Study Strategies

Learning is hard work 

and to do it well you’ll have to make time for it in your schedule! 

The common recommendation for study is two hours outside of class for every hour in class.  Simply put, if you’re in class three hours each week, it’s advised that you spend another six hours outside of class learning the course material.  If you’re enrolled in 15 credit hours, you’ll need to plan at least 30 hours additional to learn the content introduced in class. This number may decrease for an introductory course for which you have prior knowledge and it will increase for upper-division courses or those in which your base knowledge may be lacking.   

When it comes down to it, making the time to study well is just another choice you need to make in managing your time. 


To some students, spending twice the time studying outside of class that they spend in class seems like a very large amount of time to devote and they aren’t really sure what to do – once they’ve read the assigned pages and done the homework, they’re done, right? Wrong!  For most students, this is only the start of learning…most of us do not learn information with such little effort.


While the first step in studying is setting aside the right amount of time, it’s also important that you plan your study for the best time of day.  Research tells us that the best time to study is during the morning and afternoon.  Should you study in the evenings?  Of course, but you shouldn’t leave the bulk of your studying for the evening, or you’ll find that you have less focus and often run out of time to get everything you wanted to completed, resulting in your staying up well past your planned bedtime.  It is important that you devise a time management system that allows you to find time during the day to do your studying!  

The other important timing issue is making sure that you make time to study for each course within 24 hours of lesson.  This is an important aspect of creating that memory, of learning something new, to work with the new information soon after hearing it so it stays with you.  It is also vital that you internalize the lessons from one class before that class meets again and you have additional content to manage.  For suggestions on managing your time, click here.

Learning is an active process

and you must find a way to use the information in order to keep it!  

Many students listen carefully in class and take good notes, they read the text, watch the videos, and review their notes…but all of these are passive forms of taking in information.  Active learning requires that you interact with the new material, that you internalize it and “own” it.  Most of us understand that learning a sport or a musical instrument requires that, at some point, we stop watching and start participating in the activity; too few of us classify learning as an activity.  Really learning means not only taking in the information but being able to retrieve that information and use it to answer questions or solve problems.  When you study, be sure that you incorporate methods of recall so that you get practice finding and retrieving the information you’ve stored and make sure you find a way to interact with the learning so that it connects with the other pieces of information you’ve gathered, allowing you to develop a broader, deeper view of the material.

Before any discussion about the specifics of studying, it's important to introduce a couple of new concepts that are key to learning:

Focused vs Diffuse Thinking

When students talk about studying, they most often refer to what is called “focused learning” -- the blinders are on and you’re concentrating solely on the task at hand, blocking out as many distractions as you’re able to.  Focused learning is great and it’s a necessary step in understanding the specifics. There’s another kind of thinking, though, that is equally critical to mastery of information.

Diffuse learning is equally important in really learning something, it allows you to internalize the learning, put it in context, and make connections to previous knowledge and the “big picture”.  Diffuse learning is what happens when you’re doing something else…or nothing at all!  Many people report going to sleep with something on their mind and waking up with a solution.  Some people find they arrive at understanding after a good work out or a coffee break.  While focused learning is the way we process information deeply, diffuse learning allows your brain to look at a larger amount of data more broadly.

Interestingly, not every non-focused activity will stimulate diffuse-mode learning.  While many students find it relaxing to text, surf the web, watch a movie, or chat with friends, these activities are not good complements for focused thinking as they tend to not activate diffuse thinking.  Instead, try doing something that involves physical exertion (run, swim, walk, dance, work out, or play a team sport), relaxation that is more solitary (like taking a bath or shower, listening to instrumental music, sleeping), or something artistic (drawing, painting, knitting, singing or playing songs on a musical instrument).

Both types of thinking are necessary to truly internalize information and that’s what you’re after – to give this information a permanent place in your brain so you can draw it out when you need it and so you can use it as a foundation for more advanced learning.  Without focused thinking, you won’t learn the specifics of a topic, the details that are necessary to solve the problem.  Without diffuse learning, you develop “tunnel vision” – you become unable to think outside the box, to change the parameters, to access a creative solution.

Author Barbara Oakley (A Mind for Numbers) proposes that the combination of focused and diffuse thinking is particularly important in learning anything. [By the way, her book is a great, quick read about learning, especially math.  You can find it in paperback or Kindle format.]


Metacognition is an awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes, or more simply, thinking about your thinking.  In being metacognitive, students become attentive to their strengths and weaknesses as learners (“Dang it!  Why do I always forget to convert the units?”); once you’re aware of your limits, you can figure out how to expand your knowledge.  Metacognition increases your skill at transferring information to new situations or tasks, allowing you to think outside the narrow focus on a particular subject.

In 2003, a team of researchers published a paper indicating that “if people lack the skills to produce correct answers, they are also cursed with an inability to know when their answers, or anyone else’s, are right or wrong”, making them “blissfully unaware of their incompetence”.   YIKES!   (Dunning, Johnson, Ehrlinger, and Kruger; American Psychological Society, 2003)

It is critical that you begin to consider not just what you’re learning, but how you’re learning.  Monitor yourself constantly:
•    what do I know about this topic?  (a good place to start learning a new topic, this technique will help establish a connection or context for new information)
•    what was most confusing to me in class today? (now you know where you need to dig deeper)
•    how did this change my thinking? (did you learn something that reinforced or changed the way you think about a topic?)

By the way, one of the frequently-used Textbook Reading Systems, K-W-L, is a great model of learning metacognitively!

Here’s a challenge for you: learn to be metacognitive about testing.  Next time you take an exam, when the graded exam is returned, review it carefully and rather than just learning the “right” answers, evaluate and make notes on the process, such as:

  • What about my exam preparation worked well (and I should remember to do this next time)?
  • What did not work well and how can I change that?

To explore this topic further, try starting here.

Successful students will: