Guide to Successful Online Learning

When beginning your traditional or online program, it is critical not only that you devote sufficient time to studying, but also that you learn how to study more effectively in order to maximize your study time. Unfortunately, being an effective student isn’t some inherent trait. Smart studying requires a skill set that few high schools or colleges attempt to teach. Some students may benefit from a structured approach to studying that is designed to help students spend less time poring over textbooks. Many students struggle with unsupported, independent education, as they feel unable to discern what to study both to succeed in a class and to retain knowledge beyond the class. Learning how to study at a university involves choosing the right environment, skillful note taking, strategic learning plans, and knowledgeable exam preparation.

Create an Appropriate Study Environment

Choosing the right place to study affects your ability to concentrate. Use the tips below to create an environment conducive to smart studying.

Pick a comfortable place

Your surroundings impact the way you absorb information, and your physical and psychological comfort can make or break a study session. Pay attention to how you feel in different study spaces. Environmental features like ambient noise, light, or temperature can influence how well you retain course material. Physical discomfort is a pesky distraction but is often easily remedied. Do the fluorescent lights in the group study room give you a headache? Is the library a little too chilly? Is the sofa just a little too comfortable? Sometimes small tweaks to the environment can make you much more productive when studying.

Study at the right time of day for you

Research has determined that whether someone is a night owl who is most productive at night or a morning person is at least in part genetic. Most of us have a time of day when we are more alert and likely to move through required material. When developing a study schedule, consider what time of day you tend to be most productive. If reading is your most challenging task because you tend to doze off, be proactive about tackling long reading assignments when you have the most energy.

Manage Your Social Environment

Some people learn best in solitude, and others retain information better when it’s discussed in a group setting. Consider the times you have been most productive and successful in preparing for exams. Do you enjoy the background noise of a coffee shop, or do you require monastic silence to write a paper? Different environments are better suited to different types of studying; for example, you may comfortably lose yourself in literature on a park bench, but find that your physics homework only gets done when you are at your desk. Pay attention to these clues.

Minimize Distractions

While the places you may study can vary somewhat, each space should be tidy and free of clutter. Paper can be an enormous distraction; some people even find a sink full of dishes attractive when they have homework to avoid. Remove these distractions, as well as unnecessary electronics. If you can study without Internet access, do so; when you have work to do, it can be tempting to surf the web, fuss with social media, or check your e-mail. Identify anything else that may divert your attention, like noisy roommates or clingy pets, and remove them if necessary.

Wherever you are, plan for the environment. For example, you may want to take an iPod to the library or noise-canceling earphones to the computer labs. Some students find that the presence of earphones, with or without music, is often enough to deter conversation. Choose a study space that is close enough to some social interaction that you can access when you take a break, but far enough away that you are not distracted by it.

Plan Out Your Study Schedule

Smart students don’t cram. Research has shown that information learned slowly over a period of time is stored in long-term memory; accessing this information periodically is one of the best ways to study, as you will be less likely forget it. Short-term memory has a large capacity, which allows students to cram lots of information in quickly. However, 80% of the information stored in short-term memory will vanish within 24 hours. Students who repeatedly study the material over a number of days are far more likely to retain the information over time.

Some students benefit from using the SQ3R method to study, finding it especially effective for long-term memory retention and understanding of the material. SQ3R is an acronym that stands for the following steps:

  • S: Survey. Before reading a section of text or notes, quickly skim the headings and main points and read introductory and summary text. This will help you anticipate the information that is about to be absorbed.
  • Q: Question. Ask yourself which points are the most salient in the material you are about to read. As you go through the material, keep this question in mind.
  • R: Read. Read the material from start to finish, underlining or highlighting main points as you go. Annotate major concepts in the margins. This step requires you to be an active participant with the material, which helps you remember it.
  • R: Recite. At reasonable stopping points in the text, recite the main points aloud. Use your own words to explain the author’s intent. Studies have shown that repeating information out loud aids memory recall.
  • R: Review. Immediately review the material and your notes, and recite the main points aloud. Continue to revisit this material at subsequent study sessions, and imprint this information into your long-term memory.

To be an effective student, it’s also wise to plan your study time, ideally before the first day of school. Create a schedule with chunks of time dedicated to classes. For each class, create separate time slots for labs, reading, and homework. Include blocks of time for work or free time to round out your week. This schedule can be tweaked on a weekly basis to allow for a fluctuation in the amount of time you need to spend on each class. If followed honestly, this schedule allows for repeated periods of exposure to the material, which better prepares you for exams.

