Studying is about finding a right balance between concentration, understanding, retention, and rest. And, just like any task that taxes your energy—be it physical or mental—it is often just as difficult to get started as it is to engage in the task itself.
But don't despair! Whether you need to study for just one test, or want to learn how to study over the long haul and retain a whole term's worth of information, we've got you covered. We'll explain exactly how to study better, helping you revamp both your daily and long-term study habits and giving you the best study tips for managing your time and keeping your focus as you actually study.
And, once you've mastered these study techniques, we'll also show you how to prepare yourself for test day so you can do your very best when the chips are down. So let's get to it!
Building Good Study Habits
Again, exerting both mental energy and physical energy is difficult and many find it tough to keep up over the long term. But a proper approach will help ease the way and keep your studying strong for years to come.
To lay a healthy study foundation and avoid last minute cramming and undue stress, it's necessary to build (and maintain!) a proper study habit. Just like with exercise, the task will become easier and more manageable the more you are able to get into a routine. And you'll be far less likely to lapse back into bad study habits once you've made studying an intractable part of your daily life.
#1: Stick to a Set Schedule
Your brain builds pathways and habits over time, and studying is about building those mental muscles and endurance. Getting into a fixed habit of studying will help you improve your concentration and mental stamina over time. And, just like any other training, your ability to study only improves with time and dedicated effort.
There are many activities that are good for us, but that we often—for whatever reason—dread doing. Whether this is exercising, doing chores, or studying, it's a good idea to set yourself a schedule and stick to it no matter how you're feeling at the moment. It's easy to put off these activities for a thousand reasons: you're busy doing something else, you're tired, you have a headache, you're not in the mood.…But the more you hold yourself to a set schedule, the more likely you'll do what you need to do without having to make an endless litany of excuses.
Aside from doing homework, set aside a dedicated 50 to 75 minutes to study each day and then stick to your schedule. You'll find the study rhythm that works best for you, but do know that you don't necessarily have to sit down and eek out those minutes all at once. You can decide to split the time into smaller segments throughout the day, or, if you work better at completing tasks and moving on, you can choose to get your studying done all at once.
One way to divide your after school study time into segments could be:
4:30 - 5:00 - arrive home, eat a snack, relax
5:00 - 5:30 - first study chunk
5:30 - 6:30 - break/homework/other task
6:30 - 6:45 - second study chunk
6:45 - 7:30 - dinner/assignments/other task
7:30 - 8:00 - final study chunk
Or, if you'd rather spend your 50-75 study minutes all at once, then your schedule may look more like:
4:30 - 5:00 - arrive home, eat a snack, relax
5:00 - 6:15 - study time
6:15 - rest of evening - dinner, break, homework, other tasks
How you create your study schedule is up to you, just so long as you stick to it once you've made it and don't deviate.
#2: Schedule Your Studying in Smaller Increments Over a Long Period of Time
By committing 50 to 75 minutes to study every day (and sticking to your schedule!), you'll avoid both burning out your mental energy and being stuck cramming for hours and hours at a time the night before a test.
Not to say that cramming your material can't occasionally "work." Some people are absolutely able to cram for a test the night before and do well, but studying in this way will only store the information in your short-term memory, not your long-term. This means that, by cramming, you can struggle to stay apprised of the material as the semester progresses (especially in classes where previous information builds on later information, such as in science, math, or history classes).
And the long term effect of forcing your brain to cram necessary information at once will not only make studying for finals particularly difficult—essentially forcing you to re-learn a semester's worth of material, rather than being able to simply review it—but making a habit of cramming material at the last minute will only increase your stress and make you feel as though you have to constantly play "catch-up."
By sticking to a schedule of studying for a reasonable amount of time over the entire semester or term, you'll be able to better store and recall the information you need, and thereby reduce some of the stress that comes from schoolwork, tests, and studying.
Though it may seem rigid now, a set study structure will make life easier in the long term.
Setting the Right Study Environment
A proper study schedule is essential, but so is creating the right study environment. Your environment can have a tremendous impact on your concentration and productivity, so figuring out a proper study space will ultimately benefit you and improve your study time.
#3: Stick to the Same Study Spaces
A stable environment for a particular activity can help put you in the right mood and mind frame to complete the task at hand. The same applies for engaging in studying.
It is helpful to have one or two dedicated locations for schoolwork—separate from any "free time" areas—that you use to study in each and every study session. Sometimes this may not be possible if you live in a small dwelling and don't have access to free public spaces like a library, but do the best you can to find a space you can use solely for studying and stick by it.
