How to Study More Effectively – Top Methods for College
Here, you’ll learn several tips on how to study, such as scientifically-proven note taking methods, tricks for getting the most out of the time you spend reading, and programs that can help you take more effective notes. Knowing any one method won’t be enough; finding the ones that work best for you and using them in conjunction with one another, however, can be the difference.
- Chapter 1 – Note Taking and Learning Methods
- Chapter 2 – Note Taking Software
- Chapter 3 – Reading Comprehension and Effective Reading
- Chapter 4 – How to Memorize
Note Taking and Learning Methods
Though it may seem simple to learn “by osmosis,” just letting ideas wash over you isn’t an effective way to absorb and retain information. You need to stay actively engaged to study. Whether you’re wondering how to study in college or how to learn information for a business presentation, note-taking is key.
As you read these tips on how to study, remember that the most effective method of note-taking varies from person to person and from situation to situation. It’s best to experiment with a range of techniques and find the method that works best for you.
The Cornell Note Taking System
Cornell University professor Walter Pauk, author of the bestseller How to Study in College, developed this note-taking method in the 1950s. The Cornell Method helps students systematically record, analyze, synthesize and reflect on the material presented in class, and has gained national recognition as a strong note-taking technique.
To start using this method, divide each page into three sections: a main note-taking section on the right side, a smaller cue column on the left and a summary section on the bottom. During the lecture itself, record notes in the note-taking area, using symbols, abbreviations, and short sentences whenever possible. Write down the most important pieces of information: the main ideas and key supporting details.
Within 24 hours of taking notes, and ideally as soon as possible, write down cues and questions in the left-hand column. Write a brief summary in the bottom section as well, no longer than seven sentences. Those cues provide an invaluable resource for going back and studying the notes later, and the summary forces you to synthesize information and prioritize the most important ideas.
The Cornell Method shines because it provides a built-in means to go back and study. Cover the notes themselves with your hand or a piece of paper and try to recall the information based only on the questions or cues you’ve written in the left-hand column. Reciting in this manner isn’t just a helpful memorizing tool; it’s a way to make sure you understand the significance of each fact.
Finally, spend a few moments reflecting on your notes, asking questions such as “Why is this important?” or “How does this connect with what I already know?” This last step takes note-taking beyond a tool for rote memorization and turns it into an opportunity to really internalize information.
The Cornell Method may have originally been developed for college students, but it has applications outside the classroom as well. The same note-taking technique works with any sort of media: books, videos, slideshows and more.
If all you need to do is memorize and regurgitate facts, there are more efficient methods than the Cornell Method. When it’s time to really analyze and synthesize information, though, the Cornell Method offers some unique tools and stands out among potential methods.
The Outline Method
Perhaps the most organized note-taking method of all is the venerable outline method. Dating all the way back to the thirteenth century, with predecessors going back much further, outlining is a careful, orderly way to arrange ideas in order of importance and flow. It’s one of the most commonly taught learning techniques in the Western world, and for good reason.
A classic outline uses a system of capital and lowercase letters and numbers to indicate the relative importance of different ideas. Start by labeling each major idea with a Roman numeral: I, II, III, and so on. Below each Roman numeral, label the main sub-points with capital letters, starting with A. Next up are Hindu-Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3), then lowercase letters, indenting at each level. If you need even more sub-points, start using letters and numbers in parentheses.
The key to successful outlining is to leave a little extra space under each section heading. Not all sources of information are as well-organized as a good outline, after all. That extra space means you can go back and fill in more information if a lecturer later returns to the same subject, or if you notice something new when watching a video for the second time.
Because outlines lay out their information in a clear, orderly manner, it’s easy to use them as study tools. Many students use the outline to write a summary, which requires some analysis and synthesis of the information. If all you need to do is memorize, recite the outline line by line, filling in some questions or cue words off to the side if necessary.
Outlining can be an especially efficient note-taking method when your source of information is a carefully organized document such as a textbook. Most textbooks provide easy outlining methods through chapter titles, section headings, and paragraphs focused on one idea apiece, a structure that easily translates to an outline. Some electronic sources, such as government and educational websites, use an outline-like structure as well. Outlines also have a strong visual component, so they mesh well with certain learning styles.
