How to Study in College

Preparation

Study in the library

This is something you’ll have to experiment with, but I think the library is the best place to start for most people.  I preferred quiet floors, and I liked the cubicle-style spaces best - they help keep you from being distracted, or dealing with someone who likes to spread their things everywhere, including your space.

I chose which library on campus based on a couple things: I generally didn’t like studying around people in engineering (there were a few people who were exceptions), so I’d go to the Social Sciences library.  Whenever I went to the science and engineering library, I found myself distracted by someone panicking or talking about something that sounded related to what I was studying; in a separate library, I rarely had that problem.

I also picked my library based on temperature, and proximity to food/drinks.  Our science and engineering library was always hot, no matter the season, and it instantly put me to sleep.  I liked one just a bit chillier than room temp - I’d bring a sweater if I needed one, but I wasn’t going to get drowsy.  Also, if I’m going for a full study day, I’m gonna need some lunch.

The other nice side effect of this was that when I came back home, I could really relax.  The library meant studying, and home meant relaxing.

Organize your study space

This may sound obvious, but bring the materials you need and be organized.  I always set up the same way - I’d bring a lined notepad to do problems on and create my study guides with.  I’d bring my notes, and the folder from that class, and I’d bring the textbook.  I’d also bring a mechanical pencil, extra lead, an eraser, and my calculator, and whenever I got to the library, I’d get everything out, arrange it neatly, and that would be my study space for the day.  An organized study space is an organized mind.

I also tended to bring a coffee or water bottle, and some protein bars - it let me stay in one spot for a while, which was important for achieving some flow.

Remove distractions

I believe one of the biggest issues people currently face in producing consistent, high-quality work, or in this context, being able to study consistently with deep focus, is the distractions we face, usually our phones.

“Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.” Cal Newport, Deep Work

There are a couple things you can do to combat the phone distraction - I left it at home on long study days (Saturday/Sunday), or put it in my bag and put it on Do Not Disturb.  Even having it out of your field of view makes a big difference.

For computer-based distractions, definitely turn on Do Not Disturb.  You can also use Chrome extensions like StayFocusd or Focus.me to prevent some of the social media/YouTube distractions that are common, and I’d recommend them as well.

Ultimately, if you can build the skill of staying completely focused, you’ll be able to accomplish more, much more efficiently, and have some free time instead.

“The time that leads to mastery is dependent on the intensity of our focus.” - Roberte Greene, Mastery.

Value attitude over ability (ie. have a flexible learning mindset)

Your attitude towards your studies will largely dictate your success.  I have yet to see a university course where hard work wouldn’t get you the result you wanted.  The problem is usually that people don’t put the time into the work, or assume that their inherent abilities will only allow them to go so far.  

If you’re willing to put in the time, seek help, and generally be humble, persistent, and relentless in your studies, you can get whatever grade you want.  There have been multiple studies that have shown intelligence is fluid, not fixed, and it’s up to you to implement that mindset.

Strategy for Studying

Get help early

If you’re struggling with a subject, get help.  You should do this early.  Nothing annoys a professor like a student coming to office hours for the first time in the last week of the semester, asking questions about things taught in the first week.

You need to stay on top of things, and ask questions as they come.  Not only will it make professors angry, but inevitably the last few weeks of the course are the busiest with students asking questions, and it will be hard to get in.  

If you do it ahead of time, not only will the professor know you much better by the end of the course, and therefore be willing to help you more, but you shouldn’t need as much help at the end.

Personally, I struggled during my first semester with the transition to university life.  Luckily, I got help early in the courses I was having a tough time with, and it helped smooth that transition - after that I made sure to ask questions and seek help early, and it made a big difference in my success moving forward.

Study regularly/give yourself time

This is important for everyone, but particularly if you’re involved in extracurricular activities, or are studying a subject where subsequent material builds on what you’ve learned, like engineering.  

