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Main Body

Chapter 5: Study Skills

young woman studying

Photo by energepic.com is in the Public Domain

“The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.”

~Vidal Sassoon

Where Are You Now?

Assess your present knowledge and attitudes.

Usually Sometimes Seldom
1. I do well on exams.
2. Exams make me very nervous and anxious.
3. I study for exams at the last minute.
4. I feel confident going into tests or exams.
5. When we get pop quizzes, I do OK.
6. I remember what I’ve studied long after studying for an exam.
7. I am overwhelmed by the amount of material I have to study for an exam.
8. I run out of time when taking exams.
9. I write good responses to essay questions.
10. I “draw a blank” during an exam on material I know.
11. I have trouble really understanding what the instructor is looking for on a test.
12. I lose points for stupid mistakes.

Where Do You Want to Go?

Think about how you answered the questions above. Be honest with yourself. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your preparation for tests at this time?

Prepare for tests poorly Prepare for tests well
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your test-taking skills at this time?

A poor tester An excellent tester
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

In the following list, circle the three most important areas in which you think you can improve:

  • Reducing test anxiety
  • Cramming for exams
  • Using study time more effectively
  • Feeling confident for an exam
  • Staying focused while studying
  • Using my time effectively during an exam
  • Selecting the right things to study
  • Answering multiple-choice questions
  • Selecting the best time and place to study
  • Answering short answer questions
  • Working in effective study groups
  • Answering essay questions
  • Studying from my notes
  • Taking oral exams/giving presentations as exams
  • Studying from my text
  • Taking online exams

Are there other areas in which you can improve your test preparation and test-taking? Write down other things you feel you need to work on.

Studying is the primary activity in a student’s college experience. In order to do well in college, a student must learn how to study. This term can be very unclear and mean many different things to different people. Therefore, it is helpful to create a personal definition of the term studying. Webster defines studying as a state of contemplation. Another dictionary defines studying as devoting time and attention to acquiring knowledge. Both meanings demonstrate that studying requires an investment of time. In order to truly understand a new subject, a person must invest the time and mental energy to develop an effective comprehension of the material being studied.

The Expectation of Study

As a college student, it is critical to realize that you will be expected to invest a substantial amount of time into gaining an understanding of the material covered in your courses. There is no substitute for time; there is nothing you can do in place of studying. You need to spend time thinking and learning about course content.

After accepting the fact that investing time is a necessary component of studying, the second reality a student must reconcile within themselves is that there is value in the material being studied. You must identify the value of the content you are being asked to learn and identify how the new material can be incorporated into your life and contribute to your growth. For example, taking a psychology course may help you improve your personal relationships by gaining a better understanding of how other people think and make decisions. Therefore, it is possible for you to have more positive experiences in your relationships through this increased awareness of others.

The value of the content will vary according to the individual. However, students are typically less inclined to invest time into learning a subject where they perceive there is low value. It is common to take courses in subject areas that do not interest you in order to meet the degree requirements, however, in these instances, you can still develop valuable skills and gain insight from the course. Additionally, in most cases you can also choose from a list of elective classes, enabling you to make the least objectionable choices in each of your general study areas. Chemistry may not appeal to you, for example, but Earth science or Astronomy may sound more interesting.

Thirdly, it is important to develop a study mindset. One of the most important characteristics of the study mindset is to be open to being uncomfortable. Learning new material can be very uncomfortable and challenging, simply because it is new. You are learning new terms and being faced with information you have never heard of before.

Effective studying involves mental engagement, it is an absolute must! You will never fully understand a new concept unless you are giving it serious consideration. To study a subject indicates that you are actively engaged in thinking about it. This process of mental engagement may also include formulating new ideas about the concepts and challenging the material.

a hand writing with coffee in the background

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

The Emotional Context

Studying can be a very emotional process. It can be exhilarating to finally grasp a concept that you have struggled to understand. Imagine that you have been studying math for a few hours. You have taken several practice tests and there seem to be few equations that you just do not understand. After noticing yourself becoming very frustrated, you decide to take a walk to calm down. When you return to your homework, everything seems to just click in your mind and the problems that were confusing seem to make sense now. Suddenly, you exhale and shout joyously. You have just experience the joy of learning.

On the other hand, it can be really difficult. Wondering if you will ever comprehend what you are studying is a common feeling. As you engage in the process of studying, you may feel a nervous sensation in your stomach, along with feelings of wanting to escape and do something you enjoy. These are all signs that you are on the right track. The challenge is to remain in the moment long enough to overcome the negative feelings and progress to learning the material.

Although studying can be difficult, the reward of using the knowledge you gained creates a powerful feeling. Here’s an example: Imagine that you took a Human Nutrition course and really learned a lot about how your body digests food. As a result of your new insight, you changed your eating habits and now have more energy. This is an example of how studying and applying knowledge can improve your life for the better.

Now that we have defined studying, explored some of the emotions associated with it and recognized the benefits, let’s move forward with strategies to help you improve your studying process.