Outlining can present problems, however, as it forces you to impose a structure on the material that may or may not actually be there. When dealing with free-flowing sources of information, making an outline is an exercise in frustration; it’s like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. The structure of an outline can also be somewhat limiting because it’s harder to see connections between material in different sections.
Outlining, then, works particularly well when orderly learning is your top priority. If you’re dealing with disorganized information or need to make more abstract connections, seek another method.
The Charting Method
Creating a chart is another time-honored technique that helps to keep your notes clear and organized. By splitting your notes into labeled columns, you can cut down on repetition and make the entire process more efficient and productive.
Charting requires more preparation than most other study methods. First, divide your page into a number of columns; four is usually preferred, but certain subjects may require more or less. Label each column at the top of the page with an appropriate category. For instance, when listening to a history lecture, you might label your columns “Date,” “Important People,” “Major Events,” and “Overall Significance.”
You’ll get that preparation time back and then some when it’s time to actually listen to the lecture. Because you’ve already labeled each column, all you need to do is fill in information in the appropriate column. There’s no need to write, for instance, that World War Two was a major event; just list it in the “Major Events” column and you’re all set.
By reducing the amount of necessary writing, charting makes it easier to keep up with fast-paced lectures, presentations, and videos. It’s also easy to visualize the relationships between the pieces of information and understand the overall flow of data, especially if the information is organized chronologically. When it comes to memorizing facts, you can’t beat a chart.
The biggest difficulty faced with a chart is preparation time. You can’t really pull out a chart off the cuff, and you need some knowledge of the material beforehand to effectively label the columns. The organized structure of a chart can also be limiting, as you may encounter information that doesn’t really fit in any particular box. Be sure to keep a blank sheet of paper on hand just in case you need to jot something down.
If you’re wondering how to study faster, though, charting is one of the best methods there is. A good chart will give you a systematic, orderly overview of the material that will make it easier to study, memorize and retain information going forward.
The Sentence Method
Among the simplest learning techniques out there is the sentence method, which uses nothing more than the writing skills you learned in grade school. Note-taking in sentence form has several key disadvantages when compared to charts and outlines, but if you’re still learning how to take study notes, there’s no easier place to start.
To use the sentence method, all you need to do is copy everything down more or less verbatim. In order to keep up with fast-moving lectures, presentations, or videos, it’s best to use shorthand; abbreviations, acronyms, and symbols all work well. Every time your source moves on to a new idea, start a new line. It’s often wise to leave a little blank space after each line to go back and fill in additional information later.
In many ways, the sentence method is the reverse of the charting method. It requires no preparation and no foreknowledge of the subject matter. Sentence note-taking also has the advantage of thoroughness; unless you physically can’t keep up with the speaker, you’ll record every single piece of information. That means the sentence method is surprisingly useful when you’re faced with a “heavy” presentation where every last fact is important.
On the other hand, if your notes are in sentence form, you’ll need to spend some time immediately afterward converting them into something more useful. The sentence method doesn’t distinguish between major and minor points, nor does it give you any organization except for whatever structure came from the original source. At best, that means you have your notes organized in a manner that made sense to someone else, which may or may not work well for you.
If you’re learning from a resource that you can examine at your own pace, such as a textbook or a video that can be paused, it’s better to use an outline or chart to clearly organize the information. Using the sentence method means you may waste time taking notes twice: once to copy information out of the book and once to organize your notes into an outline. Save yourself the trouble and just make an outline!
If you’re faced with a fast-paced lecture, a live speech, or a streaming video, however, you may have no choice but to use the sentence method. If you’re still learning how to take notes, it’s a simple place to start. The sentence method is a great technique to have in your back pocket for those times when you don’t have enough time to prepare.
The Mind Mapping Method
If you’re a visually oriented person wondering how to study, you can’t beat the mind map. This unique method creates a graphic organizer that clearly shows the connections between ideas as they radiate out from a central core concept. British author Tony Buzan is widely credited as the originator of the term “mind map,” but the underlying principles go back much further. Philosophers were known to use similar techniques to visualize information as early as the third century.
