This extensive guide shares more than 50 detailed, science-backed tips on everything to do with study. It’s jam-packed with useful resources, links, quizzes and recommendations to help you study more effectively.
Click to explore each section, or scroll to read from the start:
Part 1: Read more effectively
Reading to learn is different from reading for pleasure – you don’t need to read cover to cover. Instead, you need to effectively balance speed with depth, to get maximum knowledge in minimum time.
We’ve all experienced that sinking feeling after hours reading a seemingly useful document only to realise we’ve learned nothing.
So. Here are some strategies to help you stop wasting time and start reading more effectively.
- Determine which questions you’re trying to answer
When you’re studying, you’re reading to learn something specific. There’s a clear goal. And yet many of us waste time reading texts that aren’t tailored to that goal.
The first step before committing your time to read something is ensuring it addresses the question you’re trying to answer. Knowing what you’re trying to learn will help you choose the most relevant study sources to learn.
- Choose quality sources
So, you’ve chosen a text that will help meet your learning goal. The next step is to ensure the source is relevant, accurate, fair, comprehensive and credible.
Source material might come from books, journals, textbooks, websites, reports, whitepapers, videos or anything else. There’s no shortage of information, but you need to find the right information.
Use the CARS checklist to evaluate how useful information will be, before investing time studying:
- Credible – Is the author respected? Is the author cited by other sources? Does the author have the relevant experience and history to be authoritative on this subject?
- Accurate – Is the information current? Is it detailed and comprehensive? Have the ideas been since refuted?
- Reasonable – Is it fair? Is it balanced? Does the author seem objective, or are there conflicts of interest?
- Supported – Is there evidence to back up the author’s claims? Do they use CARS sources to back up their own arguments?
- Get into the referencing habit
Most of us learn the hard way, where you read something and don’t think it’s useful so don’t keep a note. Then weeks later you need to find that material again – but you didn’t write it down. Either you waste hours looking, or you never find it again. Very frustrating – and completely avoidable if you get into the referencing habit early.
Referencing isn’t just a matter of frustration. It’s also make-or-break for your final mark. You have to appropriately credit ideas, concepts, phrases and quotes (if in doubt, reference) or you’ll fall foul of plagiarism rules and risk nulling your mark altogether.
- Skim first, then reassess
When you read for pleasure, you’re reading to construct a narrative. When you’re reading to learn, you’re trying to shortcut to the main point: the answer to your question.
Start by skimming introduction, chapter headings and summaries, as well as any quotes or images that jump out. Then reassess – go back to your original question and see if you’re moving in the right direction to answer it. If not, maybe this isn’t the right text.
If your question is answered, you can probably move on. If you’re somewhere in the middle, move to scanning…
- Scan for medium depth
You know what question you’re trying to answer, or problem you’re trying to solve. Then you’ve skimmed the chapter headings, introduction and any summaries – so you’re moving in the right direction, but haven’t quite answered your question yet.
Now you scan – speed read the rest of the text quickly, to pick out key words, phrases, quotes, diagrams, images and ideas. In most cases, this should give you a solid basic understanding of the concept – and often that’s plenty.
Knowing which texts to read fully, which to scan and which to skim is critical to better studying. Then you can spend more time in the important places and less time in the unimportant places.
- Use glossaries
Using glossaries (or Control + Find online) helps you get straight to what you need. Make notes on key words and concepts that crop up as you read, then go back and check those out too.
Reading should be like building up an onion, one layer at a time.
- Ask questions as you read
We spoke about identifying that original question before you start – what do I actually want to find out? – but you should also ask questions as you read. Things like:
Does this make sense? If not, why not?
What else does this relate to?
What else do I know about this?
What do I need to know more about?
Is this credible, fair and honest?
How does this support my argument?
Questioning and evaluating is an essential part of reading to learn.
- Try and recall
Close the text and your notes, and try to recall the arguments or information you’ve just read. Self-testing like this is a super effective way to cement your understanding, and highlight areas you don’t understand.
