9 Study Strategies

Study Strategies

Rebecca Hiebert


Learning Objectives

After reading this page, you will be able to:

  • avoid distractions;
  • create a suitable study environment;
  • debunk common study myths;
  • use study strategies.

Why Is This important?

While in college, you need to learn a lot of new information. It is important to have strategies to help you review and retain the information so that you can succeed with assignments and tests as well as be able to use the information when you complete your program and enter the workplace.

Preparing to Study

Studying is hard work, but you can learn some techniques to help you be a more effective learner. Two major and interrelated techniques involve avoiding distractions and creating a study environment that works to help you concentrate.

Avoiding Distractions

We have always have distractions — video games, television shows, movies, music, friends — even housecleaning can distract us from doing something else we need to do, such as study for an exam. That may seem extreme, but sometimes vacuuming is the preferred activity to buckling down and working through calculus problems! Cell phones, tablets, and laptops that offer a world of possibilities to us have brought distraction to an entirely new level. When was the last time you were with a large group of people when you didn’t see at least a few people on devices?

Hands operating a game controller and playing football on a Playstation.
A photo shows hands operating a game controller and playing football on a video game device. Image source: https://openstax.org/books/college-success/pages/6-2-studying. Attribution: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
When you study, your biggest challenge may be to block out all the competing noise. Letting go of that connection to our friends and the larger world, even for a short amount of time, can be difficult. Perhaps the least stressful way to allow yourself a distraction-free environment is to make the study session a finite amount of time: long enough to get a significant amount of studying accomplished but short enough to hold your attention.

You can increase that attention time with practice and focus. Pretend it is a professional appointment or meeting during which you cannot check e-mail or texts or otherwise engage with your devices. We have all become very attached to the ability to check in — anonymously on social media or with family and friends via text and calls. If you set a specific amount of time to study without interruptions, you can convince your wandering mind that you will soon be able to return to your link to the outside world. Start small and set an alarm — a 30-minute period to review notes, then a brief break, then another 45-minute study session to quiz yourself on the material, and so on.

When you prepare for your optimal study session, remember to do these things:

  • put your phone out of sight in another room or at least some place where you will not see or hear it vibrate or ring — just flipping it over is not enough;
  • turn off the television or music;
  • unless you are deliberately working with a study group, study somewhere alone so you won’t be distracted by other people talking.

If you live with lots of other people or don’t have access to much privacy, see if you can negotiate some space alone to study. Ask others to leave one part of the house or identify an area in one room as a quiet zone during certain hours. Ask politely for a specific block of time; most people will respect your educational goals and be willing to accommodate you. If you’re trying to work out quiet zones with small children in the house, the bathtub with a pillow can make a fine study place.

Study Environment

You may not always be in the mood to study. If you have a far-away deadline, you might think you can skip a study session on occasion, but you shouldn’t get into the habit of ignoring a strong study routine.

Sometimes you just need to sit down and study whenever and wherever you can manage — in the car waiting for someone, on the bus, at a sports game as you cheer on a friend, and that’s okay if this is the exception. For long-term success in studying, you need a better study setting that will help you get the most out of your limited study time. Whatever your space limitations, find a place that you can dedicate to reading, writing, note taking, and reviewing. This doesn’t need to be elaborate and expensive — all you need is a flat surface large enough to hold either your computer or writing paper, book or notes, pens/pencils/markers, and subject-specific materials you may need (such as stand-alone calculators, drawing tools, and notepads).


Look at the two photos. Describe what it would be like to study in these two different environments. Which would you choose?


A set of two photos, one showing a neat room and the other showing a messy room
A neat desk and a messy desk. Image source: https://openstax.org/books/college-success/pages/6-2-studying (Credit: Ali West / Flickr / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0))
If it is possible, try to make this area exclusive to your study sessions. This way, you can leave it set up all the time. You may have to try out numerous places to determine what works best for you.

You don’t need an elaborate setting, but you may want to consider including a few effective additions if you have the space:

  • small bulletin board for often-used formulas;
  • encouraging quotes or pictures of your goal;
  • whiteboard for brainstorming;
  • sticky notes for reminders in texts and notes;
  • file holder for most-used documents;
  • bookshelf for reference books.


Describe elements in your ideal study environment and explain why they’re important. How will each item help you make more efficient use of your time, limit distractions, or in some other way strengthen your ability to study?

After you have described your ideal study environment, think about how you can adapt that environment if you cannot be in your favourite place to study. How do you make your own space in the library, a student lounge, or a dedicated space on campus for student studying?

Study Strategies

Spacing, interleaving, and practice testing are three effective strategies that will make an enormous difference in how well you demonstrate your learning as well as how well you do on assignments and tests. Here is a brief overview of each of the three strategies:

  • Spacing — This has to do with when you study. Hint: Don’t cram or try to study everything at once over many hours; study over a period of days, preferably with breaks in between.
  • Interleaving — This has to do with what you study. Hint: Don’t study just one type of content, topic, chapter, or unit at a time; instead, mix up the content when you study.
  • Practice testing — This has to do with how you study. Hint: Don’t just reread content. You must quiz or test your ability to retrieve the information from your brain.