Why It Matters: Study Skills


Throughout your college career, you’ll be responsible for completing a lot of different types of “assessments”: pre-quizzes, essays, group projects, tests, exams, etc. Instructors assign these in order to mark your learning. In order to prepare for these assessments, it’s important that you study—and study effectively.

Marcel is just starting his freshman year of college. He knows he has to study in order to get good grades, but he finds himself pushing off his homework until the last minute. Marcel rarely completes his reading assignments—even when he doesn’t understand the material discussed in class. As the semester goes on, he finds himself doing multi-hour cram session right before each test starts, hoping he’ll retain the material at least as long as it takes to complete the test.

Can you identify the problems in Marcel’s study habits? More importantly, can you identify any more effective strategies he might implement? In this section, we’ll learn how to effectively prepare for different assignments as they come, as well as how to use your results to shape your later studies.

Setting Yourself Up for Success

Man reading
Photo by Pickpik is in the Public Domain

Too many students try to get the grade just by going to class, maybe a little note-taking, and then cramming through the text right before an exam they feel unprepared for. Sound familiar? This approach may have worked for you in high school where tests and quizzes were more frequent and teachers prepared study guides for you, but colleges require you to take responsibility for your learning and to be better prepared.

Most students simply have not learned how to study and don’t understand how learning works. Learning is actually a cycle of four steps: preparing, absorbing, capturing, and reviewing. When you get in the habit of paying attention to this cycle, it becomes relatively easy to study well. But you must use all four steps.

This chapter focuses on listening, a key skill for learning new material, and note-taking, the most important skill in the capturing phase of the cycle. These skills are closely related. Good listening skills make you a better note taker, and taking good notes can help you listen better. Both are key study skills to help you do better in your classes.

The Learning Cycle

Identifying What’s Important

Whether you take one or more than one class, it’s simply impossible to retain every single particle of information you encounter in a textbook or lecture. And, instructors don’t generally give open-book exams or allow their students to preview the quizzes or tests ahead of time. So, how can you decide what to study and “know what to know”?

The answer is to prioritize what you’re trying to learn and memorize, rather than trying to tackle all of it. Below are some strategies to help you do this.

Think about concepts rather than facts

From time to time, you’ll need to memorize cold, hard facts—like a list of math equations or a vocabulary list in a Spanish class. Most of the time, though, instructors will care much more that you are learning about the key concepts in a subject or course—i.e., how photosynthesis works, how to write a thesis statement, the causes of the French Revolution, and so on.

Take cues from your instructor

Pay attention to what your instructor writes on the board or includes in study guides and handouts. Although these may be short—just a list of words and phrases, say—they are likely core concepts that you’ll want to focus on. Also, instructors tend to refer to important concepts repeatedly during class, and they may even tell you what’s important to know before an exam or other assessment.

Use summaries

Textbooks often have summaries or study guides at the end of each chapter. These summaries are a good way to check in and see whether you grasp the main elements of the reading. If no summary is available, try to write your own—you’ll learn much more by writing about what you read than by reading alone.

Understanding Memory

Sometimes students will feel confident understanding new material they just learned. Then, weeks later before an exam, they find that they can only remember what the instructor covered during the last few days—the earlier material has vanished from the mind! What happened? Chances are that they didn’t consistently and regularly review the material, and what they initially learned never made it to long-term memory.

When you learn something new, the goal is to “lock it in “and move it from short-term memory, where it starts out, to long-term memory, where it can be accessed much later (like at the end of the semester or maybe years from now). Below are some strategies for transferring short-term memory to long-term memory:

Start reviewing new material immediately

Remember that people typically forget a significant amount of new information not too long after learning it. As a student, you can benefit from starting to study new material right away. If you’re introduced to new concepts in class, for example, don’t wait to start reviewing your notes and doing the related reading assignments—the sooner the better.

Study frequently for shorter periods of time

Study frequently for shorter periods of time: Once information becomes a part of long-term memory, you’re more likely to remember it. If you want to improve the odds of recalling course material by the time of an exam (or a future class, say), try reviewing it a little bit every day. Building up your knowledge and recall this way can also help you avoid needing to “cram” and feeling overwhelmed by everything you may have forgotten.

Use repetition

This strategy is linked to studying material frequently for shorter periods of time. You may not remember when or how you learned skills like riding a bike or tying your shoes. Mastery came with practice, and at some point, the skills became second nature.

Academic learning is no different: If you spend enough time with important course concepts and practice them often, you will know them in the same way you know how to ride a bike—almost without thinking about them.

