Guide to College Study Skills

To succeed in college, you’ll need to adopt effective study habits and develop critical learning skills. How you study, take notes in class, conduct research, and prepare for your exams will determine how well you perform as a college student. Read on for a closer look at the factors that will shape your learning experience, your grades, and your educational success in college. The following guide divides these factors into four primary areas: Study Habits; Learning Skills; Test Preparation; and Academic Integrity.

Guide to College Study Skills
By AI Staff

College has a lot to offer. From student clubs and intramural sports to weekend parties and spring break excursions, you have a lot going on. But of course, the main reason you’re here is to learn. Your primary focus in college is studying, learning, building skills, and advancing knowledge…or at least it should be.

So how can you be sure that you’re effectively managing these priorities? What steps can you take to improve your learning outcomes?

Now that you’re in college, it’s more important than ever to refine your learning and study skills; to get better at exercising discipline and managing your time; to practice and refine the tools you’ll need to earn your degree and get a good job. Your success in school will depend on your mastery of these skills.

For a wider ranging set of support resources—including tips for academic assistance and mental health support, check out our Guide to Surviving College.

If you’re focused on strengthening your study habits, developing your learning skills, studying more effectively for your exam, and successfully adhering to the rules of academic integrity, read on…

Strengthen Your Basic Study Habits

Before you get into the finer details of your college experience, like taking notes in calculus class or poring over books on the eve of an exam, there are some basic study habits that will have a big impact on your long-term performance. Set yourself up for success by building a foundation for effective study and positive academic performance. This includes creating a suitable learning environment, discovering your own learning style, learning how to manage your time, and more…

Know Your Learning Style

  • The first step to effective studying and learning is knowing yourself, and understanding what strategies work best for you.
  • Take a closer look at your learning habits to determine how you best absorb information and knowledge. The VARK model, for instance, says learning can be divided into Visual, Auditory, Reading and writing, and Kinesthetic categories.
  • Most learners benefit from some combination of these learning approaches, as well as a combination of additional learning styles such as verbal, logical, social, or solitary learning.
  • Rely on the combination of learning styles that is most effective for you whether you’re in class, completing an assignment, or studying.

Create a Suitable Studying and Working Environment

  • Find a work space that is compatible with your learning style and personal preference, whether you need absolute silence, a stimulating environment, or just a comfy chair where you can put your feet up while reading.
  • Avoid things that distract you. Recognize your temptations and avoid them, whether it’s the television, text messages from your friends, or the infinite scroll of Instagram. Whatever it is, put it away while you study.
  • Establish boundaries with roommates, friends, or family so that your learning space can be your sanctuary when you’re studying or completing assignments.
  • If possible, reserve a special space for your work and study. You’ll do much better in a designated study space than you will sitting up in bed or cramming at your kitchen table.

Manage Your Time Effectively

  • Effective time management is critical to finding balance between studying, homework, student activities, personal responsibilities, employment, and your social calendar.
  • Use time management tools like to-do lists, calendars, and reminders to stay on task. There are tons of apps on your computer, tablet, or smartphone that can help.
  • Don’t overdo it. You have a lot to get done, but burnout is also a real risk for college students.
  • Find balance between study, activity, enjoyment, and recovery.
  • Get plenty of sleep!
  • Establish realistic blocks of time for studying and completing your assignments. Designate time to your other activities in a way that doesn’t detract from established study time.

Practice Self-Discipline

  • Stay focused. Don’t allow social media, clickbait, or household chores to lure you away from your studies.
  • Avoid negative influences, excessive alcohol consumption, drug abuse, and other vices that might disrupt your ability to focus or perform in your classes.
  • Magnify your abilities and improve upon your limitations. If you struggle to memorize facts, learn mnemonic strategies for improving memory. If you are particularly strong with visual learning, look for diagrams and videos that might help improve your understanding.
  • Say yes to activities that interest you or that can advance your goals, but be willing to say no when it interrupts your workflow. Overcome your FOMO*.
  • *Fear of Missing Out

Adjust Your Strategies to Your Conditions

  • Learning strategies may differ depending on the environment. Be prepared to adjust your approach based on factors like class size (small core class vs. large lecture hall); subject (math, English, laboratory science, etc.); or medium (face-to-face, online, blended, etc.).
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  • Recognize that you are likely stronger in some subjects than others and shift your approach accordingly. If you find that you need to spend more time reading to remember important historical facts, or you need to enlist outside support to handle your math courses, don’t be afraid to adjust.
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  • If you’re struggling to adjust, speak with an advisor or professor to identify the factors that are posing the greatest challenge and build strategies for overcoming these factors.

