13 STEPS TO BETTER STUDY SKILLS
By Judi Kesselman-Turkel
Effective studying is the one element guaranteed to produce good grades in school. But,
it's ironic that the one thing almost never taught in school is how to study effectively.
For example, an important part of studying is note taking, yet few students receive any
instruction in this skill. Reliable data on how to study does exist, though. It has been
demonstrated scientifically that one method of note taking is better than others and that
there are routes to more effective reviewing, memorizing and textbook reading as well. Following
are 13 proven steps you can take to improve your study habits.
STEP 1: Use behavior modification on yourself. Remember Pavlov's dogs, salivating
every time they heard a bell ring? Such association can also work with you. If you attempt
as nearly as possible, to study the same subject at the same time in the same place each
day, you will soon find that when you get to that time and place you're automatically in
the subject groove. Train your brain to think French on a time-place cue, and it will no
longer take you 10 minutes a day to get in the French mood. You'll save time, and the experts
say you'll also remember more of what you're studying!
STEP 2: Don't spend more than an hour at a time on one subject. Psychologist say
that you learn best in short takes. In fact, studies have shown that as much is learned
in four one-hour sessions distributed over four days as in one marathon six-hour session.
One reason you learn better this way is that you use time more efficiently when you're under
an imposed time restriction. (Have you noticed how much studying you manage to cram into
the day before a big exam?) Also, between study times, your mind subconsciously works to
absorb what you've just learned. If you're doing straight memorization, whether math formulas
or a foreign language or names and dates, don't study more than 20 to 30 minutes.
STEP 3: Keep alert while you're studying. The amount of attention you give a subject
is as important as the amount of time you spend. The more alert you are while studying,
the more you'll learn. You can promote a high level of alertness by minimizing distractions:
two or three hours of study without noise or other interference is more effective than 10
hours of trying to work amidst bedlam. Another technique for keeping your mind from wandering
is to begin with your most boring subject-or your hardest one-and work toward the easiest
and/or the one you like best.
Take frequent rest breaks. The specialists say you'll get your most effective studying
done if you take a 10-minute break between subjects. (Again, it's akin to behavior modification.
Pavlov's dogs were taught to respond on cue by being rewarded with tidbits. The break is
your reward.) Dr. Walter Pauk, Director of the Reading and Study Center at Cornell University,
suggests you take that short break whenever you feel you need one, so you don't fritter
your time away in clock-watching and anticipating your break.
STEP 4: Study similar subjects at different times. Brain waves are like radio waves;
if there isn't enough space between inputs, you get interference. The more similar the kinds
of learning taking place, the more interference. So separate your study periods for courses
with similar subject matter. Follow your hour of German with an hour of chemistry or history,
not with Spanish.
STEP 5: Avoid studying during your sleepy times. Psychologists have found that everyone
has a certain time of day when he or she gets sleepy. Don't try to study during that time.
If you have a pile of schoolwork, use that time to sort your notes or clear up your desk
and get your books together.
STEP 6: Study at the most productive time for each type of course. If it's a lecture
course, do your studying soon after class, if it's a course in which students are called
on to recite or answer questions, study before class. After the lectures you can review,
revise and organize your notes. Before the recitation classes you can spend your time memorizing,
brushing up on your facts and preparing questions about the previous recitation.
STEP 7: Learn the note-taking system the experts recommend. Quite a bit of research
has been done on note taking, and one system has emerged as the best. It has several minor
variations; here's the one we prefer:
Use 8½ by 11-inch loose-leaf paper and write on just one side. (This may seem wasteful,
but it's one time when economizing is secondary.) Put a topic heading on each page. Then
take the time to rule your page as follows:
A. If the course is one in which lecture and text are closely related,
use the 2-3-3-2 technique. Make columns of two inches down the left-hand side for recall
clues, three inches in the middle for lecture notes and three inches on the right side for
text notes. Then leave a two-inch space across the bottom of the page for your own observations
B. If it's a course where the lectures and the reading are not closely related,
use separate pages for class notes and reading notes, following the 2-5-1 technique: two
inches at left for clues, five in the middle for notes and an inch at the right for observations.
