Study Skills/Printable version

Study Skills

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Learning involves many activities: managing your time, taking notes, reading books, listening to lectures, memorizing, having discussions, and writing tests. We'll cover each of these activities individually, and teach you to do them more effectively. Feel free to learn the sections in any order that makes sense to you; however given that this is a text, we suggest that you start with the Reading Textbooks section.

Before you begin studying anything, there are some basic ground rules to follow:

  1. Desire to learn the material. If you are not motivated, you won't learn. Respicius Rwehumbiza in 2013 asserted that, Desire to learn enables you to sacrifice for study and manage time for study. It enables you to study anywhere and at any time. It creates a sense of responsibility in you about study, a sign of success. It puts you in sense of competition to learn more and more. It makes you generate new ideas and techniques for study, how to study effectively, how to concentrate and how to manage time for study
  2. Review the material regularly to reinforce your knowledge of the subject.
  3. Apply the knowledge. If you don't use it, you'll forget it sooner.
  4. Introspect regularly. Set aside a specific time each week where you examine your actions for that week. Take the time to learn from your mistakes and your successes.

These instructions are distilled from the studying tips offered by Dale Carnegie in the introduction of each of his books.

Managing Your Time

Managing your time effectively is an important part of studying. One of the important things in time management is to do whatever works for you. One common mistake is to try to create an overly restrictive schedule which doesn't work, and then feel very guilty that it doesn't work. Telling yourself that scheduling just doesn't work for you is another common mistake.

The following list will guide you through time management.

  1. Schedule - Have a regular study time and place each day - This helps put you in study mode. It's what Pavlov did with his dogs. ("Good doggy. Now study! Study...").
  2. Prioritize - Make a list of what you have to do and list it in order of importance. Schedule the important stuff first.
  3. Plan your sessions - Do the difficult stuff first. That way, by the time you can barely add 1 to 1, that's all you have left to do.
  4. Prepare - Get everything you'll need together BEFORE you start studying.
  5. Take breaks - Don't study longer than 50 minutes at a stretch. Use the other ten for a run around the block, or eat a snack. Hmm... Maybe run around the block AFTER the snack. Taking a 5-minute hot shower is another excellent solution.
  6. Avoid getting stuck - If you can't figure something out, skip it, and get help later. Skipping everything is not allowed.
  7. Divide and conquer - Break your projects up into smaller bits, and complete those bits one by one.
  8. Set Milestones - Set yourself some milestones. You can also set rewards for reaching those milestones.
  9. Reward yourself - The reward can be small, like treating yourself to some ice cream, or larger, like buying that new outfit you've had your eye on. Rewards also don't have to cost money, like going to play some basketball with some friends at the park. Enjoy yourself when you pass a milestone, stick to your reward plans to make them more worth reaching.
  10. Use your time wisely - Use the days for tough activities like studying, and evenings for easier stuff like reviewing. On second thought, better schedule the latter during the day as well.
  11. Review regularly - We have said this before. It's important. Better read it again.
  12. Say "No!" to distractions - No matter how attractive they are unless, of course, it's on the schedule. ("Proclaiming my everlasting love: Tuesday 16:25 to 16:30")

Taking Notes

Note taking is vital when Reading Textbooks and Listening To Lectures. Note taking serves a number of purposes. The least important reason is to have material for review. The real reason for note taking is to get the material to stick in your brain. By taking notes, you are actively engaging your brain in the process. And it helps keep you awake.

  1. Get the keys - Make notes of key words, phrases and concepts.
  2. Summarize - Make summaries of the keys.
  3. Restate - Use your own words when writing down the keys. This causes you to think about them.
  4. Review - Always review. Review always. Always. Review. Get it? Now read that again.

These instructions are derived from the Cornell study method. You can find more information about the Cornell Notes format here.