- Build a mental image
Pause when you’re reading, close the text and try and turn difficult concepts into a clear mental image. That might be the mechanics of how something works, or it might be a process, or it might simply be an acronym. The point is, try and create an image of what you’re learning in your head – to aid understanding and future recall.
- Summarise to someone
One of the best ways to cement your understanding is to summarise that idea to someone else. It’s also frustrating, because mostly we don’t know it as well as we think we do!
Once you can summarise something so someone else understands – ideally someone who doesn’t know your area/topic well – you’ve got it.
- Take notes
Taking notes is another aspect of active reading. Active reading is better reading because you absorb what you’re learning much faster. Your notes, once you’ve made them, will prove a much better study tool than the original text.
Taking notes is not the same as copying the text verbatim. Go through the other steps first, to make sure you’re learning – not just copying.
Part 2: Write more effectively
Whether in reports, literature reviews, essays or exams, the ability to write effectively means you can communicate your ideas in the best possible way – to maximise reader understanding.
- Know which type of writing you need
Different subjects and tasks need different styles of writing. Academic writing is different from report writing, which is different again from reflective writing. A literature review will be very different from a philosophical essay.
Make sure you know which type of writing you need. If in doubt, ask a tutor or look at other similar pieces from your sources: how do other, more established authors approach these topics?
- Be clear
If your writing isn’t clear, your point will be lost in translation. Things to look for are:
- Use short sentences instead of multiple subclauses
- Don’t choose complex words for the sake of it
- Choose words deliberately and be aware of potential double meaning
- Don’t use acronyms without explaining them
- Don’t use jargon when there’s a plain English word available
- Be specific not vague whenever possible
- Remove unnecessary words – be as short as possible
- Remove double negatives in place of positives
- Use transition words at the start of sentences
- Use signposting to lead the reader through your writing
- Run online writing through Hemingway or Grammarly
Remember – your writing is a journey. You want to guide the reader towards your conclusion, or they might get lost on the way.
- Be relevant and selective
Think about your audience. What do they already know? What don’t you need to waste time telling them? This is also a critical exam technique – people who run out of time are generally wasting time writing irrelevant detail.
Proving your understanding means proving you know what’s relevant and what’s not. Writing everything you know about a topic is a sure-sign you don’t properly understand the question.
- Consider readability
It stands to reason – if your reader can’t read your writing, your writing can’t be effective. So think about what it looks like on the page. Use bullet points or lists where appropriate, and break your text up into paragraphs. Avoid amorphous blocks of text.
This also applies to handwriting during written exams. If your handwriting isn’t absolutely clear, try leaving a line space between every line to help your tutor or examiner read and mark your work.
- Use linking words
Come back to this idea of writing being like a journey. Use linking words to help your reader get from A to B.
Linking words are useful to:
- Add a point – and, also, similarly, moreover
- Contrast points – however, although, yet, in contrast
- Illustrate a point – for example, namely, that is
- Move onto another point – Then, next, subsequently
- Observe consequences – so, therefore, since, despite
- Summarise – finally, in conclusion, in summary
- Add a list – firstly, secondly, thirdly
- Proofread well
Poorly proofed work will lose marks, however good your writing is. And they’re easy marks – why would you throw them away?
Things to check include:
- Language repetition
Proofreading is easier out-loud, as you’ll notice errors more easily and be less tempted to skim. It’s also easier from printed text not on a screen. If possible, ask someone else to proofread for you too – a fresh pair of eyes will help catch anything you’ve missed.
Part 3: Improve your memory
You shouldn’t learn by rote and repeat verbatim but memory is still a vital study skill. You’ll need to remember things like key ideas, concepts, dates, quotes and events accurately.
In this section, you’ll find tips and tricks to hone your memorisation skills.
- Active reading helps your memory
In the section on effective reading, we shared loads of ways to process information better as you read. This is the best thing you can do for your memory – because better memory starts with better understanding.