The clue column is the key to higher grades. As soon as possible after you've written
your notes, take the time to read them over-not studying them, just reading them. Check,
while it's all still fresh, to see whether you've left out anything important or put down
anything incorrectly, and make your changes. Continue then, in that left-hand column,
to set down clue words to the topics in your notes. These clue words should designate
or label the kind of information that's in your notes. For example, to remember the information
contained so far in this section on note-taking, you need just the following clues: 8½
-by -11 loose leaf, one side; 2-3-3-2; 2-5-1. As you can see, they're simply memory cues
to use later on in your actual studying.
Dr. Robert A. Palmatier, assistant professor of reading education at the University of
Georgia, suggests that you study for tests in the following manner. Take out your loose-leaf
pages and shift them around so the order makes the most sense for studying. Take the first
page and cover up the notes portion, leaving just the clues visible. See if you can recall
the notes that go with the clues, and as you get a page right, set it aside. If you're
going to be taking a short-answer test, shuffle up your note pages so they're out of order.
(That's why it's important to use just one side of the paper.) "This approach provides
for learning without the support of logical sequence." Dr. Palmatier says, "thus
closely approximating the actual pattern in which the information must be recalled."
If you're going to be taking an essay test, you can safely predict "those areas on
which the most notes are taken will most often be the areas on which essay questions will
The beauty of the clue word note-taking method is that it provides a painless way to
actively think about your notes and make logical sense of them in your mind. You won't
learn by passively paging through your recorded notes. It's been proven that active recall
is more conducive to remembering what you've learned.
STEP 8: Memorize actively, not passively. Researchers have found that the worst
way to memorize-the way that takes the most time and results in the least retention-is to
simply read something over and over again. Instead, use as many of your senses as possible.
Try to visualize in concrete terms, to get a picture in your head. And also use sound: say
the words out loud and listen to yourself saying them. Use association: relate the fact
to be learned to something personally significant or find a logical tie-in. For example,
when memorizing dates, relate them to important events with dates you already know.
Use mnemonics. For example, the phrase "Every good boy does fine" is used for
remembering the names of the musical notes on the lines of the treble clef. Use acronyms,
like OK4R, as the key to remembering the reading method outlined below in Step 9.
STEP 9: Take more time for your reading. Read with a purpose. Instead of just starting
at the beginning and reading through to the end, you'll do the assignment a lot faster and
remember a lot more if you take the time to follow the OK4R method devised by Dr. Walter
O. Overview: Read the title, the introductory and summarizing paragraphs and all
the headings included in the reading material. Then you'll have a general idea of what topics
will be discussed.
K. Key ideas: Go back and skim the text for the key ideas (usually found in the first sentence
of each paragraph). Also read the italics and bold type, bulleted sections, itemizations,
pictures and tables. Now you'll know what the author is saying about his topic.
R1. Read your assignment from beginning to end. You'll be able to do it quickly because
you already know where the author is going and what he's trying to prove.
R2. Recall: Put aside the text and say or write, in a few key words or sentences, the
major points of what you've read. (This is the time to put down reading notes in your
loose-leaf book.) Dr. Pauk says that one minute spent in immediate recall nearly doubles
retention of that piece of data!
R3. Reflect: The previous step helps to fix the material in your mind. To keep it in
your memory forever, relate it to other knowledge: find relationships and significance
for what you've read.
R4. Review: This step doesn't take place right away. It should be done for the next short
quiz, and then again for later tests throughout the term. Several reviews will make that
knowledge indelibly yours.
STEP 10: Devise a color and sign system for marking your personal books. Dr. Palmatier
suggests red for main ideas, blue for dates and numbers, yellow for supporting facts. Circles,
boxes, stars and checks in the margins can also be utilized to make reviewing easy.
STEP 11: Clue your lecture notes, too. Underline, star or otherwise mark the ideas
that your teacher says are important, thoughts that he says you'll be coming back to later,
items that he says are common mistakes. Watch for the words-such as "therefore"
and "in essence" that tell you he's summarizing. Always record his examples. In
fact, in such subjects as math, your notes should consist mainly of the teacher's examples.
Pay closest attention in your note-taking to the last few minutes of class time. Often
a teacher gets sidetracked and runs out of time. He may jam as much as a half-hour's content
into the last five or ten minutes of his lecture. Get down that packed few minutes' worth.
If necessary, stay on after the bell to get it all down.
