How to Develop a Game-Changing Study Strategy

Study Strategy

One of the most common obstacles to success for adults returning to school is that they never learned to learn. If no one showed you how to develop good study habits, you won’t realize the difference it can make. As the saying goes, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” Follow these steps to creating a study strategy, and don’t be surprised to suddenly realize you’re actually pretty good at this whole “college thing.”

Get Your Head In the Game

Find a quiet time and place to study with no distractions, take a few minutes to get yourself relaxed, alert, and focused; and tell your brain to get ready for work. If you’re a coffee or soda drinker, you’ll be pleased to know caffeine has been shown to sharpen memory and focus. Chocolate is also helpful for boosting memory, so you may want to indulge. Choose a designated area for studying, such as the kitchen table. Avoid the couch or the bedroom if possible, so that you maintain separate spaces for relaxation and for study. Sit facing the wall to avoid becoming distracted by other activity in the house. It’s a good idea to take a 1 minute break every 15 minutes and a 10 minute break every hour to 90 minutes to let the new neurons connect to form memories. Now’s time for a stretch and a little upbeat music to get that blood pumping again.

Have a Plan

Don’t study hard when you can study smart. To get prepared, you might want to read the chapter conclusion or chapter summary before reading the chapter to get an idea of what is important to focus on. Believe it or not, this action can save time later.

Ask yourself, what kind of learner am I? Are you a visual learner, who learns best by watching and reading? An auditory learner, who learns best by listening, or a kinesthetic learner that is more hands-on? The truth is that everyone can learn from each of these styles, and so combining them may be much more effective than using just one style alone. Each learning style fires up a different part of the brain.

If you’re really struggling with a concept, call a friend or family member, and try to explain it to them, because talking aloud engages a different part of the brain that can help complete connections. You could explain it to a picture on the wall, or just the wall. It might feel a little funny at first, but it works the same. Basically, by firing up the communication processing centers of the brain, you’re tapping into your internal computer. You can read aloud, or listen to an audio book while you read and take notes at the same time. It might take just a little longer, but it’s far more effective than reading through again and again. Studying this way works by firing up many parts of your brain at once, and it will help you learn and remember on a deeper level than if you had simply read through the book alone.

Here are some useful tips to improve memory:

  • Stand up occasionally to increase blood-flow to your brain. It’s especially effective to study right AFTER a good workout.

  • Try to think of examples from your life that illustrate important concepts. This association aids recall.

  • Trying to memorize something? Repeat it aloud a few times, or try putting it to a melody

  • Create a study routine: being well rested, in a familiar environment, with the same sights, sounds, and YES, even smells, actually primes your brain for learning.

THINK ABOUT IT. Smell is especially associated with memory – have you ever smelled cookies in the oven and thought of your grandma, or caught a whiff of perfume or cologne that suddenly made you think of your middle school crush? Smell can quickly transport us to a way of thinking, and trigger powerful memories. Try having a cup of fragrant tea when you study, and again when you write the paper, to trigger memory via association. A scented candle or even chewing gum can help you get into study mode – just make sure it’s a scent that you ONLY use when studying.

Take the Right Approach

Make sure you develop a helpful note-taking strategy. Research at the University of Washington suggests that physically writing something down activates parts of your brain associated with thinking, language, and memory. Writing engages your brain in a way that typing does not. The more of the brain you can get in on the process, the better chance you’re going to learn and remember!

One time-tested strategy is the outline system, which creates an efficient way to organize and review your notes later. It should look like this:

I. Primary Topic

A. Secondary Topic

  1. Detailed bullet point paragraph notes

  2. Repeat

B. Secondary Topic

  1. Detailed bullet point paragraph notes

  2. Repeat

Another popular method is the Flow-Based System, which is about capturing main ideas as you learn them. It is unstructured, but can be good for when you are watching a video or listening to an audio recording. One simple and effective approach to note-taking might be called the Highlight Method. Try to summarize each paragraph of the chapter or article in one sentence, and write it down. Imagine you are re-writing the book for a child. The act of explaining the concepts in your own words helps to store it away in long-term memory. By the time you finish the chapter you will have a convenient summary in your own words. You can be sure that if you’ve learned something well enough to explain it to someone else, you’ve truly begun to master it. Taking notes in this way is a way to do that without an audience.

Create a Routine

If possible, your study routine should happen at the same times of day, when you’re rested, and should follow the same pattern every time. Take a few minutes to think about what your study plan is. Use the same routine for a few days in a row. Results are generally noticeable within 4-5 days but forming new habits has been estimated to take months. Ultimately, even though the tips above may be backed by science, and have worked for millions of other students, you should pay attention to what works for you. The key is consistency. Try something for a few weeks and take note of the results. If it’s not working, it’s time to try something new.

Need more tips? Read ”Top 3 Study Break Ideas” on Forward Thinking.

Written by Lucas Myers, Lead Enrollment Services Advisor for Ashford University.

Questions? Talk with an Advisor

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