You should be spending time each week making sure you’re up-to-date on notes, and reviewing what you’ve learned.  Working on assignments, going to tutorials, and building study guides will all help you stay on top of things.

Build study guides and review

Speaking of study guides, regardless of what subject you study, you should be creating these on your own, as a method of reviewing and making sure you understand the material.  In engineering, every time we finished a chapter/subject, I would review my notes, consult the textbook for anything I didn’t understand, and then make a quick summary of all the key points and equations from that unit.  

It forced me to make sure I reviewed things while they were fresh, and when it came to study for midterms and finals, the guides were invaluable, as they gave me a quick summary for everything we had studied.

You can see an example of one of my study guides, and the method I used to build them here.

Study with friends - but be careful

I’m all for studying with friends, but you have to be a bit careful, and not let their study habits dictate your own.  Usually if I was studying the same subject with a friend, we still studied individually - we just went to the library together, and occasionally did the same practice exams in parallel.

Going to the library with friends is fine too - I regularly went with my girlfriend at the time, or with my roommates - but again, make sure you dictate your own study habits.  Sometimes it’s just nice to have someone to go with you and join you for lunch, and that’s fine.

Study groups are sometimes popular - I never really participated, because I found that either a) they were a big waste of time, as things just seemed to move slower in a group or b) it caused everyone a lot of anxiety because someone else would bring up something they thought was important but you hadn’t thought about.  My advice would be use them if you really think they’re necessary, but try and find success on your own, so you can replicate that process.

Actively study; don’t read

In whatever area you’re studying, the biggest study mistake you can make is not actively studying.  I’ve seen far too many people go to the library and “study”, but really they’re just re-reading the required readings, or the textbook, or the class notes.  Yes, you should do that initially, but then you have to apply what you’ve learned.  That means writing summaries in your own words, or making your own notes and study guides, or solving problem sets to apply the new concepts.  

I really can’t emphasize this enough - it’s probably the most important point here.  If you are going to study, you need to absorb, analyze, and apply that knowledge.  Many students only do the first, and that will lead to poor results.

It’s been shown that even just thinking about how you are learning will improve the learning process.

Be careful with your caffeine/stimulants

Caffeine, and other stimulants/drugs of all sorts of flavours are common on university campus - that’s just how it is.  I’m personally a huge coffee fan, and these days when I’m working I usually have a mug on the go.

When it comes to studying, I think some caffeine is fine, and during the school year I regularly took a cup with me to class in the mornings, etc.

That said, a couple weeks before exams started, I made a conscious effort to cut back on my intake - I would typically limit myself to one cup a day, and maybe a tea in the afternoon.  Anecdotally, I found that the occurrence of the “oh-shit-my-mind-is-blank” exam moments went way down when I decreased my caffeine intake, and I also wanted to be able to make sure I was getting enough sleep (caffeine is a good way to hide you’re not).

Sleep!

I never pulled an all-nighter in university, and I don’t think you should either.  Ultimately you should aim to never be stuck at a point where you need to pull an all-nighter.  Evidence suggests you won’t do better anyway.  

Making sure you get enough sleep during exams, and during the school year is key for all kinds of reasons - for me, I knew that I would be less stressed, less prone to anxiety, thinking clearer, and way more productive if I slept 8-9 hours.  That still left plenty of time for studying.

There’s all sorts of evidence for it, but if you think you’re going to perform better by not sleeping and studying the night before an exam, you’re wrong.

Think about how you will be tested, and how you learn (metacognition)

The next two points are two of the most important of this whole post, and should guide all your studying and work in university.  

The first point is to think about how you will be tested, and how you learn best.  You should be thinking about this both when beginning, and then during the course as you move through assignments, midterms, projects, and finals.

Simply thinking about how you learn will improve your learning, and ultimately this is going to be important in improving your own learning process as you go through university, which I believe is one of the most important parts.

Study like you will be tested

Ultimately, as you give thought to your own learning process, your performance in university courses will come down to: study like you will be tested.