The theory behind a mind map is that it uses the same basic architecture as your brain. Instead of starting at the top of the page, a mind map begins in the center, and ideas spread out from that central point in a logical manner. For each main point, draw a curved line spreading out from the central bubble labeled with a one- or two-word key phrase. As you gather additional information, branch out with thinner and thinner lines labeled with the finer details. Many mind mapping experts recommend using color and, if possible, images to make the map more interesting and thus easier to remember.
A mind map has many of the same benefits as an outline, as it shows orderly, logical relationships between ideas. However, while outlines are linear, mind maps are radial. That means there’s no need to slog back through your notes to find a key piece of information; just follow the branches of the map, and you’ll be there in no time.
Mind maps, though, tend to be fairly minimalist in terms of recording facts. They’re not efficient ways to record huge amounts of data, which means it’s best to have the original resource available for reference in case you need to look up something specific down the road. If you need to get every last detail from a particular lecture, try using the sentence or charting method first, then building a mind map based on your notes.
Because mind mapping has become something of a hot topic among purveyors of study tips and learning techniques, there are plenty of resources available to make the most of this method. If you need to learn a complex, multifaceted topic, you’d do well to invest in a dedicated mind mapping tool.
Note Taking Software
When individuals develop effective note taking strategies, they learn how to study better. They may then improve upon these skills by incorporating free note taking software and productivity tools. This elevates note taking to new levels by maximizing efficiency and saving time. Increasing efficiency is one of those important studying tips to help individuals realize how to learn faster by cultivating self-discipline and focus.
Since software options offer different benefits, understanding these choices enables users to select technology suitable for each project, purpose, platform, or preference. Below is a basic introduction to key programs that support the studying tips learned throughout this resource.
Launched in 2008, Evernote is a multi-platform tool accessible via the Internet, all mobile devices, Windows, and Mac.
Evernote helps users save notes, organize notebooks, tag locations, capture images, scan documents, record audio, set reminders, and clip websites. These notes may be shared with any user and synced across any device. With top-notch search capabilities, a customizable interface, a wealth of features, and add-on applications, Evernote has attracted 100 million active users as of mid-2014.
While Evernote is free, premium services run $45/year. Free users receive unlimited storage, but only 60MB of monthly data. Upgrading raises this to 1GB/month. While the free version allows users to share documents, editing-enabled collaboration requires premium service. Premium users may also work offline.
Overall, Evernote’s drawbacks are relatively sparse. Increased alarm options are needed. The free data limit can be prohibitive, but the upgrade fee is fairly nominal. Finally, collaboration is hindered when some parties lack the premium access required for every individual needing to actively edit shared work.
Nonetheless, Evernote offers an easy-to-use and multi-faceted experience.
Created in 2008, Simplenote is a user-friendly, web-based program to quickly write, tag, revise, search and share notes.
Simplenote works on the Web, iOS, MAC, Kindle and Android. It allows users to back up, sync, and share data. Because it automatically saves all drafts, Simplenote ensures access to crucial information from previously-saved versions.
For Simplenote collaboration, users simply tag email addresses or create blogs with clear URLs. Using Markdown, Simplenote text converts to basic HTML, turning notes into web pages that further aid collaboration.
While basic functions are free, users can also pursue premium service at a rate of $20/year. Premium users can email notes and sync with Dropbox. Numerous apps further expand services, enabling desktop and online backups.
Simplenote has drawbacks for those wanting more features and organization, however. A tag-and-search system limits organization. Users may upgrade to enable Dropbox, but the overall organizational capability is minimal. Simplenote, ultimately, provides a basic system without too many extras, like audio recording, scanning, etc.
Google Docs is a free, web-based processing suite where users create, edit, and share documents, spreadsheets, and presentations in a variety of formats, like PDF, DOC, and HTML. With information securely stored online, users have access from anywhere. All that’s required is a Google ID and Internet connection.
A prolific tool providing advanced collaboration, Google Docs offers simultaneous document viewing/editing, real-time updating, and an IM sidebar. Imagine a study group taking notes in the same document, simultaneously. Such added detail and perspective could improve learning. Now, what about a group research project or spreadsheet? The potential is limitless. This is how to study better.