Your study space will be individual to you, so don't worry about how other people work best. Some people concentrate their best when surrounded by others, like in a study group or a bustling coffee shop, while some people can only study if they're alone or in a completely silent location. Experiment with different environments and spaces until you find the one you seem to work in best and then stick to it as your dedicated "study zone."
#4: Practice Good Study Hygiene
Good study hygiene is about retaining a clear separation between work and rest. This allows you to focus on necessary tasks while minimizing stress and anxiety in the rest of your life.
We've already talked about keeping a dedicated study space, but now we have to be sure to keep those areas as "hygienic" as possible. How? By following a few key rules of setting up your study environment:
Make Sure That You DON'T Study In or On Your Bed
Studying in sleeping areas is the very definition of NOT maintaining a clear separation between work and rest, and most often leads to increased levels of stress and insomnia. This, in turn, can decrease your concentration and ability to study in the long term.
By blurring the lines between study-time and free-time, you'll only create spillover stress for yourself and be stuck in a cyclical effect of non-productivity and anxiety. So keep your study location to a desk, a table, or even a couch, so long as you aren't anywhere on your bed.
Keep Tantalizing Distractions Far Away
It's easy to allow ourselves to take "a quick break" to check our phones, get up and go hunting for a snack, or to let ourselves get caught up searching for irrelevant information on Wikipedia. There are untold distractions all around us that try to lure our concentration away from the task at hand, and giving into temptation can be an awful time suck. The best way to avoid distractions like these is to remove temptation altogether.
Make up a snack for yourself before you start studying so that you're not tempted to get up. Keep your phone far away, and turn off your wifi on your computer if you can. Tell yourself that you can't get up to check on whatever has you distracted until your allotted study time is up. Whatever has you distracted can wait until your study time is over.
Keep Yourself Comfortable, Hydrated, and Fed
Taking care of your body's basic needs will not only help to improve your mood and concentration while you study, but it will also help make sure you avoid needing to get up (and thereby lose your focus) during your study time.
So make sure you take water, a jacket, a snack, coffee, or whatever else you need to your study space so that you can be comfortable, focused, and ready to learn.
Varying Your Study Methods
There are many different ways to study, and none is exclusively better than any other. In fact, diversifying your study techniques, and using a mix of multiple different study methods will help you learn and store your information better than simply sticking to one.
Practicing different study methods and combining different techniques to prevent mental fatigue and keep your brain engaged. And we'll walk through some of the best study techniques here.
#5: Rewrite or Rephrase the Material in Your Own Words
It can be easy to get lost in a textbook and look back over a page, only to realize you don't remember what you just read. But luckily, that can be remedied.
For classes that require you to read large bodies of text, such as history, English, or psychology, make sure to stop periodically as you read. Pause at the end of a paragraph or a section and—without looking!—think about what the text just stated. Re-summarize it in your own words. Now glance back over the material to make sure you summarized the information accurately and remembered the relevant details. Make a mental note of whatever you missed and then move on to the next section.
You may also want to make a bulleted list of the pertinent information instead of just rephrasing it mentally or aloud. Without looking back down at the textbook, jot down the essentials of the material you just read. Then look over the book to make sure you haven't left out any necessary information.
Whether you choose to simply summarize aloud or whether you write your information down, re-wording the text is an invaluable study tool. By rephrasing the text in your own words, you can be sure you're actually remembering the information and absorbing its meaning, rather than just rote copying the info without truly understanding or retaining it.
#6: Teach the Material to Someone Else
Teaching someone else is a great way to distill your thoughts and summarize the information you've been studying. And, almost always, teaching someone else shows you that you've learned more about the material than you think!
Find a study-buddy, or a patient friend or relative, or even just a figurine or stuffed animal and explain the material to them as if they're hearing about it for the first time. Whether the person you're teaching is real or not, the act of teaching material aloud to another human being requires you to re-frame the information in new ways and think more carefully about how all the elements fit together.
And the act of running through your material this way—especially if you do it aloud—helps you more easily lock it in your mind.
#7: Quiz Yourself With Flashcards
Making flashcards is an oft-used study tool and for very good reason! Making your own flash cards can not only help you retain information just through the sheer act of writing it down, but will also help you connect pertinent pieces of information together. So for any subjects in which you must remember the connections between terms and information, such as formulas, vocabulary, equations, or historical dates, flashcards are the way to go.
To make the best use of your flashcards, use the Leitner Method, so that you don't waste your time studying what you already know.
