“The one real object of education is to have a man in the condition of continually asking questions.” (Bishop Mandell Creighton, in Academic Tips, 2016)

The time of being a student could be one of the most exciting of your life — or it could be just short of torture. Which will it be? Part of the answer to that lies in how successfully you can employ the good study and learning skills which will spell success. In this short article, we explore four general study strategies that help improve your learning. These include: preparing the study environment; organising your study schedule; tips for while you are engaged in study; and methods of boosting your reading efficiency.

1. Create your study area(s)

This one encompasses more than it seems at first glance. Yes, if at all possible it would be great to have your own study/office to work from! Failing that, the next best thing would be a dedicated desk or table, where you can always leave your study materials, computer, and the office supplies (e.g., pen, paper, stapler, etc.) for when you need them. Sometimes even this may not be possible, so you may have to create a mobile study area, which can be set up in a few minutes from the item or space in which you store everything: say, an old piece of luggage, backpack, or drawer which houses all your materials. Wherever you decide to study (and this includes those temporary study environments like the library or your favourite café), you need to be able to create the following:

Sufficient clean, cleared surface workspace to spread out needed items (yes, you may need to re-organise your workspace, filing or getting rid of some items). Good lighting (to reduce eye strain and fatigue) and air flow (to help keep you alert). A decent ergonomic set-up (meaning: is your chair comfortable and at the right height for the table you are working at? Is your computer keyboard high/low enough? What about the monitor?)

An environment free from distracting visual and sound disturbance. Now, here’s where we run into controversy. Most experts will say you should have a quiet environment, that any sound is distracting. Barbara Oakley, however, takes a more moderate view. Background music, she says, is ok if what you are studying is not too demanding and the music is not too overwhelming (Oakley, 2015). If you are studying something difficult and will need to go into diffuse mode to consolidate it, even the white noise of a café may be helpful at times, as it may activate diffuse mode for you (though possibly inhibit focus mode).

Too, your preferred learning style may determine just how much stimulation you should have. Ditto the visual intrusions. If you have a permanent space to work from, you may wish to put up bright, inspirational wall hangings or other items to motivate and inspire you. If you must be mobile with no permanent place, think carefully about how much you want going on visually in the environment (a café, for example, may just have too many comings and goings to help you focus). A collection of the tools you will need at your disposal (Hakim, 2011; Oakley, 2015).

2. Organise your study schedule

There is a saying among learning experts that, if a student announces that he is going off “to study” for eight hours, that it will be eight hours of wasted time. Rather than a general assault on the material to be read, effective learners develop a schedule and a plan: a means of allocating time for maximum productiveness. The following tips can help you get and stay on course.

Subtract your known obligations and engagements (e.g., work, family duties, classes you must attend) from your total waking hours to find out just how much discretionary time you have; you will need to plan any studying to happen within this framework of time. Once a plan is conceived and a schedule is made, you must commit to keeping it. Use an appointment book (or online/phone version thereof) to record all dates when assignments are due and tests are to be held, so that nothing is missed.

Organise your assignments/courses (what about colour-coded folders?). All loose papers should go into the appropriate folder so that they are handy when you get to that topic. Set goals and make specific plans for given material: that is, not just “study for the recruitment course of my Counselling Diploma”, but “Outline by Friday the steps given during the lecture for XYZ”. Break large tasks into smaller ones.

Study at the right time. What do we mean, “right time”? You must be alert and rested for your focused study time. It is far better to use planned time than last-minute cramming. And certainly, if you are trying to set up an effective focus/diffuse rhythm, the right time is not when you are meant to be having a break/being in diffuse mode (Hakim, L.; College Atlas, 2014; Kizlik, 2016).

3. In the groove

Once you’ve created your study space and schedule, a few strategies can help you get going — and stay productive.

“Understanding” isn’t enough. Oakley notes that when we are learning something, we may “understand” it and believe that that is enough, leading to “illusions of competence”. Rather, she says, we must literally sleep on it, allowing our brain to accommodate the new learning by creating structures to support it and to connect it to other learning. How are you to know if you have taken something on board? “Tests are the best”, says Oakley — meaning, tests you give yourself to check for learning. Similarly, “flashcards are your friends”. The memorisation gives you a feel for the material.

Practice makes permanent. In accordance with the previous tip, you can help your brain to create the extra architecture for new learning by practicing something, over and over again (Oakley, 2015). Carry a notebook for when you are out and about and good ideas come to you. You can jot down the insights immediately so that you don’t lose them. Try formats such as collaboration, role play, and study groups to deepen understanding.

Begin studying at least 30 to 90 minutes after a meal, and never study within 30 minutes of going to sleep. At these times, your body needs to be in a mode different from the focus of study (i.e., digestion and then relaxing into sleep) (Kizlik, 2016).

4. Reading R.O.I.

Most, if not all, students eventually face the reality that, to ensure success, they need to be able read efficiently, maximising engagement with the material. A study method has been developed to help with this: the SQ3R method. The SQ3R method is a proven way to sharpen your study skills. It stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review.

Survey. Get the best picture you can of the material to be learned before studying it in any detail. It’s like studying a road map to scope out the territory before beginning the road trip.

Question. Journalists get their stories by continually asking: who, what, when, where, how, and why — and so can you. Finding answers to questions helps you to remember the material more easily because the question-answer process makes an impression on you; that which makes an impression is more meaningful and thus more likely to be remembered.

Read. Don’t just pass eyes over the page; read actively. As you are reading, pose questions to yourself or bear in mind ones your teacher has asked you. Be on the lookout for bolded or italicised text; it has special emphasis. Also, read tables, graphs, and illustrations; they can sometimes convey information more powerfully than can text.

Recite. Well, we don’t necessarily mean out loud (although that will be helpful if you are a verbal and sometimes auditory learner). The recitation phase can usefully involve trying to recall headings, important concepts, and what the graphs and charts are trying to convey. Once you can summarise what you have just read in your own thoughts and words, you can connect the material to things you already know; doing this regularly will help you to learn the material more easily.

Review. This final step is meant to be a survey of what you have covered. You re-read with the idea that you are assessing what you have gained from the process. The review phase is a good time to go over notes taken to help clarify points; it is best undertaken when you have just finished studying something. The final review at exam time can then be thought of as “fine-tuning” your understanding (Kizlik, 2016).


  • College Atlas. (2014). Top 10 study skills for college students. Collegeatlas.org. Retrieved on 17 February, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • Hakim, L. (2011). More of the top 111 learning strategies. Learning theory and models. Retrieved on 10 February, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • Kizlik, B. (2014). Effective study skills. Adprima.com. Retrieved on 10 February, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • Oakley, B. (2015). Mindshift: Keys to Successful Career Change [webinar]. Retrieved on 10 February, 2016, from: hyperlink.