbing back and forth through them, trying to figure out how different sections of content related with each other.
When I arrived in law school, I learned about the power of outlining. And I wished someone had taught me this skill as an undergrad. Creating an outline for your class does a few things that help with learning. First, it helps you synthesize information and understand how everything fits together. Second, it keeps your content organized for easier studying later on in the semester. Sometimes professors give important insights about a concept you studied earlier in the semester towards the end of the semester. Those bits of information can be easy to lose if you don’t have a master outline you can plug them into.
It’s important that you create your OWN outline. Don’t rely on somebody else’s. The simple act of creating an outline for your class will do wonders in helping you learn the material for the exam.
Many students like to wait until the end of the semester to create their outline. If that works for you, do it. I preferred outlining throughout the semester so I could spend more time reviewing my outline and going over practice questions right before the exam instead of spending time creating my outline.
A Short Guide to Creating an Outline
Use the syllabus or textbook to create the backbone of the outline. Here’s the easiest way to create your outline. At the beginning of the semester, take a look at your textbook’s table of contents. Create the backbone of the outline using chapter titles. The teacher’s syllabus is also a good source for creating your outline’s backbone. In fact, the syllabus is often presented in the form of an outline.
Fill in with class notes. After every class, fill in your outline with your class notes. You’ll really have to think about how to organize your notes and what to put where, but the mental struggle means the info is anchoring deeper and deeper into your brain.
Supplement the outline with professor handouts and other students’ outlines. If your teacher provides any handouts, supplement your outline with that content. Also, feel free to supplement your outline with outlines prepared by other students or a publisher. Sometimes it helps to see how somebody else organized the information in order to understand a concept more fully.
Memorization is an important skill that you need to master in order to succeed academically. Because many exams are closed book, you’ll need to know everything backwards and forwards in order to answer the questions. Below, I provide some memorization techniques that I used during school to help me ace my exams.
Memorization is necessary, but not sufficient for academic success. One thing to keep in mind as you read through this section is that most college professors won’t simply test you to see if you can remember and regurgitate information to them. Sure, some do give those kinds of tests, but most actually want to see if you can apply your knowledge. So while memorizing facts, figures, ideas, formulas, and concepts is necessary for success on your exam, knowing how to synthesize and use that information is even more important.
Long-term memory should be the goal. Your goal for every class should be to commit the material to your long-term memory. Your brain’s short-term memory can only hold so much information at one time. Overloading it by cramming it full the night before will ensure that you’ll forget whatever it is you tried to memorize. Creating long-term memories takes time, so you should commit to memorizing information at the beginning of the semester.
Get a change of scenery. Traditional learning advice says you should study in the same quiet place every time you hit the books. But psychological research has found that just the opposite is true. In one study, college students who studied a list of vocab words in two different rooms performed much better on a vocab test than students who studied the words twice in the same room.
Researchers think that our brains make subtle associations between what we’re studying and what’s in the background while we’re studying. Those unconscious associations help you remember what you’re learning. For example, you might associate one fact with the leather chair in the student union and another fact with the smell of coffee in the cafe. By changing locations where you study on a regular basis, you’re giving your brain more material with which to create these associations.
Bottom line: mix up where you study for more effective memorization.
Space out review sessions. In 1885, German scientist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered the spacing effect. In a nutshell, the spacing effect shows that humans remember facts and figures for longer periods of time when the information is reviewed in sessions strategically spaced out over time instead of crammed in one setting.
He also discovered that we all have a “forgetting curve.” The rate at which we forget things depends on several factors, but the amazing thing is that it’s actually possible to figure out how long it will take to forget something. Knowing how long it takes you to forget new information allows you to strategically plan your next review session for maximum information retention.
One really cool computer program that figures out your forgetting curve and when you should review content is SuperMemo. You create flashcards of stuff you want to memorize and work through them on your computer. SuperMemo then uses an algorithm to figure out when you should be presented with the material again after you review it. I used this badboy for all my foreign language classes in college and it’s kind of scary how well it worked.
Review and synthesize notes right after class. Remember, our goal is to transfer information from our short-term to long-term memory so that we can easily access it come finals time. One habit that will help kickstart the transfer is reviewing and synthesizing notes right after class. Many learning researchers suggest that you should do this initial review within 24 hours of first learning the new information. The longer you wait, the more likely it is that the information will disappear from your short term-memory. After you do this initial review, take advantage of the spacing effect by reviewing this info a few days later.
Teach someone what you’re learning. I’ve found that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to somebody else. I did this all the time in law school. If I was having trouble with a particular concept, I’d sit down with Kate and try to explain it to her. The effort to make the ideas clear to someone else ends up clarifying them for yourself as well.
Talk out loud. Studies show that talking out loud when you’re learning something aids in memorization. Called “the production effect,” it only works if you talk about some of the things you’re studying, while looking over other parts silently; that which you speak out loud gets stored in your memory because it becomes distinct in your mind from the rest of the material. So save this technique for the important bits that you’re really struggling with.
Take a nap after a study session. Recent research shows that taking a nap after learning something can help strengthen memory retention. While in law school, I made it a habit to take a quick power nap after an intense study session. I don’t know how much my naps helped, but they certainly didn’t hurt my academic performance.
Brute Force Memorization. The above tactics require a long period of time to be truly effective. But sometimes you won’t have the luxury of having an entire semester to memorize something for class. If you’re short on time and need to memorize something fast, try my Brute Force Memorization technique.
Self-Testing: The Master Key to Academic Success
Take frequent practice tests. To really commit information to long-term memory, you need to test yourself on a regular basis. Research shows that tests are not only good for assessing how well you know something, they actually help you learn and retain information for the long-term. The process of retrieving information to answer a question fundamentally changes the way it’s stored in the brain. The more difficult it is to retrieve the answer, the more securely it will anchor in your mind.
Instead of just passively memorizing information, create practice tests for yourself throughout the semester. Your textbook usually has study questions at the end of each chapter. Answer them. And by answer them, I mean write out your answer just like you would for a real exam. To get the full benefit of this technique, you can’t just answer the questions “in your mind.”
Ask your professor if she has any old exams she’d be willing to share with you. Take those old exams under real test taking conditions. If they’re essay questions, write out the answers. See if your professor will take a look at your answers and offer any feedback.
Flash cards are another way you can quiz yourself.
Practice tests. Do them.
Use study groups with care. I used study groups very sparingly while in college and law school. I found that most study groups were a waste of time because they lacked focus and direction. Instead of talking about the class material, we often ended up discussing Sooner football.
If you’re going to do a study group, follow these general guidelines:
Keep it focused. Every study group session should have a pre-determined purpose. Never show up to a study group without an agenda. Setting a time limit for your study group also helps keep people focused and on task.
Get the right kind of people. Study groups should be mutually beneficial. Everybody should contribute. If freeloaders infiltrate your study group, abandon ship.
Great Resources on Improving Your Study Skills
For more information on how to improve your study skills, check out the following resources:
How to Study: A Brief Guide. Written by a college professor. No frills, practical advice.
SuperMemo’s Article Bank. Lots of great stuff here. You can spend hours reading through this material.
What are the study tactics that have worked for you? Share your tips with us in the comments!
Last updated: January 27, 2016