Use the techniques we outlined, like creating a mental image and pushing yourself to recall what you’ve just read. Build that understanding earlier and you’re more likely to remember it.
- Make notes in your own words
A great way to remember something is to write it down in your own words. The ‘own words’ part is especially important! Don’t be tempted to copy notes straight from your textbook because you think they say it better than you. The act of interpreting their words into your own is embedding that information in your memory.
- Mentally connect information
It’s easier to remember things when you understand how the different elements connect. Slot new information into the context of what you already know.
Think of your knowledge like a web, where everything is interconnected. What does this new information relate to? What else do you know that’s similar?
- Visually connect information
This is like the above, except you create an actual physical representation using things like diagrams and mind-maps to link concepts. This is a form of visual learning – the first learning style in the Fleming VAK model. If you’re a visual learner, it means you find it easier to remember information that was presented spatially.
- Use colour
Colour coding gets a bad rep, but it can be very helpful. Try highlighting key ideas in different colours, to create a visual association. This ties into the visual style of learning.
- Make flashcards
Flashcards can help you learn small concepts or pieces of information like formulas, dates and events. Try putting flashcards somewhere you’ll see them regularly, like on your mirror. Then when you can easily recall the flashcard, replace it with another. Repeat the cycle until you know all the flashcards well.
- Create aural prompts
The next type of learning in the Fleming VAK model is auditory. This means you remember information best when you hear it.
If you’re an auditory learner, you’re probably someone who easily remembers whole conversations. You probably find it easy to follow spoken directions, where a visual learner needs those directions written down to process them.
If you’re an auditory learner, try some of these tactics:
- Read notes out loud to yourself
- Work collaboratively with a study partner
- Record notes and play them to yourself
- Create songs or poems to remember information
- Make study engaging
The final type of learner in the Fleming model is kinaesthetic – people who learn best when doing something. Sit down and study really isn’t your style if you’re this type of learner, and you won’t remember much if you do.
Instead try and make study engaging. Link concepts to games, role plays, and interactive quizzes, for example, and you’ll be more likely to remember them. You could create flashcards you can read while you’re doing something active too. For this type of learner, memory is linked to experience.
- Test yourself
Self-testing is based on retrieval practice, which has been proven to help build your memory. It’s the idea of repeatedly testing yourself on new information, with things like practice questions, quizzes, recall, ‘blind’ note-taking (i.e. not looking at the source book), summarising, and so on.
Overlearning is a scientifically-proven technique backed up by numerous reputable studies. The idea is to practise your knowledge at least 25% beyond the point of initial proficiency – so it becomes automatic knowledge.
Once your knowledge of the material becomes automatic, it doesn’t take effort to ‘remember’ – so you can spend more time applying it, questioning it, evaluating it, and so on.
Which brings us neatly to our next point…
- Leave yourself plenty of time
Techniques like overlearning can boost your memory hugely, but they take time. Plus, spreading your study out over a longer period of time has been proven to have a huge impact on your long-term memory. In other words, don’t cram.
Part 4: Improve your concentration
We all know the feeling. You’re sitting at your desk, notes open, best intentions. You read the first page, then suddenly you’re checking Twitter, daydreaming about lunch or texting your mates.
Sometimes though, hours can pass in the blink of an eye. You absorb new subjects by osmosis, quickly getting to grips with difficult concepts. Everything just falls into place.
So how do you turn the former experience into the latter? It’s all about concentration.
You can have the best notes, the optimum environment and the most comprehensive source material – but if you can’t concentrate, your study efforts will fall flat.
Here are some top tips to improve your concentration.
- Eat properly
Boring, boring – but true. If you don’t meet your body’s basic nutritional requirements, your concentration will suffer. Stable blood sugar levels help your mind run at peak performance. Stick to a consistent eating pattern (no skipping meals) and avoid sugar-filled snacks.
- Ditch the caffeine
When you can’t concentrate, it’s tempting to turn to caffeine to help you ‘power through’. Your study session becomes a battle of the wills: your brain, which wants to switch off, and caffeine, to switch you on.
