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Study Skills

The following resources can help you get better grades, study smarter, improve your note-taking and test taking skills and diminish your academic anxiety.

How to Study

Environmental Factors

  1. Create a study area with the fewest distractions.
  2. Make sure there is adequate lighting for studying.
  3. Stock your study area with all your needed supplies.
  4. Keep background noise to a minimum. Study without music or TV.
  5. Remember the library is a quiet, available space to study.

Personal Factors

  1. Schedule your study time on a calendar and commit to it.
  2. Focus on one course assignment at a time.
  3. Choose manageable study goals, utilizing hour blocks of time.
  4. Schedule breaks and move around the room.
  5. Prioritize and beware of procrastination.

Study Tips

  1. Be here now. Give your total attention to the lecture, class discussion, and class exercises. Do what you do when you’re doing it!
  2. Manage your time. Read your syllabi. Chart all assignments, tests, papers, and projects on a semester-long calendar. Work backwards from each due date to establish a study plan. Leave time for review and relaxation.
  3. Stay current with readings. Have reading assignments completed prior to class lectures on the material. Scan the headings; read the summary, study questions, and key terms prior to actually reading the chapter.
  4. Take notes in a way that will help you to remember the material. Notes can take the form of outlines, diagrams, mind maps, cartoon strips, whatever is meaningful to you. Notes should be readable. They don’t have to be neat or copied over several times unless that helps you learn the material. Follow study tip #l! Most instructors have 1-5 main points to make in a class session. They frequently discuss the strengths and limitations of a theory and then compare and contrast one theory with another. Theories are described by name (Theory of Relativity) and by theorist (Einstein). Know both!
  5. Frequently review what you’re learning. Review your class notes immediately after class. Also, intentionally make a mental summary of what has transpired before you leave the class.
  6. Get help when you think you’re stuck. Do it quickly! See your instructor. Establish a study group. Find a study-buddy. Talk it through slowly and out-loud. Use a tutor. Find another text that explains the subject, don’t wait to fail an exam before you get help, or access an open educational resource online. If you can’t estimate how well you are doing, you need some assistance.
  7. Take care of yourself. Exercise. Eat nutritious foods. Get enough sleep, and laugh!
  8. Go for the “know.” Practice learning to learn. Be willing to try new and sometimes initially uncomfortable strategies. You will eventually be more effective. Learn Patience!

Memory Tips

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition!

Repetition is the easiest and most common way to put information into your memory. However, it is not as long-lasting as other types of memory devices.

Use rhyming and/or rhythm to help remember phrases.

Example: “I before e except after c and sounds like a in neighbor and weigh.” Make up your own verses for other important rules, like “Thirty days hath September, April, June and November; all the rest have 31 except February.”

Use imagery for remembering lists

Example: To remember a shopping list that includes root beer, spaghetti, broccoli, potato chips, ice cream, and eggs, make a mental picture of a chicken laying an egg by the foot of a large broccoli tree with spaghetti for grass, ice cream clouds, a root beer stream, and a potato chip road. Who could forget a scene like that?

Try this for remembering matching items such as a state and its capital.

Find pairs of words that correspond to the letters that they start with. Like True/False will help you remember that Tallahassee is the capital of Florida. All/None for Albany/New York or Hot/Cold for Hartford/Connecticut.

To remember the meanings of words: look up the dictionary definition and then write your own definition in your own words. Using familiar language helps create a better connection. Example: “superfluous” according to Webster means “1. exceeding what is sufficient or necessary.” New definition: something extra or unnecessary.

To remember words in another language try labeling things in your home or room with stickers that say the name of that object in the other language. Example: “heladera” is refrigerator in Spanish, so label the fridge “heladera.” Because “le chien” means dog in French, put a “le chien” sticker on your dog’s collar.

Goal Setting

1. List three concrete goals and the dates you hope to complete them.




2. What steps do you need to achieve these goals?

To reach goal A I need to:

To reach goal B I need to:

To reach goal C I need to:

3. What obstacles do you expect?

I expect the following obstacles for goal A:

I expect the following obstacles for goal B:

I expect the following obstacles for goal C:

The Cornell Method

Why should I use the Cornell Method?

  1. It encourages you to organize your class notes.
  2. It gives you a polished set of notes to study from.
  3. This method gets the information into both short- and long-term memory.
  4. It saves time when studying for periodic, mid-term, or final examinations.

How do I set up my notebook page using this method?

  1. Use a loose-leaf notebook and paper.
  2. Draw a line down the paper 1/3 from the left. Label this RECALL COLUMN.
  3. Always title and date each entry.

How do I take notes during a lecture using the Cornell Method?

  1. Record all your notes in the large section to the right of the recall column.
  2. Take notes in the simplest form possible, using keywords and abbreviations.
  3. Try to grasp as many main ideas and important details as possible.
  4. Skip lines to indicate the end of one main idea and the beginning of another.

What should I do after my class is over?

