4 Practical Ways to Study Smarter (Not Harder) in College




Many students find it difficult to adjust to the expectations and pace of higher learning, which contributes to the 40% dropout rate in the United States. Of this rate, 30% don’t return to college after their freshman year. Becoming a good student is imperative to surviving college and earning your degree. However, it’s not about how hard or long you study but how smart you approach it. These tips can help you study smarter, learn more effectively and test better:

1. Space out your studying and don’t cram

Though it may make sense for memory retention to cram information last minute, it’s the path of least resistance in learning. It’s not about memorizing terms but gaining an understanding of concepts, how they connect, and how you apply it. To learn effectively, Harvard psychologist George Miller introduced chunking or putting and studying similar concepts together. This technique helps learners with repetition (which lends to better retention and recall) and gives them more opportunities to create connections.

You can apply this by breaking down a lesson into smaller chunks and grouping similar ones together, like studying the nouns before verbs in your foreign language class. Chunking can also refer to studying in small chunks, instead of attempting to do a marathon review before a big test.

2. Take better notes

Your review is only as good as the notes you take, which is why you need to get better at it. To help learners out, education researcher Sönke Ahrens, who wrote How to Take Smart Notes, suggests the slip-box method for note-taking. Start by making notes as you read or sit in a lecture using your own words, which will ensure you actually understand as you listen. Then, similar to the chunking technique, try to make connections with what you jot down when you review. Maybe you can relate two concepts together and develop a deeper understanding of a certain topic. This can help you organize knowledge, boost your retention of lessons, and create your own insights.

3. Try to teach the topic to others

In the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, the authors highlight that the Dunning-Kruger effect may affect a student’s ability to learn. This is a cognitive bias that makes a person think they are smarter than they actually are. This might give students the impression that they are knowledgeable on a topic if they can parrot their teacher’s lecture.

A good way to test if you’ve actually learned is to try to teach the topic in your own words and understanding. You might be surprised at how difficult it is to break down complicated concepts or provide your own examples. However, a study partner, with whom you can share ideas and practice teaching, can be a valuable asset in your learning.

4. Test yourself consistently

Not all good learners are great at testing. What can help you get better grades is practicing testing itself. A KQED article on self-testing explains that there are many ways to do this, including flashcards, completing tests in your textbook, and answering review quizzes online. If you fail the first time, do the self-test again. Psychologists explain that this is meant to help with memory retrieval, so it’s best to test yourself at least a day after you’ve completed a lesson. This is because sleep is important in consolidating information into long-term memory, which can help you test more confidently.

Although our How Many Colleges Should I Apply To? guide shows the pressure of getting into a good school, that process may pale in comparison to doing well once you’re admitted. You can become a better student with chunking, better note-taking, practice teaching, and self-testing techniques.

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