The introduction to a new college curriculum can seem overwhelming, but optimizing your study habits can boost your confidence and success both in and out of the classroom.
Transitioning from high school to the rigor of college studies can be overwhelming for many students, and finding the best way to study with a new course load can seem like a daunting process.
Effective study methods work because they engage multiple ways of learning. As Jessie Schwab, psychologist and preceptor at the Harvard College Writing Program, points out, we tend to misjudge our own learning. Being able to recite memorized information is not the same as actually retaining it.
“One thing we know from decades of cognitive science research is that learners are often bad judges of their own learning,” says Schwab. “Memorization seems like learning, but in reality, we probably haven’t deeply processed that information enough for us to remember it days—or even hours—later.”
Planning ahead and finding support along the way are essential to your success in college. This blog will offer study tips and strategies to help you survive (and thrive!) in your first college class.
1. Don’t Cram!
It might be tempting to leave all your studying for that big exam up until the last minute, but research suggests that cramming does not improve longer term learning.
Students may perform well on a test for which they’ve crammed, but that doesn’t mean they’ve truly learned the material, says an article from the American Psychological Association. Instead of cramming, studies have shown that studying with the goal of long-term retention is best for learning overall.
2. Plan Ahead—and Stick To It!
Having a study plan with set goals can help you feel more prepared and can give you a roadmap to follow. Schwab said procrastination is one mistake that students often make when transitioning to a university-level course load.
“Oftentimes, students are used to less intensive workloads in high school, so one of my biggest pieces of advice is don’t cram,” says Schwab. “Set yourself a study schedule ahead of time and stick to it.”
3. Ask for Help
You don’t have to struggle through difficult material on your own. Many students are not used to seeking help while in high school, but seeking extra support is common in college.
As our guide to pursuing a biology major explains, “Be proactive about identifying areas where you need assistance and seek out that assistance immediately. The longer you wait, the more difficult it becomes to catch up.”
There are multiple resources to help you, including your professors, tutors, and fellow classmates. Harvard’s Academic Resource Center offers academic coaching, workshops, peer tutoring, and accountability hours for students to keep you on track.
4. Use the Buddy System
Your fellow students are likely going through the same struggles that you are. Reach out to classmates and form a study group to go over material together, brainstorm, and to support each other through challenges.
Having other people to study with means you can explain the material to one another, quiz each other, and build a network you can rely on throughout the rest of the class—and beyond.
5. Find Your Learning Style
It might take a bit of time (and trial and error!) to figure out what study methods work best for you. There are a variety of ways to test your knowledge beyond simply reviewing your notes or flashcards.
Schwab recommends trying different strategies through the process of metacognition. Metacognition involves thinking about your own cognitive processes and can help you figure out what study methods are most effective for you.
Schwab suggests practicing the following steps:
- Before you start to read a new chapter or watch a lecture, review what you already know about the topic and what you’re expecting to learn.
- As you read or listen, take additional notes about new information, such as related topics the material reminds you of or potential connections to other courses. Also note down questions you have.
- Afterward, try to summarize what you’ve learned and seek out answers to your remaining questions.
6. Take Breaks
The brain can only absorb so much information at a time. According to the National Institutes of Health, research has shown that taking breaks in between study sessions boosts retention.
Studies have shown that wakeful rest plays just as important a role as practice in learning a new skill. Rest allows our brains to compress and consolidate memories of what we just practiced.
Make sure that you are allowing enough time, relaxation, and sleep between study sessions so your brain will be refreshed and ready to accept new information.
7. Cultivate a Productive Space
Where you study can be just as important as how you study.
Find a space that is free of distractions and has all the materials and supplies you need on hand. Eat a snack and have a water bottle close by so you’re properly fueled for your study session.
8. Reward Yourself
Studying can be mentally and emotionally exhausting and keeping your stamina up can be challenging.
Studies have shown that giving yourself a reward during your work can increase the enjoyment and interest in a given task.
According to an article for Science Daily, studies have shown small rewards throughout the process can help keep up motivation, rather than saving it all until the end.
Next time you finish a particularly challenging study session, treat yourself to an ice cream or an episode of your favorite show.
9. Review, Review, Review
Practicing the information you’ve learned is the best way to retain information.
Researchers Elizabeth and Robert Bjork have argued that “desirable difficulties” can enhance learning. For example, testing yourself with flashcards is a more difficult process than simply reading a textbook, but will lead to better long-term learning.
“One common analogy is weightlifting—you have to actually “exercise those muscles” in order to ultimately strengthen your memories,” adds Schwab.
10. Set Specific Goals
Setting specific goals along the way of your studying journey can show how much progress you’ve made. Psychology Today recommends using the SMART method:
- Specific: Set specific goals with an actionable plan, such as “I will study every day between 2 and 4 p.m. at the library.”
- Measurable: Plan to study a certain number of hours or raise your exam score by a certain percent to give you a measurable benchmark.
- Realistic: It’s important that your goals be realistic so you don’t get discouraged. For example, if you currently study two hours per week, increase the time you spend to three or four hours rather than 10.
- Time-specific: Keep your goals consistent with your academic calendar and your other responsibilities.
Using a handful of these study tips can ensure that you’re getting the most out of the material in your classes and help set you up for success for the rest of your academic career and beyond.