Google Docs has over 60 add-on tools and syncs with Google Bookmarks/Note/Drive, etc.
Users receive 1GB storage and basic editing functions. While these functions are the most heavily-used, bare bones editing can also help with note-taking. Without clip-art to rival Word, Google Doc users insert graphics by uploading their own or searching online.
Overall, Google Docs resembles a pared-down version of Word with immense portability, but without the hefty price tag.
Workflowy is an interface from which to create notes, organize personal lists, plan events, write creatively, or even complete major research papers. According to the company blog, “WorkFlowy is a zoomable document that provides unprecedented flexibility in organizing your ideas.”
Workflowy users create lists where bullets lead into other bullets. Multiple pages of information are woven together into one list housing linked layers of information. Such lists, with searchable points and the ability to tag key information, are much more complex than basic outlines.
Workflowy services include free, PRO, and Workflowy for Teams. Free users only get 1 list, but upgraded PRO accounts are available for $49/year. PRO users get unlimited lists, offline editing, and safeguards to back-up information while ensuring password safety. Team users receive package deals.
OneNote users create, share, and edit notes for individual and collaborative efforts, clipping pages, taking photographs, emailing files for upload, and expanding product capability through numerous plug-in applications that users can download or create.
OneNote lets users write, draw, email, upload, and date-stamp automatically-saved work organized into notebooks. This easily-navigated program simplifies note taking and organization, and can be of great help to users who want to know how to learn faster.
The full desktop version comes with MSOffice 2013 or Microsoft 365, but free mobile/web versions are also available. Some reviewers feel these versions are not adequate standalones, however, with only the desktop version providing a worthwhile service. Still, OneNote is a multi-platform tool that works with the Internet, Windows, iPad or any type of mobile device.
Spiderscribe provides some indispensable services for visual learners, allowing them to create mind maps connecting various files, documents, images, websites, calendar events, and other functions. Launched in 2012, this flash-based brainstorming tool allows users to directly embed information from outside sources. Utilizing a cloud-based system, Spiderscribe maps may be shared and accessed anywhere.
Spiderscribe service comes in free and upgraded versions. The free version allows unlimited public maps, but only three private maps. It also provides full sharing capabilities and 3MB storage. The professional upgrade, however, offers unlimited private/public maps. This $5/month upgrade gives 2GB storage and priority technical support services. For $25/month businesses/teams may upgrade to the business level for unlimited maps, infinite users, a personal subdomain, priority support and 10MB storage. The first 30 days of premium service is a free trial period.
Reading Comprehension and Effective Reading
Whether you are a student or someone already working in business, you will most likely be required to do a great deal of reading. When it comes to reading, make sure approach the reading you do for business in a different way from the reading you do for pleasure. When reading for pleasure, the goal is to simply “get lost” in the story and reach the ending, but reading effectively requires you to understand and keep the information you are reading. Comprehending what you read can be difficult, but you can develop the skill over time. Comprehension requires you to be able to stay focused, read fluently and to critically think about the text being read. The following strategies will help you improve your reading comprehension, read effectively, and retain the information being read.
How to Improve Reading Comprehension
One of the main aspects of retaining information you read is comprehension of the text itself. Some easy tips to use that will help you learn how to study and how to improve reading comprehension include:
- Active reading will help you use your reading time more effectively. Active reading requires an interaction with the text. While reading, ask yourself or make comments about various points in the text and look for major points or supporting evidence that relates to the main topic of the text.
- When attempting to comprehend information from difficult subjects, try changing your reading speed. Although reading at a slower pace can feel time-consuming, it will help you retain the information being read.
- Concentration makes reading drastically more effective, especially when reading difficult text. To help reduce distractions, find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed. Avoid reading when you are sleepy, and do not read in bed or while in front of a television, as it will interfere with your concentration.
- When you read for long periods of time, you may find it difficult to understand the text, so plan reading sessions in short periods throughout the day.
