Study Skills


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:

  • Desire to learn the material. If you are not motivated, you won’t learn.
  • Review the material regularly to reinforce your knowledge of the subject.
  • Apply the knowledge. If you don’t use it, you’ll forget it sooner.
  • 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! Studyyy…”)
  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.
  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 getting 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 and the opposite sex. 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”)

Some of these instructions are shamelessly transmuted from the UWMC Freshman studying tips. The humor’s all mine.

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 at


  • 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

If you are annotating a text, for example, a scientific article, try creating an annotating code. The system I use 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)


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.
  2. Ask – Constantly ask yourself questions about the headings and keywords. Use who, what, where, when, and why.
  3. Read – Read the first section, answering the questions you asked earlier. Note any unexpected information as well.
  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.
  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 and the Parcer study techniques. 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.


  • If you don’t understand the material after thoroughly reading it over several times, it’s helpful to just set the book down and sleep on the information.
  • Write down things that don’t make sense in the book. Bring the list and ask about them in your next class or study group.
  • If there are words you don’t understand, look them up in a dictionary or textbook related to the concept.

Math/Science Tips

  • 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 studybook.
  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.
  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 come’s 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.

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.

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 taime, sil vous plait!”).

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, sil vous plait?”)
  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 sil vous plait?”)
  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.

Writing Tests

Before the test

  • 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 unfamilar with the test location, visit it beforehand.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. Eat breakfast in the morning.

At the start of the test

  • 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 guidence 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

  • Don’t spend too much time on one question.
  • 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, go on to the next problems and come back to it later.
  • If you are starting to freeze, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and pause for a moment. This will give you a chance to relax and get back on track.
  • On multiple choice questions you do not know the answer to, try to eliminate 1 or 2 choices, then guess. Don’t go back and change the answer unless you are SURE the current answer is wrong. This will only slow you down, and not improve you chances of success.
  • If you come to an essay question that you are not prepared for, you can try stating that you weren’t prepared for it, and then substitute in its place an equally difficult question for which you WERE prepared and answer that instead. The idea is to demonstrate the strong points in your absorption of the material, rather than allow yourself to be penalized by what you don’t know. This is a risky technique as it may frustrate the grader, coloring their sense of your performance in general. They may not read the response, costing you all the available points.

Near the end of the test

  • 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 then 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

  • Do a quick check to make sure that the numbers were added correctly and that there are no obvious mistake 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.

Alternative Techniques

Study Technologies

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

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. Text Aloud is the name of one such program among many. An open source text to speech program can be found at

Mind Mapping

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 minimise 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 new form of outlining has arisen with the “mind mapping” technique. The idea is to create detailed outlines that sum up the essence of a subject visually. You have to see the mind mapping technique demonstrated to fully grasp the concept. Some examples.

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 practise determining keywords, one per link in your mind map. See The Difference in Taking Notes.

For the more artistically impared or lazy, the Mindjet corporation has created “Mind Manager” which uses the same techniques you may have seen in organization charts to help map out ideas with graphic components. This very useful program is also beyond the budgets of many, but an evaluation copy is available here.

Some school districts have become quite smitten with mind-mapping technology. Portions of the Los Angeles Unified School District have standardized on Inspiration. An alternate version, Kidspiration, is designed for lower elementary grades. Evaluation copies are available at

Speech to Text

You can take your lecture notes and convert them into typed text with Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which translates your speech into typing. This is the best speech-to-text program currently available; its main rival, IBM’s ViaVoice, has fallen by the wayside. NaturallySpeaking comes in various versions; the most useful is NaturallySpeaking Professional, which is quite expensive, but allows you to create macros, and thus fire off a series of complicated instructions with just a word or two. Most users settle for NaturallySpeaking Preferred, the much cheaper but still useful version. More details are available at

Independent study

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.


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