For engineering, my process usually looked like:

  • Read and absorb the material

  • Analyze and make a study guide for said material (restate in own terms, key equations, concepts, etc.)

  • Test yourself with example/assignment questions

  • Practice previous midterms/assignments

  • Practice previous exams, under exams settings (timed, no distractions, no cheating)

This process also helped me write exams - going into the exam I had already written great examples under similar conditions, which gave me lots of confidence, and let me be nice and calm.

I’ll say it again: in engineering/math, you should primarily be solving problems to prepare for exams.

I believe the above process can essentially be repeated with any university course, though I recognize that it will look a bit different.  

For science, if you’re answering multiple choice exams, you can build and test yourself using flashcards, and then repeat the same last few steps, testing yourself on mock exams, previous exams, or even making up practice exams yourself by building questions.

If you’re writing essays, try to get multiple rounds of feedback through the course on your assignment essays, constantly revising and improving, and then practice timed essay writing, if that’s how you will be tested.

How to write exams well

Writing exams well is a tough skill for many.  Ultimately, most of writing exams well comes not from the actual exam writing itself; it’s the preparation going into the exam.

I think performing well on exams comes down to two things:

  • Knowing the material well.

  • Gaining confidence from realistic practice.

If you’ve put the time in, studied throughout the course, asked questions when you needed, and used the strategies above, you’ll be able to address most of the exam material quickly.  Actively studying is key here.

Secondly, if you’ve practiced under realistic scenarios - ie. doing previous exams from the same professor in the proper exam time - you’ll have confidence going into the exam that will help you perform.

On the actual exam, there are lots of strategies for maximizing your potential, but here are a few I think are worth noting:

  • Take 2 minutes at the beginning to understand the exam: know where the points are awarded, a rough estimate of the time allocated to each section (% of points on that section usually), and the sections you feel most comfortable with.

  • Take a breath.  Being calm is extremely important.

  • Push through the exam, and have the confidence to move on when you need to.  If you don’t know something, give it some thought, then move on.  Make sure you note it (I usually put a big star next to it), and give extra thought to important questions or sections.

  • Move quickly, and consistently.  You don’t want to rush; you don’t want to waste time.  You must find a consistent pace, and if you’ve prepared well, you’ll be fine.  I’ve had exams where I ran out of time, but I’d prepared enough to know that if I did, everyone else did too and the exam was too long.  

  • Revisit what you’ve left behind.  Leaving exam questions blank sucks - you shouldn’t do it in general.  That means you should revisit and attempt questions you didn’t have time to do at the end.

The final level of learning

The final level of learning was one I only occasionally reached during my time in university, but this is where you understand how to apply the material you’ve learned in “real” contexts.  The examples and problems in engineering are textbook problems - they test the material, but you rarely have to come up with solutions, or choose which knowledge, formulas, or analyses to apply yourself.  Nor do you get to apply them in the real world, where things are rarely as idealistic as textbooks.

In my opinion, the best way to attain this level of understanding is the same way as acing an exam - practice like you will be tested.  Specifically, find somewhere that forces you to apply the knowledge you’re learning.  In engineering, I believe this is the design teams (Formula SAE, Baja, etc.).  It can also be work terms.  Make time for these, and make sure to again think about your own learning process - how do these things overlap?  How am I applying the knowledge I’ve learned?  How can I bridge the gap between what I learn in class and the real-world application of it more effectively?

This ability, once mastered, will prove to be one of the most valuable assets in your arsenal, and will follow you through whatever career path you choose, engineering or otherwise.  

The process from introduction, to new material, to mastering that material in idealized contexts, to applying that material in practical situations, is the highest level of learning, and what you should aim for.

“The key then to attaining this higher level of intelligence is to make our years of study qualitatively rich. We don't simply absorb information - we internalize it and make it our own by finding some way to put this knowledge to practical use.” Roberte Greene, Mastery.

Read here about How to Make the Most of College and here about How to Take Notes in College.