You will find that other tips and tricks for effective studying better suit your learning needs. Incorporate the following study tips in your routine to create a plan tailored to your learning style:

  • Reverse schedule projects, papers, and exam preparation. Calculate how much time you need before each big deadline and work backwards from the due date to schedule the correct amount of preparation. Estimate the amount of time necessary for each goal and adjust your weekly schedule to match it.
  • Consider the Pomodoro Technique. This method of memory retention is based on the premise that humans concentrate best in short chunks of time, usually 25 to 45 minutes. Plan to spend an allotted increment of time studying, followed by a scheduled 15-minute brain break. Use a timer to gauge study time and break time.
  • Get your routine chores and errands done outside of study time. It may be tempting to multitask and run an errand during a block of study time, but ultimately you will be cheating yourself out of the repetitions your brain needs to retain the information.
  • Set clear goals, both on your weekly schedule and for each study session. Without them, it is easy to procrastinate. Assign yourself goals at the beginning of each study period.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of study breaks. Rather than panicking because an exam is approaching, remember that your brain will better absorb information in repeated, short bursts.
  • Consider changing the scenery. Research has shown that memory retention is tied to the context in which we learn information. For example, when you read new material in the library, the memory is stored along with contextual memories of the library environment, like the temperature, the time of day, or the name of a person sitting nearby. If you study this information a second time in a café, the information might be stored along with scents of food and nearby conversation. New research proves that when provided with these extra contextual clues, our brains retain information better.

Practice Active Note Taking

Good note taking is an essential skill in academics and is one of the most important study habits you can develop. Taking notes during lectures, whether online or in class, as well as while reading, will help you absorb the material; it allows you to highlight main points and identify questions likely to end up on an exam. Depending on the educational environment, you may choose to use a laptop or to handwrite notes. There is scholarly evidence that handwritten notes aid memory retention; the brain receives feedback from the hand’s action of pen to paper that is more meaningful to long-term memory than that of fingers on a keyboard.

Whether written or typed, proper note taking happens must also happen outside of the classroom; if properly motivated, you’ll find yourself jotting things down before, during, and after any lecture. Follow these tips during class:

  • When you receive a syllabus at the beginning of the class, it is good practice to create a course outline based on the syllabus. Starting with a rough sketch, flesh out the outline with class notes and reading notes as the semester advances, creating a study guide for the final exam.
  • Prior to class, reading the assigned material provides you with an expectation of what will be covered in the lecture, and may tip you off to the main points you need to know.
  • After class, a quick review period while the material is fresh will reinforce the lecture and prevent the information from slipping out of short-term memory. Use this time to update your course outline and rewrite salient notations.

Many college freshmen make the mistake of trying to write down every word of a lecture. This is not only time-consuming, but difficult to maintain and unlikely to result in a decent study guide. Besides main points gleaned from reading material or the syllabus, there are many clues that instructors give that can alert students to information that should be written down. To take good notes, use your own words, and be on the lookout for the following:

  • Repetition of a definition, date, or idea
  • Change in tone or volume
  • An example or hypothetical situation
  • Change in the pace of speech
  • Anything written on the blackboard or on a PowerPoint slide
  • Language that reveals relationships, such as “third,” “however,” or “consequently”
  • Direct reference to the textbook
  • Queries on whether the class understands a concept
  • Pointing to a specific item, or elaborate gestures during lecture

Most note taking follows an outline format, or is broken down into major ideas in bulleted form. It is practical to leave as much space on the page as possible as you take notes, leaving room for later additions or annotations.  Some students find it helpful to leave a column of blank space on one side of the page, filling in main ideas or keywords in that space after the lecture is complete.

Visual learners may find it more useful to use a method called Mind Mapping. The lecture topic should be written in the middle of the page. As new ideas are layered onto the original idea, a visual map can be drawn of the relationships between these ideas. A complex lecture would result in a drawing that resembles an octopus, with each tentacle filled with important details about the topic.

Prepare for Exams

Ultimately, test scores drive most grading systems in collegiate educational environments. Just as it is important to learn the material, it is also important to learn how to get good grades in university. If you follow a schedule and take good notes, you should be prepared for exams. It also helps, however, to be aware of best practices for taking exams.

Research has repeatedly proven that self-testing is an effective method for long-term information retention. Most textbooks have study questions at the end of each chapter; take these quizzes and provide a full, handwritten answer. Ask a professor or a teaching assistant if old exams from previous classes are available; you may be able to take these as practice exams and get feedback.

Contrary to popular opinion, traditional studying tips for memory recall like highlighting, rereading material without the benefit of note taking, using imagery and mnemonics do not provide the best results. Repeated exposure to information over time, combined with multiple practice tests, results in greater exam scores.

Take advantage of these tips for test day

Paying careful attention to the structure of test questions can reveal answers.

On multiple-choice tests, you should:

  • Be alert to grammatical construction freebies, like subject and verb agreement or the use of “an” in a sentence that would require an answer beginning with a vowel
  • Be aware of very wordy answers or those filled with industry buzzwords; these are often used as decoys
  • Watch out for absolutes. Words like “never,” “guarantees,” or “always” are found in statements that are not always easy to defend. Guarded phrases like “may sometimes” are more likely to be the correct answer.

Essay questions must also be carefully analyzed for clues. If the question has multiple parts, structure your answer accordingly. Follow the standard essay skeleton: Answer the question, state a proof, defend and support your proof, and answer the question again.

Taking an organized approach to studying, note taking and test preparation will help students who are overwhelmed with too much information. With tools like textbooks and syllabi to supplement lectures and homework assignments, any college student can master the art of organizing large chunks of information in manageable pieces.