Take Advantage of Critical Support Resources

  • If you’re struggling to adjust to the pace, material, or your learning environment, do not be afraid to access critical support resources. Support may include your professor, an on-campus Student Development Center, or your academic advisor.
  • Additional resources may include writing labs, professor office hours, T.A. reviews, tutoring and more. Find out what your campus or college has to offer and access resources as needed.
  • Mental health support is another important channel for help, especially if you’re struggling with test anxiety, academic burnout, or depression. Don’t hesitate to reach out for mental health support if you are in need, in crisis, or you simply need somebody to talk to.

For a wider ranging set of support resources—including tips for academic assistance and mental health support, check out our Guide to Surviving College.

Refine Your Essential Learning Skills

Learning skills are the abilities that you use to absorb and retain information; to transform information into knowledge; to gather findings and insights from your research; and to get the most out of your educational time, whether you’re in class, at home, or working in a group setting. While every student learns differently, exhibits different strengths, and has different areas of need, many critical learning skills can be practiced, improved and mastered over time. College will bring you face to face with a number of academic challenges. Practicing these essential learning skills can help…

Practice Critical Reading

  • Critical reading means slowing down, reading your texts more deeply, and taking a more interactive approach to your reading process.
  • Look for the author’s thesis, central argument, and primary supports as you read.
  • Highlight key ideas and single out meaningful passages that convey the main themes in your reading.
  • Make connections between key ideas, symbolic elements, tone, authority, and other features that might distinguish the work.
  • Read course material multiple times to ensure both comprehension and recognition of important underlying ideas and subtexts.
  • Look up terms, references, or allusions that you don’t understand.
  • Keep margin notes, a running notebook of ideas, or just highlight key terms, concepts, and excerpts that you plan to revisit.

Improve Listening Comprehension

  • Practice your listening and retention by starting with something you enjoy, like a favorite audiobook or a lyrically compelling musician.
  • Start by focusing on the big picture information rather than the small details.
  • Practice patience—sitting still, opening your mind, and preparing to hear everything that is being said.
  • Do not allow your note-taking to supersede listening. Make sure that you’re actually receiving and evaluating information, rather than simply scribbling into your notebook.

Take Effective Notes

  • Practice active listening as you write notes. Do not allow note-taking to distract you from actually listening and absorbing in real-time.
  • Don’t write every word your professor says. Focus on highlights and key points.
  • Try to organize your notes in sections based on topics, units, dates, etc.
  • Outlines can be an effective way to organize your notes so that they make sense when you revisit them.
  • You may also want to paraphrase your professor’s words in terms that make sense to you.
  • On the subject of making sense, be sure to write legibly! There’s nothing more disappointing than returning to your notes the week before a test only to find you can’t understand your own writing.

Improve Your Memorization Skills

  • Memorization isn’t necessarily the most enriching or rewarding part of studying, but it’s almost certainly something you’ll have to do.
  • Figure out strategies that work for you, including mnemonics, flashcards, or highlighting passages in key texts.
  • Read important passages out loud to yourself, or out loud to somebody else if you have a willing study buddy.
  • Read materials more than once, review your notes regularly, and ask friends or classmates to quiz you.