  1. As soon as possible, read through your notes and fill in any blanks. Highlight the main ideas.
  2. Next, fill in your recall column by jotting down keywords, phrases, or questions that stand as cues for main ideas and facts on the right.
  3. Now you can summarize these notes in a couple of sentences. Restate the information in your own words.
  4. You can review your notes daily and quiz yourself by folding the notes so only the recall column is showing.

Look and Listen

You have one chance to hear and observe the lecturer. Therefore, you must listen and look sharply from the moment the lecturer begins. The lecturer may announce the topic of the lecture and her/his purposes in the opening moments. If you are organized and ready to listen and take notes before the lecture begins, you will have a positive mindset.

  1. Prepare to listen. Your attitude in attending class is of major importance. If you feel that a particular lecture is a waste of time, you will be in no mood to listen. You should decide before a lecture that your class time will be well spent as a learning experience.
  2. Pay attention to questions. The questions put forth by students and the instructors are important parts of the classroom learning experience. When the instructor asks a question, s/he is usually discussing something of importance and trying to make a point. When you or other students make inquiries, you signal the instructor that the message isn’t clear. Both types of questions will serve to clarify lecture material and both types may appear on quizzes or tests. Write them down!
  3. Listen for cluesin what the speaker says to help you decipher what is important – a clue or phrase that literally states in advance that something important is going to be said, for example, “Here’s the key…” or “One significant reason for this is…”
  4. Repetition. Repeated information is probably worth noting. “Once again…,” “As I said before…,” or “In other words….”
  5. Issues. Points of controversy or contrasting ideas make excellent essay questions! “Some people feel that…, but others…”
  6. Consensus information that is presented as accepted by all is usually important and should be taken down. “Experts agree…”
  7. Absolutes. Few things in life are absolute, so note words that signal absolutes: “always,” “never,” “all,” “everyone,” “none,” etc.
  8. Review. A review should itemize key points, so jot these down: “In summary…,” “In conclusion…,” or “So, to sum all of this up…”

The following are some suggestions for close and careful observation during a lecture.

  1. Gestures: Watch for pointing, waving arms, tapping on the chalkboard, etc. These can signal important information.
  2. Change in movement: If the lecturer is sitting and then stands, or is leaning and then walks, or is pacing and then stops, she or he could be making an important point.
  3. Facial expressions: Watch the face for raised eyebrows, grimaces, or intense staring. Any of these can mean business.
  4. Changes in volume: Be aware of the voice going from soft to loud, or loud to soft. The lecturer may do this to get attention.
  5. Changes in tempo: A lecturer may slow down or speed up to emphasize a point.
  6. Obvious pause: There may suddenly be a complete stop in the presentation. This is a “loaded silence” and is usually followed by important information.
  7. Writing on the board: Some instructors, the “nice” ones, put the most important information on the board. Anything ever written on the board during a lecture is worth copying down into your notes.

No-Nonsense Note Taking

  1. Arrive to class on time.
  2. Sit up front so you can see and hear well.
  3. Use a loose-leaf notebook so you can rearrange pages and add in hand-outs where they belong. (Also, you’re less apt to lose notes when using a loose-leaf.)
  4. Always title and date your notes.
  5. Be prepared for class. If possible, read ahead so the lecture information makes sense and is familiar to you.
  6. Listen closely for changes in pitch, volume and tone. Watch closely for changes in movement and gestures. Most of these cues signal that a main point is about to be presented.
  7. Try your hardest to take notes in your own words.
  8. Use keywords. It’s best not to use complete paragraph and sentence form. Not only is it unnecessary, but you don’t have time.
  9. Use as many abbreviations as possible. Make up your own!
  10. Use a pen, ink lasts longer!
  11. Use various notations to point out main ideas and important details. (*stars, arrows, [brackets], boxes, etc.)
  12. Don’t be afraid to use a good deal of paper. Give yourself plenty of room!
  13. If you miss something or fall behind, leave a space and move on. Get the missing information from a classmate or the instructor later.
  14. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you cannot interrupt a lecture, make a quick note of your question and ask it later.
  15. Review your notes daily or as often as possible. This will help you learn the information, and it saves time on studying.



Change: Sleeping, eating, sexual interest, or exercise changes are often signs of trouble.

Clutter: Some say clutter is a sign of genius, but not always! It could be a sign of stress and can add to stress.

Boredom: You’re tired; you’ve lost interest in people and tasks; you’re doing the minimum amount required each day.

Pressure: You’re feeling pressured, even rushed, by others and events. Suddenly you’re not controlling your time; it’s controlling you.

Anger: You’re experiencing excessive anger over the problems and events of daily living.

Abuse: Substance abuse may walk hand-in-hand with burnout and stress. (This includes alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, food, etc.)

Absentmindedness: You keep forgetting appointments, assignments, etc., or you’re constantly preoccupied with other things than the business at hand.

At home: Reoccurring problems with friendships and other relationships.

Joylessness: No feelings of joy about your work, yourself, your life.

Escape: You have a desire to escape, run away. Are you fantasizing a lot about dropping out?


Admit the trouble: Clearly let someone know how you’re feeling; get the help and support you need rather than ignoring your feelings and the situation.

