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Learning Smarter

Busy schedules, distractions, and simply not knowing which approaches work best can get in the way of learning.

Consider the guidelines below as you think about how you approach studying:

Don't just reread; check your knowledge.

Simply rereading (or re-watching) material has been shown in the learning research to be a relatively ineffective way to learn. It's easy to reread a text and assume you understand because it makes sense to you, but if you were asked to produce the information yourself, you may come up empty. Learning researchers call this an "illusion of competence."

A more useful approach is to review in conjunction with testing your knowledge: working problems, answering questions, explaining concepts. Research shows that students using these strategies tend to earn higher grades. As you study, check your own knowledge and understanding along the way by assigning yourself practice questions or problems. And don't focus only on simple "recall"-type questions; be sure to include questions that require you to "go deep" into the concepts you are learning.

Plan and space your study times.

Students who are purposeful about scheduling study time, and who avoid studying at the last minute, tend to do better in their classes. Spacing study time across several days or weeks, too, promotes higher-quality learning than cramming does. Create a study schedule, and stick to it.

Avoid multitasking.

College students are not alone in overestimating their ability to multitask effectively. A number of research studies show that students who multitask learn less effectively. Don't assume that just because you are able to coordinate studying and texting (for example), you are effectively engaging with the material you are studying.

Study with others.

There is lots of evidence that studying with peers can result in more effective learning. You benefit whether you are the person hearing an explanation or the one doing the explaining – since in explaining, you are reviewing and making sense of old information. Some instructors help students organize study groups, but if yours doesn't, take the initiative to organize one. You can also take advantage of the Peer-Guided Study Group program.

Read the syllabus.

Believe it or not, many students do not carefully read their course syllabi. As most faculty devote a great deal of time to crafting syllabi that help students succeed, it's worth your time to read your syllabus carefully – beyond simply the required texts and exam dates. Some suggestions:

  • Look for specific advice provided by the instructor.
    He or she may provide information about how to study for the course, whether readings are to be done before or after the class they pertain to, when to start assignments, approved forms of collaboration, etc.
  • Know the evaluation and grading policy.
    The syllabus usually lists a breakdown of grade components and an explanation of the instructor’s grading policies (e.g., weighting of grades, curves, extra-credit options, the possibility of dropping the lowest grade).
  • Note what is due when, and what you need to do in advance of the deadline, in your own calendar.
    Don't rely on the instructor to remind you.