Improve Your Writing Skills

  • Write as often as possible. The more you practice this skill, the less scary writing will seem.
  • Share your writing with others and be receptive to feedback.
  • Write what you know. If your assignment requires you to write about something unfamiliar, do your best to at least write from your perspective.
  • Find your voice. This is the writing equivalent of advising you to “just be yourself.” Channel your inner-monologue and your own linguistic style into your writing. Let your personality shine through the words.
  • “Show” rather than “Tell.” Use an effective example or anecdote to demonstrate a point rather than simply reciting a list of facts. A good story or analogy is generally more interesting, engaging, and illuminating to the reader.
  • Study and practice the rules of grammar, diction, and punctuation. Readers will take your message far more seriously if you present yourself well.

Learn How To Conduct Effective Research

  • Know how to use all the resources at your fingertips, from your campus library, to your school’s online libraries, to the various scholarly journals you’ll have access to as a student.
  • As you review sources, learn how to spot key ideas, distinguish meaningful arguments, and find counterpoints to these arguments.
  • Differentiate credible sources from non-credible sources.
  • Know the difference between primary and secondary sources; between journalism and tabloids; between scholarly research and opinion; between qualified editorials and factually inaccurate clickbait.
  • You have the freedom to use any sources that you deem appropriate, but be sure to characterize these sources properly in your writing. If you plan to reference a less-than-credible tabloid article, say so, and explain why you chose this reference.
  • Create proper citations and bibliographies, and know how to give credit to others for their work, regardless of medium.

Online Study Skills

  • Online studying, learning, and research are a central part of the learning experience today. Be prepared to seize on that experience.
  • Make sure you have the right web access and computer tech, and that you know how to use it!
  • Know how to use search engines, navigate online libraries, and access scholarly journals online.
  • Identify credible sources, avoid unreliable or biased outlets, and know how to verify information using primary sources.
  • Take advantage of the opportunity the web gives you to ask questions of your professors, email websites, and even connect with the researchers, experts, and authors who have produced your key sources.

Practice Public Speaking

  • At some point in your college education, you will likely be required to give a presentation or speak before a group. How frequently you must do so will depend in part on your discipline. If you’re a pre-law student, expect plenty of public speaking. If you’re a math major, it probably won’t come up as often. Your level of comfort with public speaking may be at least one factor to consider as you choose your major.
  • Practice at home in front of a mirror so that you can master your pacing and enunciation, and so you can pinpoint phrases or portions of your presentation that might trip you up.
  • Try to channel any nervousness into excitement about what you have to say. Don’t let the haters or critics (real or imaginary) get in your head.
  • Take a moment to catch your breath, collect yourself, and make eye contact with your audience before launching into a presentation.
  • Speak slowly when presenting to an audience. How slowly? Here’s a hint: You can almost always speak slower than you think you need to.

Know How to Debate Effectively

  • Some college classes will give you a chance to debate, defend your ideas, and develop your rhetorical skills, but make sure you understand the basic principles of debate. You aren’t here to fight an ideological war. You’re here to share ideas and, if possible, reach a common truth.
  • Understand your position, remain focused on your key argument, and make sure every point you make is relevant to this key argument.
  • Avoid undermining your argument with logical fallacies.
  • Don’t get emotional or defensive. Use rational ideas and a cool head to get your point across.
  • Set up your debate counterpart by thinking several steps ahead. Try to anticipate their counterpoints. Ask questions in a logical sequence, preferably questions to which you already know the answer. Use your opponent’s own words to make your point.

Work Well With Others

  • Know how to contribute to group work without falling short of your teammates’ expectations or overshadowing their contributions.
  • Understand where your strengths are and assume a role in the group that is consistent with these strengths. Are you a leader? An organizer? A strong writer or a thorough researcher? Offer your talents to the group.
  • Know when to share ideas, and when to listen. Communication is key to successful group work.

Preparing for Exams

Exams are an inescapable part of the college experience. At some point, you will take unit tests, midterm exams, or finals. Exams are designed to evaluate your mastery of a subject area, or an entire course. As such, they can carry a lot of weight in terms of your final grade. How effectively you study and prepare for your exams may determine your performance. Moreover, your psychological approach to exams can have a big impact on your mental health and your learning outcomes. Keep these test-prep strategies in mind not just as you approach big tests, but throughout your college education.

