Chapter 12: The Basics of Study Skills

Dave Dillon; Phyllis Nissila; and Norma Cárdenas

“If you study to remember, you will forget, but, if you study to understand, you will remember.”

– Unknown

What does it mean to earn an A versus a C or a D in a class? For many students, this letter grade signifies the difference between success and failure. However, grades are dependent on many factors. The difficulty of material and whether or not a topic is new for you might influence how well you are able to remember the information and recall it on an assessment. The types of assessment that are given in a class (tests, quizzes, papers, ungraded homework) might also play a role in how you are able to demonstrate proficiency in your subject. Also, (and unfortunately), final grades can be determined by professor beliefs in how hard a class should be or what kind of student should earn an A.

Many of these factors are out of your hands. However, it is possible to take some control over your experience in a class and the resulting grade that you will receive. This chapter provides a few tips on how to make the most out of every class and how to increase your chances of getting the grade you want.

Be Prepared for Each Class

Complete your assigned reading ahead of the deadline. Follow the syllabus so that you’ll have familiarity with what the instructor is speaking about. Bring your course syllabus, textbook, notebook and any handouts or other important information for each particular class along with a pen and a positive attitude. Become interested in what the instructor has to say. Be eager to learn. Sleep adequately the night before class and ensure you do not arrive to class on an empty stomach. Many courses, both in person and online, use digital platforms called Learning Management Systems (LMS). Examples of these are Canvas, Blackboard, and Moodle. It is important for students to check their email regularly as well as Announcements or notifications from their instructor through the LMS. Learn how to navigate the tabs to find assignments and activities.

Attend Every Class

Attending each and every class requires self-discipline and motivation. Doing so will help you remain engaged and involved in course topics, ensure you don’t miss important information or deadlines,, allow you to submit work and receive your graded assignments, and give you the opportunity to take quizzes or exams that cannot be made up.

Missing class is a major factor in students dropping courses or receiving poor grades. If you have to miss class, you should notify the professor before class to let them know. You are responsible for making up any missed or late work and getting notes from a peer. In addition, students attempting to make up the work from missing class often find it overwhelming. It’s challenging to catch up if we get behind.

Sit Front and Center

Author’s Story

Full disclosure: I loved to sit in the back of the classroom when I was in college. I felt more comfortable back there. I didn’t want to make eye contact with my instructor. I didn’t want to be called on. But I learned that if I wanted to give myself the best opportunity to see, hear, understand and learn, then I needed to sit in the front and center. And in order to make sure I sat in the front and center, I needed to arrive to my classes early.

I instruct my students to “Sit wherever you want — sit where you are most comfortable.” But I also ask them that if they were to attend a concert for their favorite artist, where would they like to be? It’s always right in front of the stage, because the best experience is closest to the band. That’s why front-and-center tickets are the most expensive. There are some reasons sitting in the back works for some students. But you run the risk of sitting behind someone you cannot see over. And if you’re sitting in the back so that you can send text messages without being seen, work on something else or so that you can disengage (not pay attention without the instructor noticing), then you’re sitting in the back for the wrong reasons. Rather than hiding, you want to create the best learning environment, from seeing and hearing perspectives.

Take Notes in Class

German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus scientifically studied how people forget in the late 1800s. He is known for his experiments using himself as a subject where he tested his memory learning nonsense syllables. One of his famous results, known as the forgetting curve, shows how much information is forgotten quickly after it is learned. Without reviewing, we will forget. Since we forget 42% of the information we take in after only 20 minutes (without review), it is imperative to take notes to remember. To challenge the forgetting curve, make learning engaging, apply the information, review the information, and get enough sleep and reduce stress.

Take Notes When You Are Reading

For the same reason as above, it is helpful to take notes by hand or use a device while you are reading to retain information. Sometimes called Active Reading, the goal is to stay focused on the material and to be able to refer back to notes made while reading to improve retention and study efficiency. Don’t make the mistake of expecting to remember everything you are reading. Taking notes when reading requires effort and energy. Be willing to do it and you’ll reap the benefits later when studying for a test or writing a paper.

Know What the Campus Resources Are and Where They Are, and Use Them

There are many campus resources at your college or university and it’s likely that they are underutilized because students don’t know they exist, where they are or that most of them are free. Find out what is available to you by checking your school’s website for campus resources or student services, or talk to a counselor about what resources may be helpful for you. Check to see where your campus has resources for Counseling, Tutoring, Writing assistance, Library, Admissions and Records (or Registrar’s), Financial Aid, Health Center, Career Center, Disability Support Services, Technology, Recreation, Multicultural Student Affairs, Legal Services, and other support services. Seeking academic help is not an admission that you are not “smart” or that you cannot succeed on your own.

