Finding the best way to study can be hard. There are so many options and everyone has their own opinion.
What's more, what works for you on a routine basis may not work so well when you're studying for exams or doing research.
This page of Top Tips is designed to help you work through some ideas and find what works best for you. Once you understand how you like to work, you should be able to adapt the ideas to fit any situation.
1. Find The Right Time and Place
Everyone has their own ideal way of working.
Some people find they work best in the morning, some in the afternoon, and others find evening is their ideal time. You also need to experiment with level of noise. You may find that a quiet library is best, or you may prefer some music playing.
Experiment with different options to find your most productive time and place for study.
Use that time and place for the most difficult work.
For example, you might find that you fall asleep if you try to read in the afternoons. Concentrate on reading in the mornings, and save afternoons for writing or computer research.
2. Get Organised
You may be someone who works best with a looming deadline.
That doesn't mean you can afford not to plan! You don't really want to find yourself in the position of having two or three looming deadlines all at once, and insufficient time for the work.
Even if you're not very keen on planning, it's well worth sitting down and looking at your deadlines to make sure that you're able to manage the work in time.
3. Study Little and Often
It's usually better to do some work every day, rather than spend two days a week working frantically.
Why? Because we all have more productive and less productive days. That's just how it is. Some days you're tired, or unmotivated, or you'd rather be outside in the sunshine. If you adopt a policy of ‘little and often', you can afford to work more slowly on an unproductive day.
Sometimes an unproductive day is your body telling you that you need time off. Sometimes it's just you being lazy.
Try to work a bit, even on the bad days. After all, you can't just take an exam day off because you'd rather be in bed!
4. Take Regular Breaks
Research with schoolchildren has shown that doing 20 minutes' work, then having 5 minutes running around before going back to work again is much more productive than trying to work for a full hour.
OK, you're not a seven year old, and you can concentrate for longer, but the principle applies.
Reward yourself for concentrated work by taking a short break every hour or two: go and get a coffee, or check your email, or something. But be disciplined about how long your break lasts.
5. Do Not Always Do the Same Things
We all have distinct learning styles. That means that you will find certain ways of learning easier.
The most effective learners, however, understand that variety is the spice of life. They may prefer one style of learning, but they also use others to broaden their experience and their skills, and to keep themselves interested in what they are studying.
6. Go Over Your Work Regularly
Our memories work in two ways: short-term and long-term.
when you first learn something, it is generally stored in your short-term memory, where it has a strict ‘shelf life'. If you keep reading and reviewing that idea or piece of information, it will be transferred to your long-term memory, and can be accessed indefinitely.
Research also shows that it's easier to remember something if you can link it to other information that you already know.
Ideas that you have only heard or seen once, for example, through a single piece of reading, or a lecture, will probably not be retained.
Take half an hour to review your reading or lecture notes, rewrite them in your own words, and set them in the context of your other learning, and you are much more likely to be able to retain the information and use it again later.
7. Ask for Help when You Need It
When you're at school, teachers are trained to assess who is struggling and offer them extra help. But once you're studying independently, the only one who is going to assess whether you can cope is you.
Yes, your course tutors may notice that you're having trouble, but they're not going to say anything unless you do.
It is up to you to ask for help when or if you need it.
The Importance of Asking for Help
Juliette's university required her to take a course in organic chemistry. She found the subject difficult, but was coping with some help from her fellow students. Six weeks into the course, their tutor sent them a set of practice exam questions. With her colleagues busy elsewhere, Juliette sat down to work through the questions by herself.
An hour later, she was forced to admit defeat. She was unable to do any of them without help. An exam loomed in less than a term.
What was she going to do?
She did the only thing she could think of: she went to see her tutor. He was sitting in the common room drinking coffee when she arrived. He looked up, saw her in the doorway and said,
“Oh, there you are.”
He had clearly been expecting her, but had said nothing in public. He even had a plan ready for extra classes, and some key equations for her to memorise for the exam. A few weeks later, Juliette passed her exam.
More importantly, she had learned how crucial it is to ask for help when you need it.
8. Take Care of Yourself
You are not going to be able to study effectively if you don't look after yourself.
Nobody can work well if they are ill or not eating properly.