Study Skills

It is possible for all students to develop the skills necessary to be successful in college. Those who are not successfull often do not lack the intellectual ability but lack well developed study skills. To help you develop and refine your study skills the following hints are presented. Remember, in college the final responsible for your success lies with you. The instructor will provide you with the necessary information but it is your job to learn and understand it.

In the following paragraphs you will find many different ideas and strategies for developing effective study skills. There are potentially as many different strategies used by successful students to study effectively as there are successful students. Each student must find what strategies work best for them. The information contained here is not intended to be an all inclusive list of study strategies nor is it meant to serve as a recipe for the best way to study. Instead, use this page as a source of ideas for effective studying and try different techniques. Each person must find what combination works best for them. If you need further assistance there are resources that may be of help to you including your instructor, counselors, and various study skills books (several are referenced at the end of this page).

    The following list of hints is divided into four sections:

I. State of Mind - you have to make a concious effort to study effectively - it takes a lot of effort and motivation.
II. Time Management - there is no fast and easy way to study, studying takes a lot of time.
III. Study Skills - Note that three components are common to all effective study strategies:
(1) Repetition (repeating the information in your own words / images),
(2) Effort (making a conscious effort to understand and remember the information being studied),
(3) Time (there is no quick and easy way to learn, it takes work, time, and motivation!).
IV. Test Taking Tips - taking tests effectively so you can demonstrate what you know is a skill (just like studying).

Remember that you are here because you want to learn, nobody is forcing you to go to college. Many students think of their classes as obstacles that they have to get past. Don't create barriers to learning by thinking of your class work as an obstacle. Make an effort to remind yourself that you want to understand the material being presented! It is all part of a process preparing you to be the professional that you want to be (otherwise why are you here). Even in required courses that do not seem to apply to your goals their is valuable information. Look for the positive - the more you learn the more you will understand the world around you and the more self reliant you will be.

Effective studying takes time, lots of time. It is imperative that you manage your time effectively. Draw out your weekly schedule and plan your study time (schedule study periods just like a class). A rule of thumb is that you should plan to study for a minimum of 2-3 hours for every unit the class is worth each week (thus for a three unit class you should plan on spending 6 - 10 hours a week studying outside of class). Don't wait and try to pack in unreasonable numbers of study hours before a test, plan ahead. Study 50 minute hours with 10 minute breaks, and don't forget to schedule in time for yourself, to work out at the gym or spend time with family members. With efficient time management you can study effectively and have a life.

Manage your time and commit to a study schedule. Consideration of some of the following points will help you make a schedule that will work for you.

  1. Plan ahead. Mark on your calendar all deadlines for exams, papers etc...(prepare a calendarof the semester).
  2. Draw out your weekly schedule. Set blocks of time aside for work, classes, and study. Remember you need time to sleep, eat, and play! so be realistic, there are only 24 hours in a day (see the week planning schedule - part of the time management supplement).
  3. Stick to your study schedule - establishing and maintaining a regular schedule of study so that you know what you are going to study and when will dramatically reduce wasted time.
  4. Create a checklist of work that must be done each week (i.e. chapters to be read...) and hang this list at your study area. Check off items as you complete them.
  5. Utilize odd times, don't waste that hour between classes, use it to study or to take care of other tasks. The more you get done now the less you have to do later.
  6. Study as soon after class as possible while the information is still fresh in your mind, it will take more time if you wait and have to relearn it.
  7. Limit yourself to 2 hours on one subject at any one time. After 2 hours for most  students, their ability to concentrate will decrease as will the effectiveness of their studying. Take a break, then switch to another subject.  Short, frequent study sessions are much more effective than one or two marathon study sessions. Do not procrastinate so that you have to cram!


Once you have established a schedule to study you need to get the most out of that time. Several things will help increase your effectiveness. As already mentioned, maintaining a regular schedule is one. Another is creating a comfortable environment for studying that is free of distractions. Finally there is the What and How of studying. 

A. What to Study:

Generally all the material that you should know for an exam is presented in lecture or in your lab work. Therefore you can use the lectures and labs as a guide to what is important and emphasize this material in your studying. To be most effective your lecture/lab notes must include all of the key points covered in lecture/lab. As an aid many instructors provide lecture  outlines. These can be very helpful as a guide but should not replace good note taking.

DO NOT take this to imply that you do not need to read the text. Textbooks often may be thought of as a supplement to the lecture/lab that you can use to preview the material, to fill in  gaps in your notes, to answer questions, and for review.  They are, however, a critical  component in your learning and should not be omitted. Use the text!!

Note:  Different instructors utilize textbook information to different degrees. Some test only from lectures while others test heavily from the text (even if the text material has not been  discussed). It is up to you to determine what your instructor expects of you. In either case it is  rare for an instructor to discuss something that they do not think is important.

  1.  If it is discussed in lecture it is important.  The more time spent on it the more important it is.
  2.  Know the terminology - if you can't speak the language...
  3.  Note and study all figures presented in lecture and lab.