Tips edit

  • Don't try to substitute a tape recorder or prepared lecture notes for note taking. Remember that making a record of the lecture is the least important reason for taking notes.
  • Don't try to copy the lecture word for word. Instead try to summarize the major points. This causes you to listen actively.
  • Talk to yourself in your notes. Note what is interesting, what is boring, what makes sense, and what doesn't.
  • Summarize what you have learned. Some people highlight the most important sentence on each page. (Highlighting nearly every sentence on a page is a clear sign that you don't understand it.) Others keep scratch paper, and jot down a summary of every chapter - a few sentences noting the topic of that chapter and the three most important things about that topic.
  • Draw diagrams in your notes, label them, and color them, if you want. Diagrams related to the lecture are what is useful. Unrelated diagrams are merely doodles.
  • Visually organize points into groups. Use outlines, brackets, lists, arrows, stars, boxes, circles, and others.
  • Use color pens or highlighters to mark the different parts of concepts, such as key term, definition, examples, person, place or time, etc.

Annotation system edit

If you are annotating a text, for example, a scientific article, try creating an annotating scheme. One system is to:

  • circle words or ideas I do not understand or have never seen
  • put a bracket around things I wish to highlight
  • underline things I especially wish to highlight
  • put an angle bracket next to things I disagree with
  • put an arrow next to things I find remarkable or interesting (scientific articles)

Play around with this. Let the system evolve to suit your needs. See if colors are of any use; I personally prefer not to switch pens so I stick to blue (to contrast against the black text)

Read more edit


There are several techniques that universities advocate for studying textbooks. Most of them have the same basic structure though.

  1. Preview - Quickly skim over the chapter you are studying to get an overview of the material. Read headings, sub-headings, bold words, and other words that are emphasized.
  2. Ask - Constantly ask yourself questions about the headings and keywords. Changing headings and keywords into questions, using who, what, where, when, and why.
  3. Read - Read the first section, answering the questions you asked earlier. Note any unexpected information as well. (Think about if your questions were on target and what you need to know. Compare what you are reading with what is discussed in class.)
  4. Record - Take notes of your answers, of important keywords, and of important concepts. More about this in Taking Notes
  5. Relate - Relate each section to the preceding and following sections. Relate information to your previous knowledge and experience.
  6. Recite - Cover your answers and notes, and recite them from heart.
  7. Repeat - Repeat the Ask-Recite sequence for each section in the chapter.
  8. Practice - Do any practice questions and exercises in the material.
  9. Review - Review all your notes, and try to recite the important concepts from heart.

The above is an amalgamation of the SQ5R,the Parcer study techniques, and Plan, Do, Review. The concept at the heart of these techniques is active reading. The idea is that instead of passively reading a textbook and not really paying attention, you have to actively engage your mind in the act of reading, thereby improving comprehension and retaining efficiency. The more you involve your mind in the reading, the better you'll remember.

General Tips edit

  • If there are words you don't understand, look them up in a dictionary or textbook related to the concept.

Math/Science Tips edit

  • Instead of merely "reading" sample problems, look for errors in the author's work. As you read each sentence or step, verify for yourself it is completely correct, and is a logical next step or conclusion.
  • Copy a sample problem to another sheet of paper, then see if you can solve it yourself without looking at the textbook's solution (unless you get stuck). This makes the best use of sample problems, as students who "understood the lecture" or "read the chapter" often have difficulty doing their first problems using this new-found knowledge.
  • Reading a page of a Math/Science textbook this way may take anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours, but will probably reduce your eventual study time for a quiz or test by an even greater amount.
  • Understanding the main ideas of a topic does not mean you will be able to solve problems involving the topic. Spend more time solving problems than you do reading or listening.

Listening To Lectures

  1. Prepare - Before you go to a lecture, be sure you've read any assigned reading particularly the concerning text in your study book. Go to class a little early and review the key points of the reading.
  2. Be on time. Instructors often dislike having students walk in mid-way through a lecture, and you will have missed material. Some instructors intentionally base their lecture on statements made in the first few minutes to force students to be on time. Some faculty also give key information (such as test dates) at the beginning of class.
  3. Take notes - Always take copious notes. See Taking Notes for tips.
  4. Ask questions - If you don't get something, ask. When you ask, state what you understood the teacher to be saying, then ask whether you got it right or not. In this way, the teacher will be able to detect what exactly you don't understand and clarify it for you.
  5. Think ahead of the teacher - What are the implications of the things they are telling you? Teachers like to steer their lecture on a subject towards the next topic in order to make a smooth transition, and thinking about the implications may give you a head start on understanding that next topic.


Memorization is a serious bottle neck when studying. This bottle neck compromises one's efficiency, as it takes longer to remember new information. Memorizing lists of information is easy - once you have the techniques down. If you don't use techniques, forget it! If you don't want to invest time into learning techniques, forget it!

For subjects based on logic, such as physics, mathematics, and physiology, the best way to memorize facts is to learn a few basic facts and then learn the logic required to derive further information from those facts. Once you work through the logic a few times, you will remember the conclusions. These then become new "basic facts" upon which you can base further logic to remember more facts.

For instance, if you want to memorize the Starling equation for the movement of fluid between blood vessels and surrounding tissue, remember that there is fluid pressure on both sides of the vessel wall and protein on both sides of the vessel wall. Then remember that protein tends to draw water to itself by osmosis, while pressure tends to push water away. Then just add the four opposing forces together, making the forces that tend to make water leave the blood vessel positive and the opposite forces negative.

For less logical subjects, such as history, biochemistry, and law, involving seemingly random groupings of ideas into lists, the following techniques may be more helpful.

If you must memorize a list of words or sentences, you can take the first letter of each and come up with a logical sentence involving words beginning with the same letters. For instance, to remember the order of the planets, the mnemonic sentence "My very educated mother just served us nothing" is helpful... if you remember the names of the planets, and that Mercury is first, then it is easy to remember the order is "Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune." The fact that the mnemonic sentence is naturally set to music aids in remembering it, as the human brain remembers music more readily than speech.

Most vital are the list techniques. You start with a list of logically related persons, places, or things you can enumerate without much thought and without leaving out anything. Then you associate each of these to an item in the new list of facts to be memorized. To recall the new list, recall the old list and then the attached items.

Here are several familiar lists one could use:

  1. Body list - Attach items to body parts, from nose to toes for example
  2. Number list - Associate the shapes of numbers with items in the new list (2 - Swan, 9 - Snake, for example)
  3. Loci-Method - Associate each item with a point along a familiar walk, such as your route from your bed to your kitchen sink.

The most significant difference between these three is the number of items you can attach to them. The Body list is very limited, you have only one body, unless one considers attaching items to a pet's body or a friend's body as well.

Number lists are difficult to produce with more than 20 items, and difficult to learn. It's difficult to multiply them, like attaching a tire, a ball, and an egg to 0. The problem here comes when trying to assign multiple lists and getting the correct mnemonics for each list and number.

The Loci-Method might be the most powerful method. You can find items everywhere in your familiar surrounding. You can have an unlimited number of loci-lists around, your home, your university, working place, the city, your favorite bar, disco, school. If you travel to a hotel, you can create your list there, after having become familiar with it. You can create your own virtual worlds (if they're consistent) or use the scenery of a first person shooter if you're familiar enough with it.

Cicero used the method of loci to recall entire speeches at once.

"Honey-tongue" Cicero used this technique thousands of years ago to memorize his famous "spontaneous" speeches; other great thinkers did likewise. Memory experts use it to memorize 400 numbers in a row. It was usual for academics in previous centuries to have lists of several thousands of items, before even going to university. All this needs intense practice.

Read More edit

Having Discussions

One fact about learning material is that it is often a collective effort. Study groups can help you greatly when you get stuck or want to discuss the material you learned. It can also land you dates. Especially the French study group. ("Ho-ho-ho, par le vous, mon ami! Je t'aime, s'il vous plaît!").

