We all have our own study and work habits that we rely on for every major test, project, or assignment. However, just because we’ve internalized those habits doesn’t necessarily mean they’re as effective as we might like to think. If your GPA, social life, sleep schedule, or health is suffering, your study habits may be the culprit. HC is here to help you realize which habits you should toss or tweak into better, more effective ones so you can get that ‘A’ you deserve (without pulling so many all-nighters that you zonk out in class and start drooling on the guy next to you—not a good look).
1. Cramming for a test
We already know that cramming the night before an exam is not the ideal way to go about studying, yet so many of us collegiettes continue to make a habit of it and are confident that it will pay off. While you might actually end up with a fine grade on an exam that you crammed for, shoving weeks’ worth of information into your brain in such a short span of time is not conducive to actually remembering the material in the future.
Grace Fleming, the student success coordinator at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Georgia and a former college admissions counselor, says that when asked about the most ineffective study habits, “cramming is the first thing that comes to mind. There’s a difference between remembering and learning, and cramming might lead to remembering material a day later, but it doesn’t lead to learning at all. There are scientific studies to show that real learning comes from the process of revisiting material repeatedly.” So regardless of the grade you get on the exam you cram for, you won’t remember the material when it comes time for the final or when you need to apply it in future higher-level courses.
And if that’s not enough to deter you from cramming, consider the effect that cramming has on your stress levels: “Students who are constantly playing catch-up and cramming at the last minute also experience more stress, and that leads to burnout,” Fleming says.
So instead of disadvantaging yourself by cramming, try this approach: briefly review class concepts and materials every week to ensure that you are understanding and remembering the information. When it comes time for an exam, spread your studying out over several days so that you aren’t scrambling to learn it all in one night. “The best process is study, take a break for a day, then study again. That is the only way to study so that you actually retain and learn,” Fleming says.
Our generation has mastered the art of Facebook chatting, tweeting, texting, watching TV, and eating dinner all at the same time, so you may sometimes mistakenly think that you can add homework to the mix. But by dividing your attention amongst so many different tasks, either the quality of your work or your efficiency is bound to suffer. HC contributing writer Katie, a senior at Western Michigan University, says that doing homework while watching TV “seems like a win-win situation in the beginning, but it always makes homework take a really long time.” She now realizes that “it is best to just turn the TV off and do homework… it makes for much less of a distraction.”
So instead of spending two hours to write one sentence of your paper because you keep stopping to look at pictures of cute puppies on Pinterest (not that we blame you), turn off the distractions around you and focus solely on your work. Make a deal with yourself that you’ll finish all your work before watching the latest episode of Revenge, so that you’ll be more motivated to get your work done and will have something to look forward to while doing it.
If your social media addiction is too strong to fight on your own, there are applications on your computer that you can use to help you stay focused. Harvard senior and HC Her Story Editor Kema recommends using the “focus view” function on word docs (click view, then “focus” or “full screen,” and it will put your document in full screen and hide all toolbars that don’t pertain to editing). “That way you’ll be less likely to try and go from window to window on your screen,” she says. “It also helps me to remember concepts a lot better when I recopy some of my notes by hand.” Other applications, such as SelfControl let you block yourself out of certain websites for a specified period of time.
Need more motivation to get unplugged while studying? Check out what Hannah Orenstein, HC High School Editor, experienced when she went on a 24-hour social media diet.
3. Choosing the wrong environment
Just as Facebook and TV can be distracting, studying somewhere that is not conducive to focusing on your work can be counterproductive as well. Considering that everyone has different preferences, there is no one “right” place to study—but once you recognize what conditions work best for you, find an ideal place on campus that meets that criteria so that you always have a place to go to be productive. Studies show that repeatedly studying in the same ideal spot can enhance learning; according to the Penn State York Nittany Success Center, “when you study in the same place every time, you become conditioned to study there. Your mind will automatically kick into gear, even when you don’t feel like studying.”
