Having been a good student in high school, I felt confident heading into my first college exam, but increasingly less sure as I scanned through the questions.  By the time the test was returned to me later that week I was completely cut down to size. It was in that moment I realized that what I’d been told was true: I was going to have to study to survive college! Over the course of the next four years, I figured out exactly what that meant, allowing me to leave that initial low score behind and graduate four years later with a higher GPA than I’d earned in high school. With finals right around the corner, here are a few pointers I learned that might help improve your study skills:

  • Find your ideal study “habitat.” Figure out when your brain is at optimal functioning. Do you work best with music on or in complete silence? Do bright lights keep you engaged or annoy you? Does studying on your bed put you to sleep or allow you to relax and focus? Are you more alert first thing in the morning or late at night? Plan your study times around whatever allows for personal efficiency. Some experts recommend a habitual study location, but others have noted increases in memory when study occurs in a new environment—possibly because of the heightened sensory awareness we experience in new settings. If you thrive off of routine, then establish your spot in the library or favorite coffee shop. But don’t be afraid of changing it up if you notice yourself becoming sluggish or fidgety in your traditional space. Studying outside in a beautiful location may be exactly what it takes to wake up your senses for learning.
  • Minimize distractions. This point flows from the first but cannot be overemphasized: get rid of whatever is distracting you from 100% focus. Resist trying to multitask; it does not lead to effective learning. Phones are a blackhole of diversion when it comes to studying…social media eats away hours, YouTube becomes a sink hole of wasted time, and even seemingly legitimate “research” easily becomes a rabbit trail to virtual no man’s land. Set your phone aside—literally out of reach if necessary. Or turn off your router for a few hours of silence. Similarly, if talking through concepts with others helps you learn, then find a study group—but make sure they are people who truly push you to study well, not just socialize.
  • Actively engage the material. Don’t be deceived: reading is not studying! Retention and understanding happen when we participate in our own learning. This may involve rewriting class notes, creating (and then reviewing) flashcards or visually illustrating key concepts in memorable ways. One sure-fire method for cementing information is to “teach back” what you have learned—whether to your study partner or even an imaginary audience if necessary. Experts recommend creating “practice tests” for yourself. Students who do this perform 50% better than their peers when it comes to actual testing! Finally: attend class (you’re paying big bucks to be in college after all) and then participate by taking notes and getting into the class discussion. The best learning happens in layers and one foundational layer happens in the classroom, so don’t skip out.
  • Bits and pieces are best. Because learning is layered, it’s critical you don’t rely on cramming which is rarely effective. Schedule study times and then stick to the set schedule. A 2005 study by Duckworth and Seligman shows that self-discipline is a higher predictor of academic performance than I.Q. Conversely, procrastination has been linked to higher stress levels, poor health and lower grades. The most effective study is often done in short but intense bursts. Aim for study sessions that are frequent but of manageable duration. Build in rewards for yourself. After an hour of study, take a walk or snack break. Reviewing notes from a lecture within 24 hours increases retention levels by up to 80%. Another effective time to review your study notes is right before bed. While we sleep, something called the “memory-consolidation process” occurs, helping to cement what we have learned. Experts have called this phenomenon “sleep learning” which reiterates the fact that it is often best to “sleep on it” than to pull an ever-tempting all-nighter.
  • Breathe! In 2008, UC Irvine conducted a study demonstrating how short-term stress interferes learning. Alternatively, relaxation has been shown to increase concentration, productivity, energy, mental health and memory. Though stress in college is somewhat unavoidable, the bottom line is that our bodies thrive best when we are not filled with anxiety. Stress can be kept in check by giving our bodies adequate rest, healthy food, exercise, fresh air and tension-relieving laughter. So, in the midst of all the study, make sure you’re taking time for fun, friendships and life-giving hobbies.