Understand that reading, as well as comprehension, can vary from person to person. When improving reading comprehension, you may have to try a few different types of reading strategies until you find the one that works best for you. Two of the most popular types of reading techniques that help with reading and comprehension are SQ3R and OK4R.
Both SQ3R and OK4R were developed as excellent reading comprehension strategies, and each works best in particular situations. The SQ3R technique was developed in 1941 by Francis Robinson as a way to teach military personnel to become better readers. An active reading exercise, SQ3R was designed to help you fully understand what you are reading. The OK4R technique, meanwhile, was developed by Dr. Walter Pauk after becoming frustrated with his students failing class. OK4R also helps with understanding as well as remembering what you read.
The SQ3R method is a comprehension strategy that will help you think about the text you are reading, while you are reading it. You will need to have a pen and paper ready while using the SQ3R method. There are five steps in the SQ3R strategy:
- Survey: see the layout of the text and get a general idea of its construction. Skim over the material, look at the graphics, notice the titles and subtitles, and make a mental note of the total layout. When you survey the material at hand, it gives you an idea of what the author considers important.
- Question: jot down the questions that are addressed in the titles, subtitles and bold or italicized words you noticed while surveying.
- Read: look for the answers to the questions you formulated while surveying. The questions, which are based on the structure of the text, will help you focus on your reading.
- Recite: recite the answers to your questions and make notes of your answers. Quiz yourself at the end of each section to see if you know the material well enough to answer the questions you developed.
- Review: after you have finished reading, review your answers, and if you have any unanswered questions, quickly survey the text for answers. Recite the questions you previously answered.
The OK4R is similar to the SQ3R method in that it allows you to comprehend and retain the information being presented. The steps for the OK4R method include:
- O is overview: read the introduction, table of contents, headings, and summaries so you will get an idea of what the text is about.
- K is key ideas: once you have completed the overview, go back and skim through the text for key ideas, which are typically found at the beginning of each paragraph. Read the bold print, italics, bulleted sections and look at the pictures and graphs.
- R1: read the text from beginning to end. You will be able to read it quickly, because you already know what the author is trying to say, illustrate, or prove.
- R2: recall by closing the book and trying to recall what the main points were that you read. Write down or say a few key words or sentences of the major points. This will help to keep the information in your mind.
- R3: reflect on the previous steps to help keep the information in your memory, relate it to other information, and find the relationships and significance of what you have read.
- R4: review at a later time. Go over the text again to refresh your memory. Study any parts you have forgotten again.
Reading and remembering information can be challenging. It requires time and attention for optimal learning, but with time you will be able to find the best reading comprehension strategies that work for you. Remember to take a lot of notes while surveying and always answer your own questions. Try not to dwell over the same section of text for a long period. If you find yourself reading and rereading the same paragraph, take a break and start from the beginning with the method you are using.
How to Memorize
Have you ever spent hours studying for an important test, only to arrive in class and have your mind go blank? Are you dreading returning to an important business meeting after the lunch break because you have suddenly realized that you cannot remember the names of any of the key participants who you met only a few hours ago? If either of these situations seems uncomfortably familiar to you, do not despair. You can improve your memory through some simple, easy to learn memorizing techniques.
How the Brain Processes Information
Psychologists describe memory as the process by which your brain encodes information, stores it, and retrieves it when it is needed. Rather than occurring in just one part of your brain, memory uses several different locations within the brain, which work together to create, store, and recall stored information as cohesive thoughts which you can call upon as needed.
There are three types of memory: sensory, short-term, and long-term. These three memory types work together in the memorization process. Sensory memory comes from your five senses and lasts for only a matter of seconds. Researchers have shown that sensory memory is usually limited recalling a maximum of 12 items at a time. Sensory memory is connected to short-term memory through a process that concentrates on only a limited segment of the total environment to the exclusion of other segments. This process of concentration is referred to as attention, and it allows information acquired as sensory memory to become short-term memory.
Short-term memory lasts up to one minute and can process up to 7 items at a time. The information stored in short-term memory will disappear unless you make an effort to retain it in your long-term memory. This transfer of information to long-term memory is what memorization techniques attempt to improve. Learning how to memorize involves finding the technique that works best to help your brain transfer information.