There are several ways in which study groups could go about discussing the material.

  1. Quiz - It's common to have people quiz each other on the material to check retention and comprehension. ("Ho-ho-ho, mon ami! Telephone nombre, s'il vous plaît?")
  2. Debate - This is when the group goes through a part of the material and then argue about it from various angles and propose alternatives. ("Non telephone? Merde! Uh... adresse s'il vous plaît?")
  3. School - One person is assigned the lesson and has to teach the rest then. The others can question this person on the content. ("Jamais, cochon? I don't understand, could you explain that in English?")

The last method has several caveats - This method only works if everybody gets to play roles of both teacher and student. Also, be sure to pick someone that knows more than the rest do about that section. An effective technique is to have the material divided between the group members, and to have each study his section especially well before doing the school thing.


Before the test edit

  • Before you take the test, make sure that you know as much as you can about the test. What is the format? What are the likely questions? What is the grading policy?
  • If there is a sample test available, it is an essential resource. When possible, you should practice sample tests until you pass one (by your standards) on the first try.
  • If you are unfamiliar with the test location, visit it beforehand.
  • Get a good night's sleep. Eat breakfast in the morning.
  • Don't think about bad situations, because it will make you more troubled in your test.

At the start of the test edit

  • If permitted in a timed test, put your watch next to your test. It makes it easier to glance at the time without disturbing your train of thought.
  • Look over the entire test before you start any work. This will give you some ideas about what sections to do and what sections not to work on. Do the easy questions first. Keep in mind that in standardized tests the easy questions are usually the first ones.
  • Read the instructions. Often teachers provide guidance about the best way to take the test in the instructions (point values, time suggestions). This information is there for a reason, use it to your best advantage.

During the test edit

  • Don't spend too much time on one question. Read the question thoroughly and slowly. Make sure to read all answer options even if one seems 'obvious'. There might be a better answer.
  • Write neatly. This makes it easier on the instructor grading the test, which is always to your benefit. However, you may need to resort to scribbling in certain areas for long answers you are unsure of, as the grader is highly unlikely to read the entire answer and will probably skip that part.
  • If you get stuck, mark the question for review and go on to the next question. Subsequent questions may prompt your memory with an answer. After completing all questions, come back and review all questions. During the review you can complete all questions marked for review.
  • If you are starting to freeze, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and pause for a moment. This will help you to relax and get back on track.
  • On multiple choice questions you do not know the answer to, work to eliminate any choices that are incorrect, then choose from the remaining choices.
  • After completing the entire test, go back to the beginning and review your answers. Research shows that 70% of all changed answers go from wrong to right.

Near the end of the test edit

  • Unless you know that points will be taken off for wrong answers, leave nothing blank. Even if you are wildly guessing, you might get lucky.
  • Even with an essay question, write what you know. A partial answer tells the teacher what you still need to learn, and may result in points (remember any points are better than none).
  • Before you turn the test in, make sure that you have your name on the test.
  • On standardized forms, make sure that all the pencil marks are nice and dark and in the ovals.
  • On multiple choice questions that are not on standardized forms, make sure your intended answer is clear, and that you followed the teacher's guidance about how to write the answer properly.

When you get your test back edit

  • Do a quick check to make sure that the numbers were added correctly and that there are no obvious mistakes in grading. In general, it is not worth the effort to challenge a grade unless there is an obvious and unarguable flaw.
  • If you have questions about why something is wrong, ask the instructor. You should not go to your instructor to get points back on the test, but to gain a better understanding of the material and to be better prepared for future tests.
  • Use the test as a study guide. Focus on both what you got right and what you got wrong.

