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Academic Success: Beyond Study Time

Vicki Nelson

Study time matters.

For most college students, academic success involves putting in the time. As a professor, when I have a student who is struggling, one of the first things we talk about is the amount of time they spend “hitting the books.”

But time is only one part of a good study routine. We need to also consider how students use that time, as well as the classic “W’s”: who, what, when, where, and why.

Time Management: How Do You Use Your Study Time?

Ask almost any successful student, or any professor, and they will tell you that time management is one of the secrets to success in college. Time management means not only making time to study but also using that time productively.

Good time management means keeping track of what you need to do, planning when and how it will get done, and staying on track.

  • Get (and use!) a planner. Whether your planner is an app or a paper calendar, it should have space to record all assignments, deadlines, exams, and other obligations. Break assignments into steps and include those on the calendar. Look for conflicts and busy times and plan accordingly.
  • Plan ahead for long-term assignments. It’s easy to forget about longer-term assignments, procrastinate getting started, or underestimate the amount of time they will take. Plan the steps involved and put them in your planner.
  • Plan a weekly reading schedule. Determine how much reading needs to be done for the week, then create and write down a plan for getting it done. A good rule of thumb is to plan approximately 5 minutes per page, although some subjects or some students may need more time. (Less time may mean you aren’t reading carefully. Skimming isn’t reading!)
  • Schedule breaks. Set a timer for a certain amount of time and then schedule a short break. Get something to eat, walk up and down the hall, do something active.
  • Time management also means self-management. The key is to create an action plan — and then to stick with it. It’s not always easy to stay on track and it may take practice. Don’t give up.

WHO Are You Studying With?

Studying doesn’t need to be a solo activity. In fact, it is often more effective if you don’t try to do it all alone.

  • Find a study-buddy or accountability partner. Study with someone else. Keep each other on track. Hold each other accountable.
  • Hang around people who study. Spend time with people who have similar values. Find people with similar goals who spend time studying.
  • Join or form a study group. Meeting regularly with a study group can be one of the best study tools. Form a small group (3–5 people) and meet regularly, perhaps weekly, to go over class material. Review readings, go over class notes and help each other fill in the blanks, create practice tests on the material and share them with each other, explain concepts to each other.
  • Teach the material to someone else. Is there anyone in your class who might appreciate a little help? Offer to meet to go over the material. You never learn anything as well as when you need to teach it to someone else.
  • Take advantage of the people available on your campus to help. Use the resources. Talk to the professor or teaching assistant. Go to the tutoring center. Ask another student for help.

WHAT Are You Studying?

“Studying” is more than reading.

Reading the assigned material is a first step but finding other ways to engage with the material is crucial. Highlight the text. Take notes. Write notes in the margins. Make lists. Work consistently with the material in as many ways as possible.

Make flash cards.

Flash cards work, and physical flash cards often work better than virtual flash cards – even if they seem old-school. Online apps like Quizlet are fine but being able to manipulate physical cards seems to help. Play games with them. Challenge others with them. Carry them around and pull them out whenever you have a few minutes.

Learn to take good class notes.

Taking good class notes takes practice. Don’t try to write down everything and don’t just write down what is on the instructor’s slides. Listen carefully “for the gold” of what the professor has to say. Go over your notes soon after class and fill in details. Try merging your class notes with your reading notes.

WHEN Do You Do Your Best Studying?

Deciding when to study is part of time management, but it is also an important part of making sure that your study time is most productive.

Are you an early bird or a night owl? Some people are just naturally wide awake and sharp early in the morning and others do better later in the day. Think about when you are naturally at your best. Work with your natural rhythm and try to get at least part of your hard studying done when you think most clearly.

Don’t leave all of your work until the end of the day. High school students who are in school all day and then have after-school activities or a job may have to do all of their studying in the evening, but if your college schedule has blocks of free time during the day, use those blocks to get some of your work done. An hour or two in the library between classes can save you from a late-night session.

Don’t wait until just before the test! Cramming doesn’t work. You learn material better if you space out learning and make studying a regular habit. Start well before your test and study a few minutes every day. Your brain needs time to digest the material and spaced study works best.

WHERE Are You Studying?

Location matters. Choosing the right place to study can help you focus and stay on task.

  • The most comfortable place may not be the best choice. Keep your bed for lounging, watching movies, sleeping, but not for studying. Train your brain to be in a relaxed mindset in one place and a work mindset in another.
  • Clear your space. Take a few minutes to clear off your desk of everything except what you need for this study session. Put other books aside and clear off anything you aren’t going to use. Clearing your workspace will help clear your brain.
  • Reduce noise and distractions. Minimize the things that tend to distract you. Do you need to be away from your friends? Your TV? Your phone? If your dorm is noisy you may need to study somewhere else, or at least consider noise-reducing headphones.
  • Consider alternative places to study. Consider other places to get your work done – a quiet corner of the library, a lounge, a local town library, an empty classroom (maybe with a whiteboard you can use), a local coffee shop, outdoors. Give yourself an occasional change of scene for a new perspective.

WHY Are You Studying?

The answer to this question may seem easy: to learn, to get a good grade or to pass the class. But thinking more deeply about the motivation behind each study session can be helpful.

“Find your why” and think about how studying fits with your overall goals. If you don’t know why you are spending the time, it’s difficult to stay motivated and stick with the work.

For the Test

Is this study session simply to learn material for an upcoming test? If so, you need to be clear about what will be covered and what the exam will look like. Stay focused on the material — and try to space out your studying.

Only For the Grade

While this isn’t a motivation most professors would encourage, if this is your goal then you need to be clear about what is required to achieve the grade you want. Work closely with the syllabus.

Career Goal

How does the subject fit in with your career goal? What are the practical applications of what you are learning? How will this material move you closer to the next step or class on your path?

What Else?

Roadblocks and detours can pop up for all of us.

  • Getting enough sleep. Most Americans don’t get enough sleep. Most college students definitely don’t get enough sleep. One study found that 75% of adults are less productive after a poor night’s sleep.
  • Trying to multitask. We all do it — and many of us believe we have no choice and that we’re successful at it. But when it comes to studying, multitasking doesn’t work. Trying to study while watching the game, or listening to some types of music, or watching a movie doesn’t work.
  • Saying “no.” Being able to say no is one of the hardest things for many of us. Students are faced with many tempting options. Students who prioritize and are able to say no to activities that don’t move them forward will be more likely to succeed.

Productive studying is complex and hard work. Too many students underestimate how important good study habits are. Good studying is just that — a set of habits that make a difference. Students who take time to find clarity about what they are doing will find the right tools to help them succeed.

Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.
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