To employ this method, quiz yourself with your flashcards and separate the cards into two different piles. In Pile 1, place the cards you knew and answered correctly, in Pile 2, place the cards you didn't know the answers to.
Now go back through the cards again, but only studying the cards from Pile 2 (the "didn't know" pile). Separate these again as you go through them into Pile 1 (know) and Pile 2 (don't know). Repeat the process of only studying to "don't know" cards until more and more cards can be added to the "know" pile.
Once all the cards are in the "know" pile, go through the whole pile once again to make sure you've retained the information on all the cards.
#8: Make Your Own Diagrams, Formula Sheets, and Charts
Reconstituting information into pictures can help you see and understand the material in new and different ways. For math and science classes, you may want to make yourself a formula sheet in addition to making flashcards. Flashcards will help you to remember each formula in isolation, but making one catch-all formula sheet will give you a handy study reference tool. And making one will, again, help you to retain your information just through the process of writing it down. The bonus is that if you're more of a visual/picture learner, a formula sheet can help you to remember your formulas by recalling how they're situated with one another.
To help you to remember your science processes, create your own diagrams. For instance, for a biology class, draw your own cell and label the components or make your own Krebs cycle diagram. These pictures will typically be in your textbooks, so examine the picture you're given and then create your own diagram without looking at the textbook. See how much you've been able to accurately recreate and then do it again until it's perfect.
Sometimes making your own charts and diagrams will mean recreating the ones in your textbook from memory, and sometimes it will mean putting different pieces of information together yourself. Whatever the diagram type and whatever the class, writing your information down and making pictures out of it will help to lock the material in your mind.
#9: Give Yourself Rewards
To make studying a little more fun, give yourself a small reward whenever you hit a study milestone. For instance, let yourself eat a piece of candy for every 25 flash cards you test yourself on or for every three paragraphs you read (and re-word) in your textbook. Or perhaps give yourself one extra minute of video game or television-watching time for every page you study from your book (to be redeemed only after your study time is over, of course).
Whatever your particular incentive is, let yourself have that small reward-boost to help see you through the days when studying seems particularly taxing.
You can even make yourself a Study Reward Diagram: studying input -> candy reward -> energy boost -> more studying -> more candy!
Making the Most of Your Study Time
Whether you're studying for a particular test or studying to keep yourself apprised of the class material all throughout the term, you'll want to make the most of your allotted daily study time. After all, there's no use setting aside and committing to your 50-75 minutes a day to study if the time is ultimately unproductive.
So make the best of each study session by following these study tips for concentration and memory retention.
#10: Study New Material Within 24 Hours
In order to maintain your knowledge of the class material throughout the term, make life easier on yourself by reviewing any new information you learn on the same day you learned it. Reviewing new material within 24 hours will help you to retain much more of what you learned than if you were to review the same information at a later date.
So make sure to dedicate a portion of each study time to reviewing the information you learned that same day in your classes.
School bombards you with new material each and every day. And even if you're interested in the new material as you're learning it, it's all too easy to let anything new slip away when you have so much else to think about. But once the information has been pushed to the back burner of your mind, your brain will generally discard it rather than storing it into your long term memory.
To combat this "curve of forgetting," make a habit of taking notes in class and then reviewing the material that very same night. This will help lock the information into your long-term memory and serve you well in the future. Just a few minutes in the here and now will save you hours of having to relearn the material at a later date.
#11: Use the Pomodoro Technique to Retain Focus
Everyone loses their concentration from time to time. But, luckily for us, there are time management techniques that can help keep up mental energy and productivity, such as the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method for increased focus and concentration, which makes it ideal for tackling studying and homework.
The principle behind the technique is to divvy up your focus and break times into set regimes so that your mind remains sharp and attuned to the task at hand, without giving into fatigue or distraction.
The method is to divide your focus time ("pomodoros") into 25 minute blocks dedicated to a task. And every time you feel your focus drifting, write down what had you distracted, put it aside, and don't give into the temptation to lose focus. (For instance, if you feel compelled to look at your email or look up what year your favorite movie came out, mark down "check email" or "look up favorite movie" and then return to your original task.) This will allow you to acknowledge the distraction and return to it later without having it derail your study time now.
After every 25 minute block of time is complete, give yourself a check mark and allow yourself a 5 minute break. (A good time to check that email!) Once you've reached the fourth check mark (100 minutes of focus and 15 minutes of break), take a 20 minute break. Then begin the cycle again.
By balancing up your time and energy between designated periods of focus and rest, you'll be able to tackle studying your topic at hand without mental fatigue and burnout (which can easily occur if you try to marathon your way through a study session) and without losing focus (which can happen if you find yourself taking a break that lasts...indefinitely).