Writing Term Papers

Skills edit

In Helping Your Teen-Age Student, Dr. Marvin Cohn says that students often leap prematurely into a topic and engage in hasty, laborious note-taking that does not contribute to the finished paper. Sampling a variety of books and taking time to think about possible research projects should come before writing, he says. It is clearly best to know, before deciding on a topic, that ample sources are available for a given topic. While surveying available sources, the student should take note of which sources seem useful and also which ones do not. That prevents the student from looking at undesirable sources twice. A book that seems interesting should be noted by its title, author, location, and some description – a paragraph about one of its chapters, for example. When there is more than one book available on the same subject, the student might compare the books on the basis of some common feature. For example, with a set of George Washington biographies the student can compare the accounts of Washington’s Winter at Valley Forge. Much can be learned about a book by reading less than one of its pages – for example, how well the author makes points, organizes material, and uses language clearly. As a rule, it is best for the student, early in the project, to find one especially good source and rely on that as a guide throughout.

The reading can be described in terms of three activities, which students generally undertake in the following order.

1. overview – getting a general idea of a subject by reading encyclopedia articles or by skimming through books, especially books that deal with the subject in a general way

2. study – reading books and articles the way students read their textbooks, using not just introductory texts but ones that deal with specific aspects of the topic

3. fact-finding – searching for details, answers to questions that have been raised by the research

Taking notes in the student’s own words is protection from accidental plagiarism. Also, rephrasing is good because it makes the student think about the text. Copying quotations from authors is the exception to the rule. It is agreed that the paper should have no more quotations than are necessary, but that does not mean, necessarily, that notes should not have many quotations. As the collection of notes increases, it’s natural, says Dr. Cohn, for the student to start writing observations in the form of sentences and perhaps paragraphs.

As reading and note-taking continues, a set of main points may occur to the student, in which case they should be jotted down. Perhaps later they will be written in a different order. The list is the origin of the outline. Its writing may be compared with the growth of a young tree. From the main points are derived two or more lesser points, and from the lesser points two or more details, and so on. The general rule that a new task should not be started with immediately after finishing one applies here. It is best to stop writing after finishing work on an outline. More recent books on study mention the mind map (below). A student might make one of these these informal diagrams to help in developing ideas. They can be useful as a method of studying information on a topic before outlining.

A paper is only a series of paragraphs, and learning how to write a paragraph well adds much to the quality of a writer’s work. In English writing, most paragraphs begin with a sentence that has the paragraph’s main idea. Occasionally, a paragraph’s main idea is found in its final sentence. The main idea of the paragraph is supported by its other sentences. The simple rule of not writing sentences or paragraphs that are too long makes the paper more readable, and the writer should know when to divide lengthy sentences and paragraphs into smaller ones. Unless it is needed, a technical or unusual word should be replaced with a common word, or at least explained in the writing.

The research and writing process edit

The research project cannot be divided into a series of clearly-defined steps. There is overlap. In a student’s survey of possible resources, there is some note-taking, if only to identify books and articles. Note-taking often gives way to students writing observations of their own, perhaps in writing sentences or paragraphs. With the increase of material comes a need to organize it as an outline, or to develop ideas by making a mind map, before starting on an outline. The outline begins as a simple list of main points. Outlines can be written different ways, consisting of phrases, sentences, or connected sentences. Whereas some will write a first draft based on a fairly informal outline, others with keep adding details to the outline until is basically the first draft. In writing the first draft, some will write parts quickly, without much attention to spelling and grammar, and slow down at other parts to write finished prose. Others will use formal language from start to finish. With all papers, it is best to re-read the work carefully and spot all errors, no matter how small. When the paper is graded, little errors add up. A traditional method of proofreading is to put the paper away for a few days, then read it with “new eyes.”

An exercise for the beginner edit

In How to Double Your Child’s Grades in School, author Eugene Schwartz presents an exercise intended to make the transition from writing short essays to writing a first term paper less frustrating. Instead of the usual bibliography, he suggests working with no more than two or three easily-read books. When the student becomes familiar with them, the student answers a series of questions, including the question of which ideas should be the main points to be made, and also which points should be excluded from the brief paper. Students are advised to begin the paper by making an especially good point and to write a good final sentence, these established before work on the first draft. The exercise consists of eight questions.

