3 Proven Study Strategies for College Students

Published: February 14, 2023

Maybe you were one of those kids who didn’t have to try too hard to get good grades in high school. You got by with paying attention in class and cramming the night before a test—only to promptly forget everything after.

But, now that you’re in college, you’ve realized it’s time to figure out some more effective ways to study. Your future career depends on understanding and retaining the information you’re learning right now.

Not sure where to start? Don’t stress. We compiled a helpful summary of three popular study strategies that can help you learn more information in less time.

3 Effective study strategies worth trying

Believe it or not, learning how to study is a skill in itself. There is no one-size-fits-all method, so it may take some time to find the one that works best for you. Consider these three tried-and-true study strategies for college students.

1. Have shorter, more regular study sessions

Studying more frequently (instead of hunkering down for a six-hour cram session before midterms) is called spaced practice. It’s scientifically proven to be a more efficient way to study, as you learn more information, and retain it for longer.

Spaced practice requires a little math up front, but it’s well worth it. First, figure out how long you plan to study and how many days you have until the test. If it’s your first time, start small. Try mapping out just one class or even a single unit within a course.

Using a calendar or a time management tool (i.e., phone app, computer program, day planner, etc.) identify key dates for exams and assignments. Work backwards and plot out a consistent schedule of study sessions, keeping at least one or two days between them.

This is called spaced practice for a reason. It takes time to make a good habit stick, so don’t give up. You may have to play around and try different iterations to find the best schedule for your unique circumstances.

For more detailed tips, check out this resource on spaced practice for college students.

2. Practice retrieving information in a variety of ways

Retrieval practice involves recalling or recreating something you learned in the past. Don’t get this confused with memorizing or reciting. Basically, you need to “forget” the thing you want to remember and then bring it to mind later. It’s worth pointing out that retrieving information is much easier to practice if you’re already spacing out your study sessions (as explained above).

Practicing information retrieval consistently and in multiple formats is a surefire way to deepen your understanding of the topic at hand. This process is much more dynamic and effective when compared to simply reading over the same set of notes a few times. You are more likely to remember the information—and be able to use it in the future.

Examples of retrieval practice techniques:

  • Ask your instructors if they have any practice tests or look for practice questions in the back of your textbook for practice questions. Be sure not to peek at your notes while you complete them.
  • If you’re in a study group, have each person create a handful of questions about the material and then swap so everyone has a chance to practice retrieval.
  • Flashcards are a classic tool for students, but you should strive to go beyond a simple “term and definition” combo. Consider creating your own flashcards using some of these advanced flashcard tips.

Retrieval practice might also help alleviate text anxiety, as the practice can help you gain confidence in your ability to recall important data.

3. Increase your reading comprehension

Have you ever tried to read the same page or chapter several times without actually absorbing the information? It’s normal to have more trouble concentrating when you’re tired, stressed, or distracted. But if you generally struggle with reading comprehension (or want to become better at it), the SQ3R method could make a huge difference.

What is SQ3R, exactly? It stands for “Skim, Question, Read, Recite, Review.” This five-step process is particularly useful for textbooks, but you can apply it to almost anything you need to read.

Skim: In this case, “skim” does NOT mean flipping through pages and reading random snippets of whatever you find most interesting. Your goal in this first step is to gain an initial understanding of the subject at hand.

When beginning a new unit or chapter in your textbook, take 10 minutes to do the following things:

  • Read the introduction
  • Write down headings and subheadings
  • Take note of any pictures, photos, charts, infographics, etc.
  • Scan the chapter summaries
  • Find out if the book includes study questions or practice exams

Question: Now, take that list you just made and turn it into questions. Let’s say you’re studying psychology and one of your chapter titles is “Behaviorism”. You might turn that into a query like “What is behaviorism?”

In this step, you are priming your brain to look for answers in the text and fill in the missing information.

Read: Read one section at a time with the goal of finding answers to the questions you identified in the previous step. Also jot down any additional questions that come to mind as you read.

Recite: After each section, stop and recall your questions. Try to answer them from memory. If not, go back to the text and find the information you need. Move on to the next section only when you can recite all the answers. Make notes about your answers for additional studying later.

Review: Complete the previous steps for the entire chapter. Once you’re done, go back and review your list of questions to see if you can still answer them all. Peek in the book or your notes if you must.

Take charge of your learning

Now that you’re armed with a few useful study strategies, you can begin putting them to use and finding out what’s the most effective for you. At the College of Western Idaho, we know that everyone’s circumstances are unique, but nothing should stand in the way of you earning a quality education.

If you’re a current student who needs additional guidance, reach out to our team of student support professionals:

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