B. How to Study:

There is no single "best" way to study. Each individual must find the best method for them. This may even vary for a given individual depending on the subject matter. However, three components are common to all: (1) repetition, (2) effort, and (3) time. Repetition is a key component necessary to move information into memory. As an absolute minimum you should plan to review the material three times, in lecture, in reviewing the lecture, and in reading the text. This should be active review during which you organize your thoughts and test yourself. Actively studying requires effort, learning is hard work. It also takes time, there are no shortcuts.

The following is a compilation of many of the techniques used by successful students to study. The more of them that you can incorporate into your collection of skills the more likely you are to succeed.

1. Preview material to be presented prior to attending lecture or lab.

  • read and highlight important sections of the reading (note: highlighting is like note taking, highlight only enough to remind yourself of the key information presented.
  • if time is short - preview the material briefly to identify key terms and concepts. This can be done in several ways:
    • read the chapter summary.
    • read section headings and bold type.
    • inspect figures and read figure headings (note: at some point you should read the text in detail and highlight as above).
  • for lab: prepare a lab notebook in which you rewrite all procedures in your own words along one half of each page. Also you should prepare a data record sheet (what data should be recorded and in what form should it be presented). During lab record your notes and data along the second half of the page adjacent to each of the steps.

2. Take good lecture notes - good note taking is a valuable skill that is difficult to master.

  • don't try to write everything that is said, just note enough to remind yourself what was discussed (your notes should be clear to you but not necessarily to anyone else).
  • note all figures presented in lecture for later review.

3. Rewrite your lecture notes as soon as possible after the lecture (note: this should be an active process - do not simply re-copy your notes, think about what you are writing and write it in your own words).

  • read through the text (or reread) and fill in the gaps in your lecture notes (some students like to take a separate set of notes from their reading and then combine their lecture and text notes).
  • convert your notes into flash cards for review (just making them is a learning process).
  • make up questions from your notes - this will help you to actively think about the material and may help you to predict what kinds of questions may be on the test.
  • If you are find that no matter how hard you try you still miss parts of the lecture try taping the lecture and review the tape to fill in missing information (warning: DO NOT waste your time listening to the entire lecture again, just use it to fill in gaps in your notes. Beware of the tendancy towards reduced vigilance in lecture, just because the tape recorder is running does not mean you do not need to listen).

4. Draw out flow diagrams of complex processes or relationships.

  • this can be a simple or very complex "map" to help you visualize relationships (note: if you learn the relationships and the general concepts it is often possible to reason out the details, however, learning the details alone often is not helpful in learning the concepts).

5. Draw simple anatomical pictures illustrating structures and relationships - these do not need to be artwork but should be clear to you.

6. Use additional resources when needed (i.e. texts) - frequently texts used in prerequisite classes can provide a clear overview of the general concepts helpful in keeping perspective (in advanced courses it is possible to lose sight of the big picture).

  • different texts may present information in different ways that are clearer to you.
  • warning: it is easy to become overwhelmed if you try to use all of the resources that are available. Keep it simple, use the resources that are assigned and turn to alternate sources only when and if you need them.

7. Test yourself - self study questions can often be found at the ends of chapters, in study guides, and in computer applications.

  • If old exams are available use them (but not as a primary study source).
  • go through old exams as you study then again as review prior to the test.
  • warning: do not use self study questions as your primary method of study but as way to review and evaluate what you need to study further.

8. Review what you have studied with a study group - study groups should not replace individual study but are frequently the best way to review what you have learned.

9. Take advantage of instructor office hours to clear up any questions that you cannot answer on your own.

10. Review and analyze your mistakes on your tests - what are the correct answers, why did you miss the questions, how can you improve your studying and test performance?


When the time comes to take the test do not just jump in and race to finish. Take your time, relax, and do your best. Remember, it is only a test.

  • Read the questions thoroughly - make sure you understand what is being asked.
  • For multiple choice questions, read through the question and try to answer it BEFORE looking at the choices. Then read through all the choices before picking the answer that best fits your answer.
  • Read through the test and answer what you know first - don't get stuck on questions you don't know, skip them and come back to them later.
  • Go back and work through the questions you were not sure of the first time (warning: if you look at a question that you answered and you think you should change your answer but you still are not sure - don't change it!  Only change answers that you are sure are incorrect).
  • Do not leave any questions blank - watch your time.
  • If time permits review your test to make sure you didn't leave any questions blank, or to double check questions you were unsure of (note previous warning).
  • Watch for danger words in multiple choice and true-false questions like "all," "always," "every," "never," and "none".  Because there are no exceptions to the statement when these words are used the statement is often false.
  • Essay questions often require you to make a statement that answers the question and supports it with facts. For this type of essay question instructors do not want your opinion, they want to see how well you can support your point.  Warning: be clear and complete, never assume that the instructor will know what you mean - answer the question as if explaining it to someone who knows nothing about the subject.
  • Be neat - if the instructor cannot read it they may not give you credit for it.


James, Elizabeth and Carol Barkin.  How to be School Smart. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books,  New York. 1988.

Miller, Lyle.  Some Hints on Planning a Better Study Schedule. University of Wyoming, 1962.

Pearce, Frank.  Biology Study Skills.  West Valley College,  1995.