Alternative Techniques

Study Technologies edit

Each person has a certain learning style, which can only be discovered through experience. A mix of new technologies can enhance your learning experience. Here are some avenues to explore:

Text to Speech edit

If you are studying a text that is available as a text file or on the Internet, you can probably convert it into a spoken-word presentation at little or no cost. But don't just listen to it -- for best results, read and listen at the same time. A multi sensory experience has more impact. Also, listening to spoken text while reading it deals with a little-known problem of modern readers, who tend to skim and skip even while they think they are reading.

The text-to-speech programs that can be found on sites such as (search with key words "text" and "speech") have come a long way from the emotionless computerized voices of yesterday. Read more about eSpeak, an open source text to speech program, on Wikipedia.

Mind Mapping edit

A mind map can help manage information related to a topic.

Many schools have tried to teach students outlining skills. The ability to "write down the bones" of a body of knowledge was thought to be a key to understanding it. With the advent of personal computers, elaborate outlining programs were released which tried to minimize the drudgery involved, but the outlining fad faded out. (A very simple, useful, and inexpensive software outlining program is Vault, available for evaluation here)

A very easy-to-use free open-source Java-based mind mapping style application is FreeMind. It is important when you first learn about mind mapping to practice determining keywords, one per link in your mind map.[1]

Speech to Text edit

You can take your lecture notes and convert them into typed text with Speech recognition software, which translates your speech into typing. An open source and free speech to text software can be had in KDE Simon.

Independent study edit

Often getting ahead in school involves independent study of subjects related to your coursework. While this may be intimidating to most of us who have been trained to rely on a teacher's guidance, the benefits of engaging in independent scholarship are well worth the effort.

Benefits of independent scholarship include:

  • More individualized content
  • Quicker and more efficient coverage of the material
  • Improving of study skills overall
  • self-directed study helps you to discover your personal learning style
  • the skills gained from independent study can be applied to your other coursework. these skills include time management, organization, research and writing skills, and engaging creatively with the material.
  • can help you explore your interests, and might even lead to a change in major
  • concepts from one course area can be used to think creatively about others, such as psychology, anthropology, sociology; can be studied as an interdisciplinary major

The only downside to independent study is that you may not receive official credit for your work. If this is an issue for you, you can choose to study towards a certain test that will advance your academic career. However, know that most professors would be thrilled to have people in their classes who have read widely concerning the subject matter, and have something original to contribute to class discussions. So many students are just there because they have to get a degree to get a job, and the professors will be impressed that you studied subjects on your own just for learning's sake. You can also receive credit for independent study from the CLEP, or college level examination program. Check with your school to see what their policy on CLEP is.

Self-directed study involves a dramatic paradigm shift wherein one is responsible for one's own learning. It is a great test of one's will power and determination, and depends on your attitude toward the subject and towards learning in general.

In ordinary school learning is seen as building up the major concept from smaller ideas. For example, one learns how to do individual tasks in algebra and then comes later to the realization of the nature of the overall idea of algebra.

Self-directed learning demands the opposite, that you first grasp the main idea of the subject area you wish to study and then fill in all the blanks. It is a skill that takes time to develop.

See Also edit

References edit


Matching colors edit

Color coded annotations can help manage ideas.

If you are taking a comprehensive general course such as European culture, or anatomy and physiology, or anything with a lot of different kinds of facts to learn, a useful tool is to buy a set of highlighters. Use one color only for definitions, another color for locations and dates (a date is a location in time), another color for processes, and so on. You can get matching colored post-it notes and write the facts on them and associate them with places in your house (such as on the bathroom mirror, closet door) and read the post-it aloud as you go past. Be sure to keep the post-it note colors consistent with your highlighter color scheme!