Just make sure you choose a spot that meets your study needs. If you realize that you just end up falling asleep whenever you try to read in bed, don’t try to convince yourself that this night will be different; instead, hit up a study lounge and get your work done there. If utter silence stifles your creativity, try writing that essay in a coffee shop instead of the library. Even if it means walking a bit to get to that location or going somewhere different than your friends for a few hours, catering to your own preferences will ensure that you’re as productive as possible.
4. Just rereading the textbook
According to Fleming, it’s important to “use active study strategies” rather than studying only by reading over the material. She explains that students “must read over material, then draw pictures of the material, then write lists about the material, then discuss with a study partner, then test each other. This is how we learn. Students must incorporate as many active study strategies as they can to get the best results.”
Compared to utilizing multiple active study strategies, simply reading over the material until you feel that you have memorized it is less effective in helping you to retain, understand, and apply the information. For example, if you study for a statistics exam by just rereading the chapters, you may think you understand the concepts and are well prepared. But by utilizing numerous active study strategies such as talking over the concepts with classmates, drawing out graphs, and doing practice problems, you will be able to check that you truly understand the material.
“When preparing for midterms or finals, be sure to create practice tests for yourself, Fleming says. “Try to put yourself in the professor’s position and create the test yourself. You will be surprised how accurate you’ll be!”
5. Sacrificing sleep
This bad study habit often goes hand in hand with cramming—and just like cramming, we already know that it’s bad… but we do it anyways. We’ve all heard plenty about the importance of getting enough Zs, yet sleep is often the first thing many of us sacrifice when it comes to keeping up with the college lifestyle. Instead of convincing yourself that a few more hours of studying the night before your test will trump whatever benefits sleep has to offer, take it from an expert:
“Don’t sacrifice sleep to cram for a test. Your brain will not function properly when you’re experiencing a lack of sleep, so that is totally counterproductive,” Fleming says. “If you must study on the last day, get an early start and make sure you go to sleep early enough to get plenty of rest.”
Not only will all-nighters make you feel sluggish or sick the next day, but they can impair your performance on tests and hurt your grades overall! A study at St. Lawrence University found that students who frequently pulled all-nighters had slightly lower GPAs than those who did not. This is likely because sleep deprivation impairs your cognitive abilities by increasing your reaction time and your likelihood to make mistakes while curtailing your creativity and analytical skills.
In the few days leading up to a test, remind yourself that you will perform better if you are well-rested and your brain is not overworked. Set a goal bedtime for the night before the exam—try to get at least eight hours of sleep. If you find that you always have trouble falling asleep the night before a big test, make sure that you leave yourself enough time to de-stress and fall asleep, and stay away from caffeine late in the day.
Still not convinced that sacrificing sleep may be hurting you? Read this HC article on the effects that an all-nighter has on your body and you’ll be sure to hit the hay earlier.
6. Not utilizing available resources
There are countless resources on every college campus that can help you study, from practice exams and review sessions to tutors and office hours. If your professor sends out three practice tests, take all three, not just one or two. Even if you do well on the first one, there may be different types of questions or problems on the other ones that will appear on the exam and it will be to your advantage to practice them before the real deal. Plus, the more you practice, the more you’ll understand the concepts and the quicker you’ll be able to complete the exam. Likewise, just because you feel prepared for a test does not necessarily mean that you don’t need to go to a review session, because someone may ask a question that you had yet to consider.
And don’t forget—professors themselves are resources too that you should definitely utilize. “Communicate with professors!” says Fleming. “Many times students will get frustrated and lose all confidence and feel lost and behind, but they never share these feelings with the professor. Professors are so frustrated by this! They want students to come and visit them. They like to feel like they make a difference, and they enjoy talking about their subjects. Most professors welcome visits from students who are struggling, and they usually come up with good solutions because the students have made this effort.” Meeting with your professor before an exam to review or after an exam to go over your mistakes will not only help you understand the material better, but it’ll show the professor that you care and are making an effort. Brownie points never hurt anyone!
They say old habits die hard, but if you use our advice to tweak the study habits that aren’t working for you, it’ll pay off big time in the long run. You won’t believe how much more productive and efficient you’ll be during every study sesh.