When studying for tests, it is important to space out your study time over multiple days. Sometimes when we don’t plan ahead, we end up cramming or staying up all night to review content before a test. Cramming is not an effective study strategy. Research on memory suggests that giving yourself time in between study sessions actually helps you forget the information. And forgetting, which sounds like it would be something you don’t want to do, is actually good for your ability to remember information long term. That’s because every time you forget something, you need to relearn it, leading to gains in your overall understanding and “storage” of the material.

The table below demonstrates how spacing works. Assume you are going to spend about four hours studying for a business exam. Cramming would have you spending all of those four hours the night before the exam. With spacing, on the other hand, you would study a little bit each day.

Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Cramming Study for 4 hours Business Test
Spacing Study for 1 hour Study for 30 minutes Study for 1 hour Study for 90 minutes Business Test


Another study technique is called interleaving, which calls for students to mix up the content that is being studied. This means not just spending the entire study session on one sort of problem and then moving on to a different sort of problem at a later time.

If you take the schedule we used for the spacing example above, we can add the interleaving concepts to it. Notice that interleaving includes revisiting material from a previous chapter or unit or revisiting different types of problems or question sets. The benefit is that your brain is “mixing up” the information, which can sometimes lead to short-term forgetting but can lead to long-term memory and learning.

Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday

Reread chapter 1

Reorganize notes

Reread chapters 1 and 2

Take chapter 1 online quiz

Create chapter 2 concept map

Reread chapters 1-3

Take online quizzes for chapters 2 and 3

Reorganize notes

Create practice test

Reread notes

Review items missed on online quizzes

Take practice test and review challenge areas

Business Test, Chapters 1-3

Practice Testing

Practice testing means testing yourself to see if you have learned the required information. You can do a practice “test” in a number of ways. One is to test yourself as you are reading or taking in information. You can ask yourself what a paragraph or text section means as you read. To do this, read a passage in a text, cover up the material, and ask yourself, “What was the main idea of this section?” Recite aloud or write down your answer, and then check it against the original information.

Another, more involved way to practice test is to create flashcards or an actual test. This takes more time, but there are online programs such as Quizlet that make it a little easier. Practice testing is an effective study strategy because it helps you practice retrieving information, which is what you want to be able to do when you are taking the real test.

Another form of practice testing to is to explain the information to someone else. You can explain the course material to a friend or family member and teach them the lesson. When doing this, you may find you know more about the subject than you thought or you may realize quickly that you need to do more studying.

Debunking Study Myths

Sometimes we think we are studying effectively when really the strategies we are using are not actually helping us retain the information. Avoiding the following ineffective study strategies will help you become a better student.

Myth #1: Multitasking while studying is effective.

How many times do you eat in the car? Watch TV while you write out a grocery list? Listen to music while you cook dinner? Type an e-mail while you’re on the phone with someone else and jot down notes about the call? The common term for when you attempt to do more than one thing at a time is multitasking and almost everyone does it. On some days, you simply cannot accomplish all that you want to get done, so you double up. The problem is, multitasking doesn’t work. When we multitask we aren’t really doing two tasks at once, we are rapidly switching between tasks and this means we focus on neither task for very long and do neither task very well.

Myth #2: Highlighting main points of a text is useful.

Another study myth is the idea that highlighting a text as you read it will help you retain information. Highlighting is a surface activity that means you have only interacted with the material once. Reading and highlighting material once is only the first step in a good study practice. If you allow highlighting to take up all your time, you may think you are fully prepared for an exam when really you have not learned the information. Actually, you need to spend more time reviewing and retrieving your lessons and ideas from the text or class lecture, as well as quizzing yourself, to learn the material so you can perform well on the exam. Highlighting is a task you can do rather easily, and it makes you feel good because you are actively engaging with your text, but true learning needs reviewing and questioning to ensure the material is retained.

Myth #3: Studying effectively should be easy.

There is nothing effortless, or even pleasant at times, about studying. This is why so many students don’t put in the time necessary to learn complex material: it takes time, effort, and, in some cases, a little drudgery. This is not to say that the outcome — learning and maybe making a high grade — is not pleasant and rewarding. It is just that when done right, learning takes focus, deliberate strategies, and time. Think about a superstar athlete who puts in countless hours of drills and conditioning so that she makes her work on the field look easy. If you can also enjoy the studying, the skill development, and the knowledge building, then you will most likely be more motivated to do the work.



Reflect on your study skills by answering the following questions:

When are you most likely to multitask? How could you be more aware of this practice and try to eliminate it, especially when it comes to studying?

How can you make your initial text highlighting more time effective so you that you improve your information retention?

What is one more thing you can do to become a more effective studier?

Key Takeaways

It is important to have a suitable place to study, avoid distractions, and use effective study strategies to successfully learn the material for your courses.

Attribution Statement: Adapted from College Success by Amy Baldwin, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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