How to study effectively in college

What you need to do to make sure you do well at third-level

‘Students normally form a study group to decide who is going to read what and then share back with the group key points of what the different readings were.’ Photograph: iStock ‘Students normally form a study group to decide who is going to read what and then share back with the group key points of what the different readings were.’ Photograph: iStock

‘Students normally form a study group to decide who is going to read what and then share back with the group key points of what the different readings were.’ Photograph: iStock ‘Students normally form a study group to decide who is going to read what and then share back with the group key points of what the different readings were.’ Photograph: iStock


School is behind you and as the first taste of college freedom beckons, there’s a strong temptation to kick back and really enjoy student life. However, while studying might be the last thing on your mind, it’s what got you into college in the first place and to get what you want out of the next few years, you’re going to have to keep it up.

When it comes to studying at third-level, there’s no need to entirely reinvent the wheel. You’ve been doing it for years now, so you may have already discovered the techniques you know work best, the time of day you’re most productive and whether music helps you concentrate. If you haven’t, not to worry. Everyone studies differently so you shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with different places, times and tools to find your own rhythm.

Regardless, studying at third-level will require some adjustment for all.

“The key difference that students have to overcome in particular is how third-level learning needs to be self-directed, self-guided, self-regulated. It’s not necessarily going to be broken down clearly for you exactly what to do each step of the way. You have to take a lot more charge of your learning,” says Cillian Murphy, Dublin City University’s deputy director of student support and development.

Realising that college is not about regurgitation is also something Murphy emphasises strongly to those coming directly to college from the Leaving Cert. Notes must be taken down and used creatively to solve problems in exams. Learning stock essays might have earned you enough points to get into college but it won’t make your time there a success. You need to go in with a different mindframe, leaving rote-learning behind and engaging in active learning.

Know what you need to study

Before you even consider buying those flashcards, the first thing Murphy advises students to do is read each module specification/description. This will inform you on the learning outcomes, what the key topics to focus on are and what the main readings will be. Most significantly, you’ll find out whether the module will be graded via continuous assessment, an end of semester exam, an in-class test or a mix of all three. It’s very important to be aware of the marks allocated to each so you avoid spending three weeks on an essay worth just 20 per cent, but significantly less time studying for an exam worth 80 per cent.

Knowing from the beginning when assignments are due, the allocation of marks and what the workload is will allow you to take a more strategic approach to studying and help inform the second step to building a good study regime: making out a timetable.

Manage your time

Having gotten to grips with the requirements for each module, you now need to look at your lecture timetable to see what availability you have during the week.

Start scheduling in time to go to the library or work from home to get through the material and tasks you’ve identified from the module specification.

Enter all of your assignment deadlines and exam weeks into your calendar or timetable so you know when they are coming up and identify the steps and actions you need to take to complete assignments in time and to stay on top of reading and other tasks. Keeping up with coursework is the easiest way to avoid stress and will ensure you are not completely overwhelmed when deadlines and exams roll around. If you finding it difficult to stick to your timetable or something isn’t working with it, don’t be afraid to sit down and revise it. There is also plenty of help available from student support centres on campus who can help plan out your time effectively and realistically – so be sure to avail of their services if you need it.

Depending on your course, you may find you have a lot of free hours. This time is something a lot of students struggle with, says Murphy. “If they are taking an arts-based course, they may have less hours on the timetable but those hours are freed up for reading and studying purposes. So they need to use those hours to read up on the material that accompanies their lectures, going over their notes that they would have received on their virtual learning environment, notes they took themselves in lectures, tutorial notes, putting it all together and gradually studying towards their end-of-semester exams.”

If possible, get into a regular routine of studying at the same time each day, as this can help you get the most out of your session as your brain will be prepped for learning when you sit down.

Don’t just sit there and listen

Before the class, look at the previous lecture and the notes you made. Many lecturers will also put up their slides online before the class so look through these as this will help you get more out of the class time and identify any questions you might have. Whether you take class notes on your laptop, iPad or by hand, the method is not all that important as long as you are actively taking notes, says Murphy. “The research seems to suggest that helps with retainment of information afterwards. So you do something active during the lecture rather than sitting there soaking it up, and, just as important afterwards, go over that material and create a summary in your own words of the key points.”

Be SMART when studying

When sitting down to study, have a to do-list made out of the things you want to cover and achieve. Keep it realistic, don’t overdo it and ensure you always take a SMART approach (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely).

Once you’ve made your task list, Murphy advises you divide your time into a two-hour period and use the Pomodoro time-management technique, studying for 25 minutes followed by a five-minute break. When you’re ready to study, just like in the lecture, you need to taken an active approach. If reading a text book, this may mean taking notes, but make sure they are succinct and you’re not just left with reams of paragraphs. “What are the key points? Put them into your own words and test yourself on it . . . Don’t assume when you’ve taken loads of notes that you’ve learned it. Keep re-reading the material and testing yourself on it from scratch and make sure that the learning connection is made,” says Murphy.

Other effective ways of retaining and getting to grips with the material are creating a summary at the end of the chapter, incorporating graphs or charts into your notes, generating a mind-map, explaining what you’ve been studying to family or friends, making a video where you recall the key points or creating flashcards to test your knowledge.

The key thing is to be really engaged and not just passively reading while highlighting the whole page. Start with the most difficult material first as you’ll have more energy to tackle it before moving on to easier or more enjoyable topics.

Join or start a study group

If you learn best through conversation, you might find a study group is ideal for you, and is a great way to make friends. “Students normally form a study group to decide who is going to read what and then share back with the group key points of what the different readings were. We’d advise people to think about the purpose of the study group, decide how often will it meet and divide up the tasks that people are going to complete, making sure there is an even spread of work,” says Murphy. Having to present back your findings to your peers is a great way of helping you understand the material and ensuring it really sticks in your mind. Equally, listening to a peer preset their findings and being able to discuss the material in an engaging way should also make it easier to retain the information.

Use technology to your advantage

While the print versus screen debate continues to rage, a wealth of material is available digitally, particularly course ebooks, cutting out the need to try and get a physical copy of that essential textbook at the same time as everybody else descends on the library. If you’re not fond of screens or have dyslexia, some universities, such as DCU, have software available which reads the text aloud from the screen. From concentration apps, to note-taking software and timetable organisers, a whole wealth of handy tools can be found online so see if there are some applications that can help you organise your study time better or make it easier.

Use old exam papers

This will be particularly of use to those of you who read this article with great intentions at the start of the academic year but then discovered the student bar.

If it’s coming up towards exam time and you haven’t had time to prepare, using old exam papers, which are nearly always available online, will help you understand the type of questions that come up and might help guide you on what it is you need to be concentrating on during the limited time period you have left. Even if you’ve been keeping up with your studies throughout the semester, doing a mock exam will help bolster your study prep and is an excellent way to revise.