Caffeine may help you stay awake and alert, but it won’t do much for your concentration. It’s hollow alertness, not the focussed alertness that characterised concentration.
Avoid the vicious cycle altogether and you’ll be doing yourself a big favour.
- Drink more water
These aren’t ground-breaking tips, we know. But they’re cliché for a reason: they really do work. Numerous studies have proven that dehydration – even very mild dehydration – leads to inattention.
You’ve heard this all before but. Exercise triggers chemicals in your brain that are proven to help concentration. It works. Do it.
- Chunk your time
It’s tempting to approach study like a marathon, but for most of us concentration is more like a sprint.
If you’re struggling to concentrate, try breaking your time into short chunks with regular short breaks. That way, you ‘trick’ your brain into concentrating for short periods of time.
If possible, study different topics during those chunks too. When your brain gets bored, your concentration quickly wanes – switching topics regularly can help combat the problem.
- Set goals
Set goals for your study, not deadlines. In other words, you’re saying ‘in the next chunk, I want to complete one practice question’ not ‘the next chunk is half an hour’.
This helps focus your mind on achievement – which forces concentration – over time passing – which doesn’t.
- Avoid multi-tasking
Concentration be definition means to focus on one task, so it stands to reason that multi-tasking hinders concentration.
Lots of people fall into the trap of thinking busy means productive, but it doesn’t. Rather than getting more done, you get less done – and worse. Plus research has proven multi-tasking is bad for your health, if you needed more convincing.
- Get rid of distractions
We’ve all been there. You sit down, armed with your laptop and notes, ready to start studying. But then you notice – the washing up isn’t done. The bin is overflowing. And your bedsheets – they definitely need a wash. Plus the group chat keeps pinging, and then there’s that email you should answer…
You won’t concentrate on work if you’re plagued by obvious distractions. So clean your working space before you’re meant to be working; do your chores; turn off phone notifications; disconnect from the Wi-Fi and log-out of your emails.
- Build the right study environment
Everyone is different but if your study environment isn’t right for you, your concentration will really suffer. Check out our section on this for some specific pointers on creating the optimum study environment.
- Make a plan
Feeling overwhelmed is a major hurdle to concentration. When we feel like that, we tend to put off study because we don’t want to face it and the problem only gets worse.
Combat this with an action plan that breaks down what you need to do. That way, you don’t need loads of motivation to get started every study session; you just have to turn up and follow your own instructions. Make life easier for yourself.
Not in the hyper-organised sense. More in the literal ‘storm from the brain’ sense. You can sometimes struggle to concentrate because your brain has a million other thoughts it can’t let go. Often, that’s because of a subconscious fear we’ll forget something important, or a worry we haven’t dealt with.
Solve that by writing everything down – it doesn’t have to make sense, or follow any logical order. Just pick up the pen or keyboard and take five minutes to write down anything and everything that pops into your head. You reassure your mind you won’t forget, and clear your head to concentrate on study.
- Just start for ten minutes
Sometimes you struggle to concentrate because you’re overwhelmed by the mammoth task ahead of you. Instead, just start – but promise yourself you can stop after ten minutes if you want to.
Often you won’t want to, because getting started is the hardest thing – but even if you do, that’s still ten minutes more than you’d have done otherwise.
- Learn breathing techniques
Stress can be a major cause of poor concentration. One of the best ways to combat stress is to practice breathing techniques that help you regulate the production of adrenaline
You know that panicky feeling in your chest before a big deadline or exam, that stops you doing anything productive except worry? Breathing techniques help you get that under control.
Part 5: Build your study environment
Studying in the wrong environment can massively impact your concentration and memory retention.
The most important thing is to discover what works best for you. The tips below will give you a few pointers but everyone is different. Listen to yourself, and work out which environment is most productive for you.
Here are some things to consider.