STEP 12: Keep your themes to the point. Themes are graded on what you say and on
how well you say it. Narrow down your topic to one you can cover easily in the assigned
length. Stick to the topic and develop it thoroughly, using facts or examples to support
every statement. (Be careful to label what's fact and what's opinion.) Once you've got it
all down, do what all professional writers do: edit and rewrite. And remember that a simple
word used correctly is infinitely better than a complex word misused.
Name, list, define, tell, enumerate, all mean just to give the information asked
Summarize and outline mean give the main points.
Define means just give the meaning.
Illustrate means give examples.
Justify means give the facts to prove it's true.
Prove means show that it's true and its opposite is false.
Discuss and review means examine from all angles.
Compare means show how they're the same and how they differ.
Contrast means show the difference.
Evaluate means give your opinion as to the advantages and disadvantages.
Criticize means examine the pro's and con's and give your judgment.
Explain means how, in logical sequence, something happened.
STEP 13: Pre-read math, science or engineering text material just before the topic
is covered in class. That will provide clues for taking class notes and will also make the
lecture partly a review.
When doing homework, it's important to understand new words, new concepts and new laws
before trying to solve sample problems. If you can't do a problem, which has complex numbers
in it, try substituting simple numbers. In these subjects you'll learn infinitely more from
your mistakes than your correct answers, so always redo to find out where you went wrong.
Fully 20 percent of all computation errors are made from inaccuracy. Write all numbers
carefully, in straight columns, and write it all down-don't short cut by figuring parts
of the problem in your head.
If, after the homework is explained in class you still don't understand something, look
for help immediately. Each new bit of information in math and science is built on the step
before it, and if any one step is rickety your entire staircase to understanding will fall
the first test.
In studying for tests, teach yourself to recognize a problem-and its method of solution
out of context. Copy out the problems from all the chapters you're reviewing, mix them up
and then do them.
Research has proven that it's not how much time you study that counts; it's rather how
well you study. In fact, in at least one survey, students who studied more than 35 hours
a week came out with poorer grades than those who studied less. Use your study time wisely,
and you too will come out ahead.
The Study Smart Series by Judi Kesselman-Turkel and Franklynn Peterson
The Study Smart Series, designed for students from junior high school through lifelong learning
programs, teaches skills for research and notetaking, presents strategies for test-taking
and studying, provides exercises to improve spelling, grammar, and vocabulary, and reveals
secrets for putting these skills together in essays.
The Grammar Crammer
A concise, sensible grammar handbook that explains lucidly how to remember correct word
forms and sentence structures. Useful as a reference tool for high school and beyond, it
packs an entire grammar encyclopedia into just over a hundred pages. 136 pp. 5 ½
x 8, ISBN 0299191346, Paper $6.95.
NoteTaking Made Easy
“There is advice on how to read a nonfiction book … [and] hints on how to keep
your mind on the business at hand … The book is inexpensive, written in a chatty style,
and printed in larger than usual type …” Bernice Roer Neal, Culpeper Virginia
News 112 pp. 5½ x 8, ISBN 0299191540, Paper $6.95.
Research Shortcuts, revised edition
“Thirty-eight research shortcuts are presented in a concise manner and with ample
examples … Excellent suggestions for source materials and methods for utilizing them
are presented. The art of deciding exactly what needs to be researched is explained. Instruction
on interviewing skills and using surveys is also given. Finally, methods for developing
the rough and first drafts are offered. Designed for use by college students, this work
is useful for anyone doing research. Recommended.” Library Journal, 136 pp. 5½
x 8, ISBN 0299191648, Paper $6.95.
Secrets to Writing Great Papers
How to work with ideas, develop them, hone them, and transform them into words. It provides
techniques and exercises for brainstorming, choosing an approach, working with an unknown
or boring assigned topic, overcoming writer’s block, and selecting the best point
of view. 96 pp, 5½ x 8. ISBN 0299191443, Paper $6.95.
For more information on studying, the following books are also available: How to Study in
College, second edition, by Walter Pauk (Houghton Mifflin, 1974) and How to Study, second
edition, by Clifford T. Morgan and James Deese (McGraw-Hill, 1969). Both are available in
The University of North Carolina also has studying tips, including ‘Ten Traps of
Studying’ posted on their website: http://caps.unc.edu/TenTraps.html