Avoid Cramming

  • Study regularly throughout the semester. Review and revisit your notes and prior units so that your real test prep is more of a review than a cram.
  • Don’t trade sleep and nutrition for late-night studying. Cramming to the point of exhaustion may yield diminishing returns if you show up to the exam exhausted and overwhelmed by information.
  • Break your studying into manageable blocks, distributing digestible study sessions across the weeks before your exams instead of trying to jam all your studying into a single night.

If You Must Cram—

  • Take breaks to stretch, especially when you’re pouring over notes and texts for long periods at a time.
  • Organize your cramming in a logical sequence so that you aren’t attempting to absorb a chaotic jumble of facts and ideas just before test day. Try to break your cramming into logical units.
  • Mix it up a little bit, using strategies like re-reading key texts, quizzing yourself with flashcards, or discussing key ideas with classmates. Distinguish different portions of your cramming session by sampling different learning styles and study methods.

Use Proven Study Strategies

  • Know the format(s) of your exam. Study and practice in the same format. If the exam is mostly multiple choice, practice the subject using multiple choice. If you anticipate essay questions, write a practice essay or two.
  • Study with classmates and study by yourself. Mix it up and get the best of both worlds—the perspective of others, and your own sharpened focus.
  • Verbalize key ideas out loud, preferably in conversation with others, but in front of the mirror if need be.

Manage Your Anxiety

  • The best strategy for preventing test-taking anxiety is effective preparation. If you have studied, attended classes, and you comprehend the material, you should feel secure in knowing you’ve done everything you can.
  • If you are naturally prone to test-taking anxiety, consider mitigating the effects by getting plenty of sleep, eating well, and avoiding additional sources of stress in your life as you prepare for a test.
  • Perspective is also important. Take a positive outlook into your exams, and remember that the emphasis should really be on the learning experience, as opposed to your grades.
  • Look for support when you need it, either from your professor, through group study, or from a guidance counselor or mental health professional.

For a wider ranging set of support resources—including tips for academic assistance and mental health support, check out our Guide to Surviving College.

Academic Integrity

Academic integrity goes hand in hand with effective study habits and strong learning skills. Academic integrity refers to the honesty with which you conduct research, complete assignments, and take exams. Most schools have honor codes that provide clear detail on what is expected of you in terms of academic integrity. This includes restraint from cheating or plagiarism, the proper use of citations, and a complete understanding of the rules around online research. In addition to consulting your school’s honor code, consider the following academic integrity rules as generally universal. These terms should be adhered to in any learning environment…

Don’t Commit Plagiarism

  • Plagiarism refers to the act of claiming somebody else’s work as your own, whether copying full lines, passages, and documents or taking another person’s ideas, concepts, designs, or visual work without proper citation. Don’t do it!
  • Familiarize yourself with the rules of plagiarism and remain conscious of them any time you write an assignment.
  • Know your school’s honor code so that you don’t violate its policies either intentionally or accidentally.
  • Know where to draw the line between collaboration with classmates, and sharing or copying one another’s work.
  • If writing is a challenge for you, consider visiting your school’s writing lab or working with a tutor to improve your skills. Not only is this a far better option than copying the work of others, but these skills will serve you well throughout your education and life.

Use Proper Citations

  • Always be sure to credit others for their work, whether you’re quoting it, paraphrasing it, or it forms the basis for one of your core ideas.
  • Use the citation format specified for the assignment. MLA, APA, Chicago, and Turabian are among the most commonly specified citation formats.
  • Only use valid, credible sources with verifiable information.
  • Beware of Contract Cheating Sites.
  • Know the difference between online helpers and online cheaters. Distinguish between editors and tutors on one hand, and essay mills and cheating websites on the other. These two entities often occupy the same search engine space online, but have vastly different ethical dispositions.
  • Don’t give in to pressure either from peers, family members or from within to cheat. The risk is not worth the reward.
  • If you are struggling and considering using one of these cheating services, know that you have many far better options. Begin by seeking real academic support through the proper channels, including professor office hours, tutoring or mental health counseling.

For a wider ranging set of support resources—including tips for academic assistance and mental health support, check out our Guide to Surviving College.