- Chair type
An aching back and stiff neck won’t do anything for your concentration. Ergonomic chairs are always a great bet, or maybe you’ll prefer a sofa in your local coffee shop, or a comfy beanbag in the library.
Probably avoid benches and stools – that hipster café might seem like the perfect place to settle down to study, but give it an hour and you’ll be aching all over.
Have you ever noticed yourself dozing off in a too-warm lecture room? Or shivering through class instead of taking notes because you were Just. Too. Cold?
Temperature matters. Find out what works for you and stick to it. Even if that’s not what makes you most comfortable.
- Oxygen levels
A recent study found that having houseplants nearby when you study can increase productivity by a whopping 15%. Memory retention is especially impacted.
There are two types of study environment: permanent and temporary. Think your room vs. a coffee shop or the library, for example.
Some people find it easier to work from a permanent base, preferring the comfort of having their own things around them. Others prefer to ‘go to work’, and find it easier to get into a study mentality. Work out which you are.
- Noise levels
Many people prefer to work in total silence, but research shows ambient noise can aid focus and productivity: could be worth giving a try. For basic ambient noise head out to a coffee shop or interactive working space, or if you prefer to work alone try an online generator like RainyMood or Coffivity.
Or YouTube has endless numbers of ‘study music’ playlists – just search until you find something you can work with. Although music without vocals often proves more effective than your favourite tunes. Studying and singalong don’t go hand-in-hand.
- Time of day
Your schedule might not allow you to study whenever you want, but it’s still useful to know when you’re most productive. If you’re not a natural early bird, forcing yourself to get up two hours before lectures to study probably isn’t going to last. Setting yourself up to fail is a sure-fire way to lose motivation quickly too.
Not sure whether you’re a night owl or early bird? Take this quiz from BuzzFeed.
This comes back to the type of learner you are. If you’re an auditory learner, for example, you’ll often study best in a group where you can discuss ideas and concepts. If you’re a visual learner, you might prefer silent study where you can create and visualise diagrams.
Part 6: Manage your time
Time management is one of the most important study skills. Otherwise exams and deadlines have a nasty habit of sneaking up on you, leaving you unprepared when you thought you still had ages.
Here are our best time management tips.
- Understand how you spend time
The first step to better time management is to get really honest with yourself about where you’re spending and wasting time.
Try tracking your time for a week and categorising activities. Those ten-minutes here and there all add up, and before you know it, you’ve spend double the time on Facebook that you have studying.
- Plan in advance
Work back from whatever your deadline is, and note down all the events, lectures, deadlines, presentations, meetings and so on between now and then. Then add other time commitments. You probably already have less left than you thought you would!
Now add study time into the spaces you’ve got left, creating a timetable for yourself.
- Set daily, weekly and monthly goals
When creating your timetable, break your overarching goal (say, understand the complete module) into smaller goals for each month. Then break each month into weekly goals, and do the same for daily goals and to-do items.
This gives you oversight of the whole process – so you can visualise the importance of each element to the whole. If you know why you’re studying next week, you’re much less likely to skip out.
Prioritisation is the heart of good time management. The Eisenhower Decision Matrix gives a good framework for prioritisation:
- Quadrant 1 – Important and urgent
- Emails needing urgent attention
- Quadrant 2 – Important but not urgent
- Assessment and evaluation
- Quadrant 3 – Urgent but not important
- Most emails or calls
- Most meetings
- Ringing phones
- Quadrant 4 – Not important nor urgent
- Online games
Most people spend way too long in quadrant 3, reacting to things that demand attention right now. Instead, try and spend more time in quadrant 1 and 2. You’ll suddenly realise you’re achieving much more in the same time.
- Study smart
Remember – it’s not about how much time you have; it’s about how you use it. You could skim flashcards while waiting for a lecture to start, for example, or take a quick online quiz instead of browsing Facebook again. Don’t only study when you have hours and hours of time free; instead try and work your study around your everyday life.
So, there you have it: 53 comprehensive tips to help you study more effectively, take back control of your time and improve your memory. Happy learning!