Top 7 Study Strategies for Excelling in School

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Any student who wants to excel could use some extra study strategies for remembering and understanding course information. Here are my top 7 tips for effective studying.

1) The brain works best when it is operating off of associations. Do anything you can to try to link new information with older information. Creating analogies works very well. For example, if you are learning about classical conditioning, and the eyeblink reflex sounds an awful lot like how electricity flows through a light switch, draw up the conditioning model using electrical terms. Anything you can do to liken what you’re learning to something you know a lot about will help solidify that information in your brain.

2) If you know what your professor is going to teach next class, make sure you read the material before you sit down in your seat. This is a similar to the concept in number 1. If you’re familiar with what is being taught, you can connect the lecture information to what you learned when you read the material. Your professor will use an example, and you’ll think, “Oh yeah. That’s just like what the book said in the beginning of the chapter.” You can make a reference in your notes to find the section in the book and make a comment that this section is related to the example your professor gave.

Conversely, if you’re hearing your professor’s lecture for the first time, you are presenting your brain with an overload of your working memory. You only have so much space for taking in new information. Your professor’s words can’t be processed at a higher level like it can if you read the material first. Instead, your brain needs to work overtime listening, writing the words you are hearing, and interpreting the concepts. The final challenge is that, while you’re rehearsing the words you have heard so that you can write them down in your notes, you are not paying attention to what is being said.

3) Use abbreviations. If you can learn how to write shorthand, even better. In the field of Psychology, there are a lot of words that come up repeatedly. If you can learn to use Ψ instead of writing the word “Psychology,” you will save yourself a lot of time, which will allow you to pay closer attention to the lecture, and less attention on the act of copying. You can substitute @ for “about,” or “cond” for “conditioning.”

Here’s the secret: Words, letters and pictures are just made up! As long as you understand your own notes, you can draw a piece of poop on the paper in place of the word “epistemology” and it doesn’t matter! Identify some top words and terms that you find yourself writing all the time, and make up your own symbols and abbreviations for them.


4) Reset your brain – Have you ever been reading something, and then, after 10 minutes or so, you come to consciousness, and realize, “Wow. I’ve been reading for a long time, and I have no idea what I was reading.”? It’s time to put the book down and take a break. Go for a walk. Listen to some music. Stand up and stretch. Eat a snack. Reset your brain and then go back with a renewed commitment to pay close attention to the material. If you’re not paying attention to the material, you’re just wasting your time.

I’d recommend the same for class lectures. If you find yourself having difficulty paying attention, get up and “go to the bathroom.” Walk up and down the hall a few times, take a breath of fresh air, and wake your brain up. You might miss 2 minutes of talking while you’re outside of class, but you were going to miss those two minutes anyway. You might as well be absent for those two minutes, and then come back fresh, so that the third, fourth, and eleventh minutes will be heard.

5) Read your notes right after you read/hear the lecture. Remember number 2 (It wasn’t that long ago!) when I told you to look at the material before the lecture? I’d also like you to look over the lecture you just heard, or the highlights and comments you made in your text that you just read IMMEDIATELY AFTER you finish. It won’t take you more than 5-6 minutes to review what you just pondered, but the extra review will help your brain take it in just that little bit more.

6) Study in your seat. The absolute best place to study for a test is in the seat where you will be taking the test. Make some time, after the bulk of class sessions have finished for the day, to go to your classroom, sit in your seat, and review your textbook and notes. What does this accomplish? It provides context cues for the material when test time arrives. If you’re studying, and you are finding a particular concept challenging, look around the room. See the crack in the ceiling? Look at it while you rehearse the information. Or, you might be drawn to the fire alarm on the wall. Stare at that while you go over the material that is proving difficult. If a question comes up on the test about that concept, look up at the crack or the fire alarm, and your brain may say, “Ah-hah. Right. The fire alarm! ‘Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny!”

7)      Connect info across sources with arrows, symbols, comments, stories, and questions. Finally, focus your studying on the skill of integration and application. These two skills represent the highest forms of thinking. When you are studying a concept, create your own application to real life. How does the information you are studying connect to something that has happened to you personally? Or, how could you use this information in your professional life when you have graduated and begun working in your chosen career?

Alternately, integrate material across content. When something in your lecture notes expounds on something in your text, write the page number from the text in your lecture notes, and the page number from your lecture notes in your text. When something in your notes from one day relates to something from a different day, put an asterisk in both places, or write a comment that refers you back and forth between the two places in your notes. As you’re studying, and questions arise, write them in the margins and then ask your questions in class. There’s nothing a professor loves more than when she says, “Are there any questions?” and someone asks a question!

These 7 strategies are by no means the entirety of strategies that are available to you when you are studying, but they are my favorites. Feel free to leave other ideas in the comments. Good luck in your studies! I look forward to your comments and insights. Get in touch with me at info@drjohnrich.com. Thank you for your support.


Dr. John D. Rich Jr. is an educational psychologist and associate professor of Psychology at Delaware State University, a retired United Methodist minister, a full-time husband and father of two sons. His articles appear in Psychology Today, and you can hear Dr. John every other Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. on the Matt Connarton Unleashed radio show on WMNH 95.3 FM. Also, check out  drjohnrich.com for more info. Got questions? Dr. John will help you navigate. Reach him directly at info@drjohnrich.com.