Read and Retain Your Syllabus

A living, working document, the syllabus is also often the source of information for faculty contact information, textbook information, grade policy, attendance policy, and course schedule. Some students make the mistake of stuffing the syllabus in their backpack when they receive it on the first day of class and never look at it again. Those who closely read it, keep it for reference and review it frequently find themselves more prepared for class. If there is something in the syllabus you don’t understand, ask your instructor about it before class, after class or during their office hours.

Place Your Assignments on Your Master Calendar and Create Plans for Completing Them Before They Are Due

Remember the story about the sticky notes? Place all of your assignments for all of your classes with their due dates in your calendar, planner, smartphone or whatever you use for organization. Students can block off all classes, studying, commute time, work hours, sleeping, eating, caretaking, and socializing. Using a weekly and monthly schedule, you can  schedule when to start those assignments, break an assignment into smaller steps, and have an idea of how long it will take to complete them. During times of crisis, it often takes students longer to finish their tasks. Many tasks end up taking 2 or 3 times as long as your original, magical thinking.

Complete All of Your Assignments

Students who earn good grades have the motivation and discipline to complete all of their assignments. Try not to spend too much time away from studying that you forget what you were doing before.

Follow the professors’ instructions on turning in assignments and classroom norms. Some professors give guidelines rather than specifics when it comes to assignments. The assignment rubric can be a great help.

Have Someone Read Your Papers Before You Submit Them

You might be surprised to learn how many students turn in papers with spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors that could have been easily corrected by using a spell checker program or having someone read your paper. Campus writing centers or tutors will read your paper and give feedback, make suggestions, and help shape ideas. Take advantage of these services if they are offered. Another strategy is to read your paper aloud to yourself. You may catch errors when you read aloud that you might not catch when reading your writing. Remember that it is always the students’ responsibility to have papers proofread, not someone else’s. Writing early drafts gives you time to edit.

Ask Questions

Many students feel like they are the only one that has a question or the only one that doesn’t understand something in class. I encourage you to ask questions during class, especially if your instructor encourages them. If not, make the effort to ask your questions before or after class or during your instructors’ office hours.

If you take a class offered online, I suggest asking questions via the preferred method your instructor recommends. Since the delivery method is different to what most students are used to, I believe it is natural for students in online courses to have more questions. Online students may ask questions to understand the material and to be able to successfully navigate through the course content.

Pro tip: I expect students to ask questions for both in person and online courses to improve learning.

Complete All Assigned Reading at The Time It Is Assigned

College courses have much more assigned reading than what most high school students are accustomed to and it can take a while to become comfortable with the workload. Some students fall behind early in keeping up with the reading requirements and others fail to read it at all. You will be most prepared for your class and for remembering the information if you complete the reading assigned before your class. Planning will help you stay ahead, keep up or catch up with the syllabus and class calendar and be aware of exam and paper deadlines.

Study Groups

My advice is to study in the environment that works best for you. If you are struggling, find someone to help you or if you have a strong understanding,  offer to help other students. Study groups can allow for shared resources, new perspectives, answers for questions, faster learning, increased confidence, and increased motivation.

EXERCISE 12-1

PART A: Study Area–Help Tran

Create a plan for Tran, on how to organize a study area in her busy home where she lives with six members of her family.

Tran is a first year college student from Vietnam. She has been in the U.S. with her family for three years and recently passed the English Language Learner classes at the topmost level, so now she looks forward to pursuing her degree in Business Management.

She lives with six other family members, her mother, father, grandmother, and three younger siblings aged 14, 12, and 9. Their home is located right next door to the family restaurant. This makes it convenient for Tran and her parents to work their regular shifts and to fill in if one or the other is ill. Tran is also responsible at times to help her younger siblings with their homework and/or take them to school and other activities if her parents are busy. This usually occurs at peak times for customers in the restaurant. Her grandmother helps out when she can but arthritis flare-ups prevent her from working as much as she would like.

Tran does have a small bedroom to herself, but it also sometimes serves as a storage room for restaurant supplies, mostly paper goods, so it can get crowded.

She is anticipating setting up an effective homework/study area for what she knows will soon become more of an intensive course load.

EXERCISE 12-2

PART B: Study Group–Help The Athletes

Jeb, Andrew, and Nelson are first year students at the university on sports scholarships: Jeb for basketball, Andrew for tennis, and Nelson for track and field. They share an apartment near the college sports complex. They are all taking Math 95 this term and realize that forming a study group as their instructor encouraged everyone to do would really help them, too.

