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Effective study strategies

Home > Study skills > Learning strategies > Effective Study strategies

Attitudes to learning

Most people, when asked, can recount an experience that undermined their confidence in their own learning. Negative comments when we are young can have a very long-term effect upon our view of ourselves as bright, capable learners. However, self-confidence has a major impact upon our ability to perform well.


What kind of message were you given about your abilities to study when you were at school or college?

Are these messages helpful to you now?

What attitudes would be most useful to you succeeding at your studies now?

Optimum conditions for learning

We can improve the conditions for learning by being aware of some of the ways the brain works. Although we do not need to know a great deal about the brain, understanding some basics can help us to make the most of our minds. Some of the optimal conditions for learning are common sense and good for our general health. For example, the brain works well when:

  • it is rested - sleep affects our performance
  • it is hydrated - drinking water helps the electrical connections of the brain
  • it is unstressed - when it is stressed, it can focus only on 'escape', not on such matters as reading journals and writing assignments
  • it enjoys itself - it is important to look for any angle that can stimulate our interest in what we are learning. Sometimes this can take imagination if the subject itself seems boring
  • it has seen something several times - little and often works better than trying to understand something in one sitting

For further information please see Chapters 2, 3 and 4 of The Study Skills Handbook by Stella Cottrell.

General tips

Spending long hours studying is not necessarily productive. It is possible to gain better marks by studying more effectively rather than for longer. Most of this resource looks at ways of studying in more effective ways. To study effectively, you can:

  • Identify what is really needed
    Study assignment titles carefully. Work out exactly what is required for assignments. This saves time in re-writing assignments later. Time spent in preparation is well spent.
  • Work strategically
    Set yourself clear goals and work towards these.
  • Make the material meaningful
    Looking for 'the meaning' or how things work, rather than focusing on remembering information. Work with the material, looking at how it fits together and applies to different circumstances. If you develop your understanding of the subject, it will help you to take in future material more easily. This makes reading easier. It also improves your memory for the subject.
  • Look for links
    Be active in searching out links between different aspects of the programme. Look also for links between what you are learning and the wider world. This helps to develop understanding and memory.
  • Work with others
    Work with other students so that you share ideas and gain mutual support. You may be able to share some research tasks and clarify your lecture notes. Studying with others makes study more interesting, as you gain a different set of perspectives.
  • Set yourself SMART-F targets
    Targets should be:
    • strategic : they assist you to achieve your goals
    • measurable: you can tell when you have completed them
    • achievable: you are likely to succeed in meeting them
    • realistic: they fit the circumstances
    • time-bound: you have a set time to meet
    • flexible: you can adapt them if the circumstances change
  • Look for short-cuts
    • Look for reasonable short-cuts that do not compromise your studies. For example:
    • avoid unnecessary tasks such as writing notes out neatly
    • use abbreviations in your notes
    • write assignments onto a computer if possible rather than writing them out by hand and then typing them up
    • focus your notes around themes and questions rather than making long notes that you do not really need
  • Use the word limit to focus your energies
    Most assignments have a word limit. Use this as a guide to how much you need to read and how many examples you can include. Plan out in advance how you will divide up the words available to you. Often, you need to be very concise about each topic. This means you may not be able to include very much of what you have read if you have undertaken a great deal of reading or made very extensive notes.
  • Take care of yourself
    Take rests when you are tired. Study takes longer and the brain is less effective when you are tired or stressed. · Plan your time so that you get breaks. A change of scene stimulates the brain and helps creative thinking

The Study Skills Handbook For more advice, see time management and organisational skills, and for further information please see Chapter 5 of The Study Skills Handbook by Stella Cottrell.