Tips for Taking Tests

You’ve reviewed the material for a test and feel confident that you will do well. You have brought your test anxiety into control. What else can you do to ensure success on a test? Learn and apply these top ten test-taking strategies:

  1. Learn as much as you can about the test. What has the instructor told you about the test? Will it be open book? What types of questions will be on it? Are there parts of the test that will be worth more points than others? Will it be cumulative or just cover the most recent material? Will you have choices about which questions to answer?
  2. Try to foresee the questions likely to be on the test. What kinds of questions would you include if you were the instructor? Brainstorm possible questions with your study group. Look for possible questions in your notes. Review past quizzes and tests to see what kinds of questions the instructor likes to ask. Above all, take it seriously whenever your instructor warns, “This will be on the test.”
  3. Don’t be tempted to stay up late cramming. Get some exercise and watch what you eat. Cramming is not a substitute for doing your assignments and studying consistently over time. It is far more important to get a good night’s sleep and face your test fresh and well rested. A good workout the day before an exam will help you be fresh and stay focused during the exam (provided you already like to work out; if not, find time to take a long walk). A healthy diet the night before and the day of the exam will give you the energy and concentration to do well on the exam. Include “brain foods,” such as those rich in omega-3 oils, and avoid “heavy” foods that are rich in fat and sugar. (After the exam, you can celebrate with a cheeseburger, fries, and milkshake—but not before the exam!)
  4. Get to the test site early. Take out all your allowable tools (pencils, pens, calculator, etc.). Turn off your cell phone (yes, all the way off, not on vibrate) as a way of disconnecting from your everyday world. Do some of the relaxation exercises described earlier for controlling test anxiety.
  5. Create a test plan. Listen carefully to the directions given by the instructor. When you receive your test, scan the entire test first. Evaluate the importance of each section. Then create a time allocation plan. Decide how much time you should dedicate to each section. You don’t want to spend 80 percent of your time on a question worth 10 percent of the grade.
  6. Write it down. Take a couple of minutes to write down key facts, dates, principles, statistics, and formulas on a piece of scratch paper or in the margin of the exam paper. Do this while you are still fresh and aren’t yet feeling time pressure (when it will be harder to remember them). Then you can refer to these notes as you take the exam.
  7. Read the directions carefully. Then reread them. Do you understand what is expected of you? If not, ask the instructor to be sure you are clear. Too many students lose points simply by not following directions completely!
  8. Do the easy questions first. By getting the easy questions out of the way, you’ll feel more confident about the test and have more time to think about the tougher questions. Start with the objective sections of the exam first (multiple choice, true or false, and matching columns). As you answer these questions, keep an eye out for facts or concepts you may want to use later in an essay question.
  9. Keep an eye on the time. Keep as close to your plan as possible. If you see that you are running out of time, don’t panic. Move to those questions you think you can still answer accurately within the remaining time.
  10. Check your work. This doesn’t mean going through all your calculations again. Start by ensuring that you have complete answers according to the directions. Then look for other common mistakes, such as a misplaced decimal point, dropped words (especially those that can modify the answer, like “not”), and any incomplete or incomprehensible phrases.

In Real Life

Sarah and Jessica

Sarah and Jessica are both taking PSYC 200 Introduction to Psychology. They sat next to each other during the first day of class and decided to heed the instructor’s advice of forming a study group.

In order to prepare for their first psychology exam, Sarah and Jessica agreed to study together. Jessica reviewed Sarah’s notes and was quite surprised and embarrassed. Sarah had notes from each lecture and chapter that they had covered in the semester. Jessica did not really take notes in class. She wrote down the topics of the day but she often doodled and daydreamed in class. Regarding notes from the textbook, she occasionally listed a few vocabulary words.

Sarah’s lecture notes consisted of the main points the professor covered in class with supporting details for each point. Sarah even included examples from movies, songs, and her real life where she had seen examples of the psychological theories demonstrated. Sarah jotted down questions of concepts that she did not understand and wanted the professor to clarify. For their textbook, she had equally detailed notes. She defined all the terms and gave examples of how they connected to each other.

Jessica asked Sarah why she wrote all these things down. Sarah explained that learning about psychology was a new experience for her since had never taken this course before and that she needed to explain things in great detail in order to understand the concepts. Jessica started to feel very overwhelmed and ill-prepared to study with Sarah. She thought about how she could avoid sharing her notes with Sarah. Escaping the study session was the only solution in her mind.

Jessica then sent herself a text which beeped on her phone. She told Sarah that she suddenly had to go home to babysit her little sister since their mother was called into work. Sarah was clueless about Jessica’s feelings. She told Jessica that she understood the importance of supporting family and suggested that they reschedule their study session before the exam.

Discussion Questions

  • Suppose you were Jessica; how would you have handled this situation?
  • Why do you think Jessica gave herself an excuse to leave the situation?
  • What could be the consequences of Jessica leaving the study session?
  • What are other ways Jessica could have handled this situation?

Discussion Questions

  1. What emotions do you feel while studying?
  2. Which emotions enhance or hinder your studying?
  3. What are your current methods of studying?
  4. Which study methods would you like to improve?


CC By licenseEnd of Chapter Credits  Study Skills and Test Taking Strategies by Tonjala Eaton is adapted from Saylor.Org Academy-Try College 101 and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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ACAD100: Success Pathways at Lansing Community College, Third Edition by Root,T, Eaton, T, Madigan, M and Menefee, E. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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