Dog sleeping on books

Study methods aren’t one-size fits all—what works for your lab partner might leave you wanting to throw your highlighter at the wall. But another study strategy could help you feel like a human textbook—trying different methods to find your perfect study strategy can help you reach your goals.

Even if you’d give your study skills a passing grade, dabbling in multiple strategies can help you stay on top of your study game. “Sometimes you get stuck in a studying rut,” says Amy Baldwin, director of the Department of Student Transitions at the University of Central Arkansas. “Even if you’ve had pretty good success, it can be good to branch out.”

Study the basics

Before you try a new study method, there are two things you should always keep in mind while studying. First up, make your studying active, says Baldwin. “I call it ‘active studying’ vs. ‘passive studying’—studying needs to produce a tangible product,” she explains. “That could be a practice test (or) a mind map of your notes or flash cards. The output should be something tangible you can hold in your hand.”

Secondly, many students get a boost from knowing the “why,” or purpose, of the material they’re being taught. “It’s very easy to dismiss something that doesn’t feel interesting or relevant,” Baldwin says. Before you start studying, take a minute to jot down reasons why knowing this material will help you achieve your future goals. If it’s not a skill directly related to your major, you might think about how the methodical problem-solving skills you’re honing in calculus will help you solve problems in other areas of your life. “Learning to learn is a useful skill everyone can walk away with,” says Baldwin.

Here are some creative ideas to rescue you from your studying rut and find the method that works best for you.

Shake up your study strategy

Top view of desk with planner, notebooks, and laptop

1. Test yourself  📝

Practice tests are a helpful way to quiz yourself and walk away with a tangible output from your study session. “I use Quizlet, where you can take practice tests and play games to learn the material,” says Kerri M., a third-year undergraduate at The College of New Jersey. If you don’t have a pre-made practice test, recruit your study group to make one and quiz each other.

2. Make it bright  ☀️

Jazz up your notes with highlighters. “I’m currently highlighting different material with different colors; for example, purple for vocabulary, but yellow to understand the term,” says Rebekah S., a third-year graduate student at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. Color-coding material can help you recall it better when it’s test time—and make studying look a lot brighter.

Color-code information in the way that suits you best. You can use highlighters, colored pencils, or pens.

One option is the stoplight method. It can be used three different ways:

  1. Use the colors to organize information by topic, theory, and/or perspective. For example, important author names and dates get one color, main themes from their works get another, and key plot points a third.
  2. Indicate how one concept relates to another by highlighting them in the same color. For example, if you’re writing a paper on feminism in pop culture for your gender studies class, use color-coding to trace how second-wave feminists’ ideas have trickled down.
  3. Colors can indicate your level of comfort with the material. For example:
  • Red: You’re lost. These are areas where you need to ask your professor or TA for some help.
  • Yellow: You’ve almost got it. You need to review this info a couple more times to feel confident.
  • Green: You’re a pro. You have this information on lock.

Another clever way to use this method is by making three piles of flash cards. Color-code the cards based on this color scheme and circulate the red cards the most.

3. Acronyms  🔠

“When I’m studying and I come across a list I need to know, I often create acronyms to help myself remember,” says Ashleigh D., a fourth-year undergraduate at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. For example, you can remember the three parts of an atom with the acronym PEN (protons, electrons, and neutrons). Bonus points if it makes you laugh.

4. Concept sheet  📄

A more positive spin on the “cheat sheet,” this is a piece of paper with the most important points from your study material.

For a given assignment or course, create a “cheat sheet” of essential information. Referring to it often will help solidify the concepts. Here’s an example for studying atomic structure:

  • Key words—include key vocab words like proton, neutron, electron, atomic number, atomic weight, and isotopes
  • Diagrams—draw out the basic structure of an atom
  • Pictures (to jog your memory)
  • Charts and other data

Use the concept sheet to quiz yourself regularly. Just remember, you can’t actually bring it to an exam unless specifically permitted by the instructor.

5. Social studying  👫

Group studying can be a game-changer for your study rut. Not only is it more enjoyable to share the workload, but also, “when you’re explaining a concept to other group members, you’re more likely to retain it,” explains Baldwin. “When you have to teach something, you’ll likely be digging into it more.” Just be sure you’re studying before meeting up with your buddies so you can contribute.

  • Quiz one another.
  • Debate different perspectives.
  • Teach one another concepts.

Study group

6. Playback  🔉

If rereading your notes never seems to stick, hearing the material multiple times can be helpful. “I record my professor with their permission and listen to it while I’m driving or working,” says Reanna R., a second-year undergraduate student at The College of the Desert in California. “Then, for the final, I create a Jeopardy-style game for my study group to play.”

7. Break it down  🕑

Trying to cram a semester of studying into one or two major cram sessions won’t set you up for success, says Baldwin. “It’s brain science. A lot of studies have shown that you can only hold five to nine items in short-term memory—deep learning requires taking that information and putting it in a different part of the brain,” she explains. “You just can’t do all of your studying the night before to do the kind of deep learning that you’ll need for a bigger test.”

8. Get personal ☝️

One of the best strategies for remembering everything in your notes is to make them personal. “Reorganizing your notes and adding to your thoughts from class when you review can help you make personal connections with the material,” Baldwin says. “If you can relate it to something you’ve done or learned before, you’re more likely to retain that information.” After class, go over your notes to draw connections between previous material you’ve covered.

“Sometimes I highlight key words and use colored pens to underline and number related [ideas]—it definitely helps to put them in a hierarchical order for later review.”
—Tiffany K., fifth-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

“Instead of sitting while studying, try finding a high table you can stand at. Personally, I have found that walking around while memorizing or writing is helpful!”
—Liam K., third-year undergraduate, Oregon Institute of Technology

 “I color-code my binders—each class has a different color, and my notepaper matches the class color. It makes a whole lot more sense to me if I’m looking at the right scribbled notes for the right class.”
Jeani K., first-year online student, Shasta College, California

“I always try to explain in my own words to myself or someone else what I learned as I read. One of my college professors recommended it and I find it works for me.”
—Melania B., third-year student, Glendale Community College, California

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Article sources

Amy Baldwin, director of the Department of Student Transitions, University of Central Arkansas, Conway, Arkansas.

Dr. Damien Clement, assistant professor of sport and exercise psychology, West Virginia University, Morgantown, West Virginia.

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Kornell, N. (2009). Optimising learning using flashcards: Spacing is more effective than cramming. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23, 1297–1317. Retrieved from https://web.williams.edu/Psychology/Faculty/Kornell/Publications/Kornell.2009b.pdf

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