University is a wonderful experience. Every day you meet new and interesting people, discover complex and fascinating concepts, and drink outrageous amounts of Jägerbombs; indeed, for three exhilarating years, it might almost seem like there’s not a worry to be had.
Except, of course, this isn’t true. Unfortunately, as a student, you’ll also have to demonstrate from time to time that you’ve actually learnt something; a pesky but quantifiable process known as taking exams. And this is where things can get a little tricky.
Luckily, we’re here to help. There is a multitude of skills, strategies and techniques that can make your revision sessions productive – and, in some instances, even enjoyable. So, if things are going in one ear and straight out the other, don’t panic just yet: these are the 10 most effective tips on how to study…
1. Get Rid of Distractions
There’s a reason golfers ask for quiet when they’re making a putt; it’s pretty impossible to focus when there are all sorts of distractions flying around. Unsurprisingly, exam revision is no different – if there are gold, shiny diversions (such as PS4s, guitars or Kodi boxes) everywhere you look, then it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll get side-tracked.
The key is to establish a learning environment that is conducive to you. For some people, this may mean decluttering their desk and taking a minimalist approach; others might prefer a ‘busy’ workstation covered in papers and learning materials.
Note that 'quiet' doesn’t necessarily equate to 'productive', either: some people find that listening to background music – especially classical – relaxes them and focuses their mind, whereas others require total silence. The key is to find your comfort zone.
2. Choose Your Surroundings Carefully
In the same vein, don’t necessarily assume that your dormitory is the best place to hit the books; indeed, due to the abundance of these aforementioned distractions, many students argue that their personal space is one of the worst places to study.
The most obvious alternative is the college library, but during the busy season, when everybody on campus has got the same idea, simply finding a suitable spot can be a challenge in itself.
Instead, consider alternatives. Coffee shops, for instance, are fast becoming a preferred study destination, and not just for the pumpkin lattes, either; it’s long been proven that the combination of ambient background noise, ‘contagious mental effort’ and the ‘audience effect’ are a potent stimulant of productivity.
3. Know Your Weaknesses
For most students, the most stressful aspect of exam revision is that it’s time-sensitive; there are only so many hours in the week in which to cram, after all. Therefore, it’s important to focus on the areas of your course that you are struggling with the most.
The best way to do this is to create a diagram of the topic, breaking each part down and writing a small summary; as soon as you get to a section where you’re not so sure, this is a good indicator that you need to allocate more of your efforts there.
4. Familiarise Yourself with the Format
Technically, the extent to which you can exploit this technique comes down to your teachers; any good tutor or lecturer should be giving you mock tests, as well as access to past papers. If they’re not, then demand one – they are an invaluable preparation tool that will familiarise you with the format of the exam.
This can’t be understated. Having the requisite knowledge is one thing, but unless you know how you will be requested to convey it, then you are selling yourself short. It is also a highly useful way to practise your timing methods; after all, what’s the point in writing the perfect answer for Question One if you don’t leave yourself any time for Question Two?
5. Practise with Others
One of the more commonly suggested study hacks is group revision, but the effectiveness of this process ultimately depends on the topic. If you’re studying the religious connotations of 16th Century Renaissance paintings, for instance, then the best study aid is probably a bottle of wine and a cleared schedule; if you’re studying something less subjective, such as medicine, though, then group revision can be hugely beneficial.
This is primarily because you can engage in dynamic revision activities, such as creating cue cards and testing each other on questions that have definitive, factual answers. Although you can technically do this by yourself, it is a more effective way to fill learning gaps, as well as simply break the monotony of looking at your own cards; you might even pick up an easier way to remember something.
6. Take Regular Breaks
Although the pressures of exams can do funny things – such as causing you to shut the curtains, tape a colostomy bag to your leg and not leave your room for three days – it is well advised to take regular breaks in order to negate such behaviour.
Indeed, research has proven that taking your mind away from your work can actually make you more motivated and productive, as well as help your brain to take on more information. While we’re not advocating that you spend 15 minutes revising and then 3 hours watching Netflix, of course, this does mean that it’s acceptable to spend a couple of hours with your head in the books, broken up by an episode of Friends to refresh your prefrontal cortex.
7. Feed Your Brain, Not Your Stomach
When you’re ‘in the zone’ and making significant headway, it can be easy to ignore those cries of anguish from your stomach. You shouldn’t, though – because your brain will also suffer as a result.
Indeed, the link between cognitive performance and your dietary habits has long been validated in the scientific community, meaning your mind craves culinary sustenance just as much as your belly. As tempting as it may be to pick up a quick takeaway or live on a pre-exam diet of Mars bars and microwave noodles, though, stick to so-called ‘brain food’ such as fruits, vegetables and nuts.
8. Stay Hydrated
Feeding yourself isn’t the only thing you need to remember, either. When you’re dehydrated, your brain’s processing power decreases. And even though we all know that we should drink at least eight glasses of water every day, the simple reality is that most of us don’t.
Take a bottle of water with you everywhere you go – ideally, something robust and brightly coloured, so that you don’t forget about it – and ensure it’s always filled. Don’t wait until you start to feel thirsty, either; when your lips start to get dry or your urine is dark, these are late signs of dehydration – you are long past the point at which you should be adequately hydrated.
On a related note, ignore the temptations of copiously consuming coffee or caffeinated energy drinks such as Red Bull and Monster. The high levels of sugar and caffeine involved can dangerously elevate your blood pressure, while they also possess harmful acidic and addictive qualities.
9. Get Creative
Sometimes, it can be difficult to remember certain concepts or rules, but this is where a little bit of creativity can pay off on your part.
Mnemonics, for instance, are a highly useful way of making things stick; a good example is ‘Every Acid Dealer Gets Busted Eventually’, which music students will recognise as EADGBE – the standard tuning of a six-string guitar. Breaking information down in this way is a proven way to boost memory consumption.
Word or letter connections are a similarly convenient method – especially if they are funny and memorable. If you’re trying to remember that Riyadh is the capital of Saudi Arabia, for instance, then why not indulge your inner Amy Winehouse? ‘They tried to make me go to Riyadh, but I Saudi no, no, no…’
10. Get Your Mindset Right
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, ensure that you’re mentally prepared to hit the books. As the saying goes: study smart – not hard.
Often, it’s impossible to force yourself to be in a certain mindset. If, for example, you are going through a breakup, then it’s highly unlikely that you will be in the best frame of mind to delve into the machinations of 13th Century tort law; nothing will go in and you’ll simply get frustrated. In instances such as this, the best course of action is simply to do something else and come back when your mind is a little more receptive.
Alternatively, when you’re in a productive mindset, time and energy become less of an issue. You can learn far more in just one hour if you’re focused than if you spend an entire evening with your thoughts elsewhere. By developing a positive attitude to your revision and taking responsibility for it, you will become more motivated; you may find that you even start to enjoy it!
As you can see, there are several smart ways to effectively improve your study habits – and ‘habit’ is the keyword. If you can adopt this approach throughout your higher education experience, then you will be far better placed to produce high-quality work come assessment time. Indeed, the secret to being a successful student is no secret at all.
Do you have any other useful study tips? Let us know in the comments below…
Don’t forget to check out our guide on how to kick-start your career while studying