Fil Salustri's Design Site

Site Tools


Tips for better studying

A collection of bits of advice for students looking to improve their study habits. Sources for these tips are given in the SEE ALSO section.

Create a study space

Make the time to create a space where you can be comfortable (but not too comfortable), have everything you need nearby, and that is sufficiently private to let you focus on your studying. In the “old days,” many houses had a room called a “study” - just for studying!

Set study goals

Decide how much material you want to cover before you sit down to cover it. If it's too much to do in one sitting, plan for a number of chunks, no shorter than 30 minutes each, and make sure you schedule that time in your agenda.

Use Recall

If you don't practice recalling material, you won't be able to recall it. Test yourself on each page; read it over, then try to recall as much of it as you can. Practice recalling on the commute in to school, or just before a lecture. It can only take a few minutes at a time to do, but the more you do it, the more likely the memories will also be at hand when you need them most. (And the more likely you'll actually retain those memories for years to come.) Never just passively read and reread a text.

Understand why solutions are as they are

When you solve a problem, make sure you understand why each step is necessary. How does each step get you closer to the solution? Why was that step necessary at that particular point of the solution? How does the result of each step get you closer to an overall solution? The more you understand why a solution works as it does, the more likely you will be able to reproduce it at will later on.

Test yourself often

Repetition is important, but only if its deep repetition, having to explain (to yourself) all aspects of a problem type and its solution method. Use flashcards, notes, apps - whatever it takes to test yourself repeatedly.

Highlight judiciously

If you're highlighting half the text on each page, you're doing it wrong. Don't highlight every passage that you think is important. Instead, read a whole page, then go back and find the few lines that are most important, and highlight those.

Space out your study time

Don't cram; it doesn't work. Your brain can only do a job so hard for so long before it becomes useless. Give yourself breaks. And that doesn't mean checking Facebook or your email; a proper break is more like letting your mind wander, do some exercise or take a walk.

Use analogies

Use explanatory questioning and simple analogies. Whenever you are struggling with a concept, think to yourself, How can I explain this so that a ten-year-old could understand it? Using an analogy really helps, like saying that the flow of electricity is like the flow of water. Don't just think your explanation - say it out loud or put it in writing. The additional effort of speaking and writing allows you to more deeply encode (that is, convert into neural memory structures) what you are learning.


No interruptions; no calls; no emails; no beeps or blurps from your electronic devices. Don't even play music in the background. Focus requires the absence of distractions, so get rid of them when you're studying.

Hard stuff first

Studying isn't like writing an exam. In an exam, you go for the easy marks first. When you're studying, though, it's best to tackle the hardest parts first. Get the ugly stuff over with as soon as possible to get it out of the way. Leaving the hard stuff for the end increases the odds that you'll procrastinate your way to a failing grade.

Promise yourself, in writing

Write yourself a note defining exactly how much and how often you will study; make a contract with yourself to do the best you can. But don't just write “I'll do the best I can.” Write down exactly what you'll do. For instance: “I will study, without distraction, one hour per subject per week in addition to doing all required homework and preparatory work.”

Work on different types of problems

Change up the problems you practice with. If you only ever work on one type of problem, you'll only ever be good at that type of problem. Working on a variety of different types of problems - and doing them deeply - will help you learn the underlying principles of the whole subject, and all the different solution types will get interconnected in your mind, so that they all reinforce each other.

Study with friends; don't party with them

If you're part of a study session, focus on the work. If necessary, take 15-20 minutes at the start (or the end) of the study session to get all the social niceties out of the way. The rest of the time, stay on topic.

Review before doing problems

Before starting a problem set, review your notes and the textbook for that material. This will help bring memories that you've (hopefully) already practiced up to consciousness quicker and better. Investing 10 minutes in review before you start a problem set could save you 30 minutes or more during the problem set.

Track your difficulties

Keep a list of problems you can't solve, concepts you don't really understand, and methods you can't apply. Make damned sure you follow up with your friends, your teaching assistants, and your instructors to solve those problems as quickly as you can. Otherwise, you'll start falling behind.


Your brain is useless without sufficient and regular sleep. Get at least 7 hours, and preferably 9 hours, every single night.

See Also

teaching/tips_for_better_studying.txt · Last modified: 2020.03.12 13:30 (external edit)