The process of memorization must be used in conjunction with other study skills and learning techniques to be effective. The information your brain acquires as you study for the big exam, or the names of the people to whom you have been introduced at a meeting can be retained and recalled from long-term memory more reliably by learning how to memorize fast in a way that works best for you.
The process of taking notes during a lecture or at a meeting helps you to concentrate on the information being conveyed by the speaker. Retyping those notes can be an effective learning technique that can help you to memorize key information by reintroducing it to your brain.
An even better technique is to reorganize the information into categories, principles, or related concepts. Creating examples to help you to understand important points in a lecture can also be accomplished as you retype your notes. Doing it this way will force you to think about the information from a different perspective or in more depth than you might have done when you were hearing it for the first time.
Replaying Recorded Lectures
If you intend to record a lecture, seminar, or meeting with the intention of listening to it later to improve your memory and study skills, keep in mind that gathering information is the first step you must take toward creating a memory of that information. Taking notes during a lecture might help you to better focus on the information and keep you alert, so recording the lecture and taking notes at the same time might be the best method.
Some people are auditory learners, finding it easier to retain information that they hear rather by reading it in notes. For those types of learners, listening to a recorded version of the original lecture while actively thinking about the concepts and material being presented can enhance the brain’s gathering and processing of the information.
Repetition is the method by which a baseball player learns to perfect a home run swing. Babies use this method to learn how to speak a language.
Repetition focuses on the fact that information is retained in short-term memory for only a brief period of time. By repeating information over and over again, your brain takes the repeated thought patterns and converts them from short-term to long-term memories which you can recall in the long term.
Repeating learned material at intervals that reintroduce the information before it has been removed from short-term memory eventually results in it being stored in the brain for longer periods. The trick to successful repetition is in being aware of the intervals at which to repeat the previously learned material to retain as much of it as possible.
Flash cards, a memory retention technique teachers often use to highlight key points in a lesson, evoke memories of elementary school for many people. Reading or hearing large amounts of information can make it difficult for the brain to identify key points. Most of the information ends up in short-term memory only.
Flash cards focus your attention on key points. Auditory learners benefit by reading the information aloud from the card while visual learners get the information by reading it. In both instances, the information transfers from short-term to long-term memory.
Because short-term memory is limited in the number of items it can store, chunking is a memory technique that groups items into larger, more meaningful units. An example of chunking is remembering the telephone number as 123-456-7890 instead of as 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-0.
One of the most effective learning techniques for remembering new or unfamiliar material is to associate it with something that is familiar. For example, when introduced to a man named whose name is Robert Banks, thinking of a man robbing a bank might help you to remember his name later.
The mnemonic peg system can help those who often find themselves memorizing lists of information. Peg systems can use numbers or letters of the alphabet as the pegs upon which you hang the objects you want to remember. Rhyming pegs associate rhyming words with the numbers one through 10. For example, 1-bun, 2-shoe, 3-tree, etc. If you are going shopping and wish to remember to buy milk, bread and apples, for example, you might visualize a bun floating in milk, a shoe stepping on a slice of bread, and apples hanging from a tree.
The method of loci or the memory palace uses visualization to organize and, eventually, recall information. Begin using this technique by thinking of a location with which you are familiar, such as a bedroom in your home or, for those who are more creative, an imaginary palace with multiple rooms
By following a specific route through your palace, you can deposit things that you want to remember later along the way at specific locations. When you wish to recall the things you deposited, you simply retrace your steps through the palace. Periodically walking the same path through the palace will help you to remember the location of the items when it comes time for you to retrieve them.
References and Additional Resources on Learning and Studying
- Ken Bain. What the Best College Students Do. Belknap Press, 2012. ISBN-0674066642
- John B Bader. Dean’s List: Eleven Habits of Highly Successful College Students. John Hopkins University Press 2011. ISBN-1421400812
- Cynthia C Muchnick. The Everything Guide to Study Skills: Strategies, Tips, and Tools You Need to Succeed in School! Adams Media 2011. ISBN-1440507449
- Cal Newport. How to Win at College. Three Rivers Press 2005. ISBN-0767917871
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