One of the problems in getting a group going is that they are all big fans of ESPN and each one favors a different sport, so the television tends to be on long–and loud.

They also enjoy trying out all the restaurants in this southern city which is famous for having the best barbecue joints in the nation. They have calculated that there are at least seven restaurants nearby they want to get to know.

And then there are those campus parties on Friday and Saturday nights…

Although the men are highly motivated to eventually finish their degrees in business, culinary arts, and economics, they could use some advice on how to form a useful study group–and how to stick with it, particularly before their sports programs kick into high gear.

Studying for Exams

Preparation for an exam should begin on the first day of class, not when the exam is announced nor the night before an exam. The most effective practice is to work a short time on each class every day. Review your notes frequently to keep material fresh in your head. Exams may be closed-book without the use of notes, not open-book. Create a study guide, make flashcards, or formulate practice problems by topic with questions and problems and answers.

Schedule Time for Studying

It’s easy to put off studying if it’s not something we schedule. Block specific times and days for studying. Put the times on your calendar. Stick to the schedule.

Study In a Location and At a Time That Is Best for You

Some students study best in the morning and some at night. Some excel at a coffee shop, and others at the library. The place and time in which students often study is usually the most convenient for them. Students often find convenient places and times may also be full of distractions and thus are not good choices for them to study. Find several places to study and change up your space if you find that it is no longer a working space for you.

It’s worth the effort to study at the time and place that will be most productive for you. For most students, it is best to turn off the cell phone and TV and to keep off the Internet (and social media) unless it directly relates to your work. For some, some background noise helps to concentrate.

Tips for Effective, Individual Study Spaces

Desk piled with papers, overflowing trash can
“Cluttered desk” by OpenClipart-Vectors is in the Public Domain, CC0

Most students more or less take what they can get when it comes to study areas. Schools usually offer a variety of nooks and crannies for students to hunker down and get their assignments done. The school library is a good (and quiet) place. Many common areas elsewhere on campus have tables, chairs, couches, and lounges to accommodate learners. But most students end up doing the majority of their out-of-class work at home.

Home environments may be limited in terms of providing all of the recommended aspects of a good study space, but many of the recommendations can be either implemented or adapted from what a student has on hand or can be improvised no matter what environment they is living in. Elements conducive to a more effective study/homework experience include such things as good lighting, ample supplies, comfortable seating, adequate space, and personalizing the study area to add a touch of inspiration and motivation.

EXERCISE 12-3

PART A

Describe your current study area at home–the good, the bad, the ugly. Be thorough.

PART B

List as many ways you think you can realistically improve, change, (or start over…) your study area. Remember, you might not have the advantage of a whole room, or even a corner of a room, but there are still some changes you can make to create a more effective study environment.

Author’s Story

I did most of my studying in college in my dorm room, at my house, outside if it was a nice day or at a coffee shop. However, if there was something I knew I absolutely had to get done – read a chapter, finish a paper or complete my preparation for an exam, I would head to one place: McHenry library. It was what I call my go-to place. I was able to concentrate at a higher level there. I was able to block out all other distractions and just focus on the task at hand. You may be thinking: why didn’t he study there all the time? Sometimes it wasn’t convenient. And sometimes it wasn’t necessary. I was able to become an expert on how well I needed to know something, and how much I could get done if I was at McHenry for a couple of hours. Note that I didn’t procrastinate and then try to cram everything in at McHenry. Rather I would place the finishing touches on what had already been studied or worked on.

Don’t Do Anything Academically With Minimal Effort

Think of it this way: You’ve made the decision to come to college. You’re investing time, energy and money into your commitment. Why would you want to do something and not be successful at it? Students who miss class, turn in work late or wait until the last minute are not committed. If you want to succeed, make college a priority and do your best in all of your college work and preparation.

Apply these basic principles and you will be giving yourself the best opportunity to achieve success. This applies to all aspects, not just academics!

Licenses and Attributions:

Content previously copyrighted, published in Blueprint for Success in College: Indispensable Study Skills and Time Management Strategies (by Dave Dillon), now licensed as CC-BY Attribution.

CC licensed content, previously shared:
Nissila, Phyllis. How to Learn Like a Pro! Open Oregon Educational Resources, 2016. Located at: https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/collegereading/chapter/lesson-2-5-study-areas-for-individuals-and-groups/  License: CC BY: Attribution.

Adaptions: Exercises for Study Groups and Tips for Effective, Individual Study Areas added from Lesson 2.5 Study Areas and Study Groups.

“Cluttered desk” image by OpenClipart-Vectors is in the Public Domain, CC0

License

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Blueprint for Success in College and Career by Dave Dillon; Phyllis Nissila; and Norma Cárdenas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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