To help visualize this technique in action, let's look at it set out in an example schedule:
5:00 - 5:25 - first pomodoro
5:25 - 5:30 - short break
5:30 - 5:55 - second pomodoro
5:55 - 6:00 - short break
6:00 - 6:25 - third pomodoro
6:25 - 6:30 - short break
6:30 - 6:55 - fourth pomodoro
6:55 - 7:15 - long break
#12: Know When to Move On
There will always come a point in your studies where you need to simply put down the book and move on. As always, life is about balance, and eventually you'll start to see diminishing returns on your study efforts if you try to spend too much time on one particular topic/class/chapter.
At some point, your time will be better spent studying for other classes, or engaging in an alternate type of study task. Don't stop your studying earlier than your scheduled time, but turn your focus to a different study topic or switch your attention from quizzing yourself with flashcards to making a diagram instead.
It's not always easy to see, but you'll get better and better at realizing when you've hit this stopping point (and not the point five minutes into studying when you're bored) and are no longer retaining focus or information. It may take time, but you'll get there.
Your brain is capable of great things, but even it has its limits. And learning how to maximize your time and energy will keep you from pushing those limits.
Preparing for Test Day
When you're preparing for a test, the actual studying part is only half the battle. The other half comes from being well prepared to actually take the test and giving it your best possible effort.
And these techniques will help you get there.
#13: Get Enough Sleep
The absolute, number one, most important way you can prepare yourself for a test is to sleep the night before. Getting a good night's sleep before a test (and preferably every night) is absolutely paramount.
Sleep increases focus and concentration. The effects of not sleeping are much like being under the influence of alcohol. No matter how well you know the material, taking a test sleep deprived will do you no favors.
A regular sleep schedule is preferable and will do wonders for your overall health, happiness, concentration, and memory. But even if you can't sleep, just closing your eyes and relaxing will help. So if you find yourself grappling with insomnia, let yourself relax in the dark and in your bed instead of whittling away the hours some other way.
#14: Pack Your Gear the Night Before the Test
Whatever it is you need to have, make sure to pack it up the night before. This will help you relax and sleep and will insure you don't leave anything crucial behind in your morning rush out the door.
So pack your pencils, your calculator, and scratch paper. Even lay out your clothes for the next day. Prepare whatever you need to so that you can reduce your stress and help you rest the night before your exam.
#15: Eat Something
Just like with sleeping, making sure to eat something the morning of a test will help you concentrate and focus throughout the day. Anything is better than nothing, but try to eat something that will keep you full and provide you with some protein and carbohydrates.
Whole grains, fruit, and eggs are generally a good bet, but pretty much anything will do in a pinch so long as you get some calories in you (and so long as it isn't pure sugar and caffeine!).
#16: Take a Walk
Exercising, even just a little bit, will help boost your mood, energy, and concentration. If possible, take a walk or do some quick cardio exercises (such as jumping jacks) for ten to twenty minutes before an exam.
Now you're ready to rock that test—go get it!
...And then take a nap when you're done.
The Take-Aways: How to Study Better
Being able to study and study well is a skill and a habit that's built like any other. It takes preparation, time, and diligence to see it through, but once the habit is established, it will simply become a part of your daily routine.
To maintain the proper balance of leisure and work (and, most importantly, avoid burnout and excessive stress), it's best to stick to schedules and divvy up your time and energy over long periods of time. And remember to use that allotted time wisely once you're in the middle of it.
Of course an ideal schedule isn't always realistic and there will still be those days you have to cram for whatever reason. But incorporating healthier time management and study methods will benefit you in the long-term and serve you well not only in high school, but in college, in the workplace, and for whatever other task you set your mind to in the future.
Just take it one step at a time and you'll be amazed at the final results.
Now that you've tackled how to study better, make sure you actually get that studying done by learning how to overcome procrastination.
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One of the single most important parts of your college application is what classes you choose to take in high school (in conjunction with how well you do in those classes). Our team of PrepScholar admissions experts have compiled their knowledge into this single guide to planning out your high school course schedule. We'll advise you on how to balance your schedule between regular and honors/AP/IB courses, how to choose your extracurriculars, and what classes you can't afford not to take.
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Courtney scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT in high school and went on to graduate from Stanford University with a degree in Cultural and Social Anthropology. She is passionate about bringing education and the tools to succeed to students from all backgrounds and walks of life, as she believes open education is one of the great societal equalizers. She has years of tutoring experience and writes creative works in her free time.