Spend your time wisely

  1. Structure your study time to maximize your learning. Your brain needs time and focus to make your new memories permanent, so it's better to schedule shorter study periods. For reading and general reviewing, a maximum of 45-50 minutes with a ten-minute break is recommended, while memorizing should probably be done in shorter time blocks, perhaps 15-30 minutes. Alternate subjects, so that your brain gets a change every study session. Be sure to schedule longer breaks every few hours, including time to relax before going to bed.

  2. Dedicate approximately half of your study time for "output." This "output" is simply various ways you process and reproduce the information. The form of output will depend on the subject matter. For example, output could include testing your ability to do math problems, making a summary of the major topics, developing a "contrast and compare" chart, creating a mind map (or concept map) to organize important points and concepts within a discipline or new concept, generating a chronology, labelling a blank diagram or writing practice tests.
  3. Briefly review the material you've just learned at the end of every study period. Tell yourself that this material will become a permanent memory very soon. "Lock it in."
  4. Test your knowledge soon and often. Although you might feel testing yourself before you've studied thoroughly is pointless, forcing yourself to recall material helps you to learn that material. Testing early also gives you valuable feedback. Perhaps your self-test indicates that you know a particular topic fairly well, so you can spend your valuable time studying another topic or subject that you don't know as well. If you test yourself early and find that you don't know a topic as well as you thought, you will have time to learn it before the final exam. Reviewing old exams can be an effective to see what sort of questions could be asked, test your own knowledge, and to give you experience and develop your test-taking skills.  Check with the USSU Help Centre about getting copies of old exams for your classes.
  5. Arrange with some of your classmates to discuss the material and study in groups. Group study provides new perspectives and knowledge about the material, and provides yet another way to approach or interact with the material (see the handouts on Learning Styles). During group discussions, remember to practise writing your answers as most exams are not orals. 
  6. Spend a few minutes at the beginning of each study period to develop your "mental set". Clear a space, physically, mentally and emotionally, where you are able to learn. Close your eyes briefly and evoke your curiosity. If you become very confused or frustrated, find at least one good thing about the subject you are studying. How does the subject relate to your life experiences, volunteer work, world problems you've pondered, classes you've taken or jobs you've held. At times, your reason may be very practical such as "I need this class to graduate", and this is okay too. Challenge inner negative thoughts while studying with positive self talk - "I want to learn this. It's interesting. I'm learning valuable skills and knowledge."
  7. Develop a "ritual" before you begin to study, such as getting yourself a drink, setting out the tools you'll need (pencil, pen, eraser, etc.), and then reviewing your goals for the session. Some students like to stimulate their memory with sensory cues, such as sounds, tastes or smells. Choose something that you can recreate in the exam situation. For example, burning a candle often helps students relax and focus at the beginning of a study session, but bringing a candle into an exam will be problematic. Having a hard candy, such as a peppermint or cough drop, is less conspicuous and easy to obtain.
  8. Schedule time for adequate sleep, exercise and healthy meals. Your brain depends on oxygen and glycogen to function. It gets oxygen when you exercise. To maintain the levels of glycogen, eat a combination of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fat at every meal, even snacks. If you need to chew while you study, you're better off with celery, broccoli or carrots with a slice of cheese than munching on cookies.

    Be mindful about the amount of caffeine you consume. Although a cup or two of coffee or cans of pop may help you study (especially if it is part of your study ritual), too much caffeine may interfere with your sleep. A regular can of pop might contain 16 teaspoons of sugar! This sugar temporarily boosts your blood sugar levels, but will be followed by a low as your body produces insulin to remove excess sugar out of your blood stream. Not only that, but pop often contains caffeine, sometimes more than the strongest coffee. Your brain and body won't know what hit them!

    Watch your energy and anxiety levels. Your ability to learn depends on your ability to concentrate. A few minutes of alert, focussed concentration is worth more than an hour spent gazing sleepily at the same sentence! You want to stay in the optimal energy zone for learning, neither too low in energy nor too high in anxiety. A little anxiety actually helps your motivation, but too much interferes with your ability to concentrate, interferes with sleep, and drains your energy. Although it takes practice, you can learn how to relax whenever you wish.

    Anxiety can surface as physical complaints, such as tense muscles or "butterflies" in the stomach, but it can also express itself as negative emotions. If you feel frustrated, annoyed or worried, take a few minutes to identify the source. Are you worried about a particular exam? Is the material exceptionally difficult? Is negative self-talk undermining your concentration? Are you simply burnt out from studying? Identify the problem and take action to address it.