Simplify your life: Say “no” when you don’t want to add an additional responsibility. Center yourself to get things into balance again.

Establish your priorities: Do some goal-setting exercises. Also, make a list of 10 or 20 things that you like to do. Ask yourself how much time you’re spending on these.

Seek counseling: Personal or career counseling, depending on the situation.


Get positive feedback: People like to hear it when they’re doing a good job. You deserve recognition too. You may have to ask for it or “toot your own horn.”

Take care of your health: This is basic to well-being. Eat healthy, exercise, and get enough sleep!

Establish supports: Maintain a support system, people you can talk to when you’re upset as well as happy. Find and enjoy people with whom you can be yourself, without risking embarrassment or disapproval.

Manage time: Learn to manage your time. Take a course in time management if necessary. Make lists of what’s “to do” each day, week, and month.

Indulge yourself: If possible, do the work at which you are most likely to succeed. It’ll help fortify you for the tougher tasks.

Schedule fun: Include leisure time, family time, or other fun time in your regular activities. Do things that really get you away from it all and give you a mental break !

Stay clean: Don’t pick up everyone else’s garbage! You have your own tasks and responsibilities. Don’t take on others people’s too. Respect your own limits and boundaries.

Laugh: A sense of humor is strong armor against stress! Keep one!

Expand: Widen your horizons. Keep your outlook on life broad. Avoid ruts!

Take chances: Try new things! Sometimes it’s invigorating and uplifting!

Textbook Basics

Before you read, pre-read each chapter! It takes about 15-20 minutes, but is definitely worth it!

How to pre-read

  • Glance at the timeline (how long will it take you to read this?).
  • Read all boldface subtitles as you flip through the chapter.
  • Look at maps, diagrams, tables, and photographs, and read the captions.
  • Read the colored inserts – they’re interesting!
  • Read the summary at the end of the chapter.
  • Read the questions at the end of the chapter too!

While you read, active involvement with the material is key! Do something while you read. Here are some ideas:

  • Highlight
  • Enumerate the chapter
  • Write out the questions at end of chapter and answer them as you go along reading
  • Take notes on the theme you’ve been assigned (music, art, literature, architecture, or technology)

There are no magical solutions and there is no substitute for reading! Textbook reading takes hard work and time, so plan for this!

SQ3R: A Study Method

This step-by-step approach helps you get the most out of your reading assignments.

  1. Survey: Carefully pre-read the chapter. Look at the title, introduction, subtitles, boldface and italics, graphs and diagrams, summary and/or conclusion, and questions at the end of the chapter
  2. Question: Reading is a thinking process; inquiry makes you an active reader. Formulate questions before you read. Hint: Convert titles, subtitles, etc. into questions. WRITE THESE DOWN!
  3. Thoroughly read the chapter and fill in the answers to your questions as you go along. Important: Read for meaning, not only the answers! Write down any information you sense is important.
  4. Talk to yourself! Read your questions, answers and notes out loud. Go over key ideas and new terms using your own words. Be aware of any answers or information that don’t seem quite clear.
  5. Review: Reread these notes, not only the night before an exam, but as often as possible! Frequent review enables you to better retain the material and will save on study time.

Be Flexible!

At first go through SQ3R step-by-step, and later alter it to suit your own purposes and style.

Five Day Test Preparation

Day Five: Organize

Organize and review your class notes and text notes carefully. Prepare a list of all topics that will be on the exam. List them in order of importance so you can focus your attention accordingly.

Day Four: Review and Recall

Review your notes thoroughly. That is, until you can recall all of the important information. Concentrate on the topics that are more difficult for you to remember. Use mnemonic devices or visualization to help you recall more effectively.

Day Three: Rewrite

Briefly rewrite all important information. Review these notes repeatedly. Trying to recall your own explanations will be more effective than trying to recall what the text and your professors have said.

Day Two: Question

Make a list of questions that might be on the exam and answer them in as much detail as possible.

Day One: Prepare

Review your notes and rewritten notes a few hours before the exam. Take time to relax before the exam. If you are afraid you will forget information or “blank out” when you receive the exam, write reminders on the back that you can come back to during the exam.

Essay Exams

1. Think differently about the material. Students are conditioned from an early age to think in terms of discrete facts and ‘correct’ answers rather than looking for the relationships which are characteristic of essay answers. One of the first steps toward improved essay answers is to adopt a different perspective on the nature of what is to be learned from the material presented and read.

  • Integrate material from class to class and unit to unit. Each time you begin a new topic, ask yourself questions like:

    • How does this topic compare with/relate to what has gone before?
    • How is it different? How is it similar?
    • Why is it included in the course? Why at this point?
    • What are its main points, its strengths, its weaknesses?
    • How does it apply to the overall goal of the course?
  • Write your own sample essay questions for each lecture or reading assignment.
  • Rather than focusing on the conclusions alone, focus on the process so that you begin to understand how conclusions are reached.

2. Study the material differently. Studying for essay exams is much different from studying for objectively scorable exams.

  • Create outlines of readings and lecture notes which emphasize the relationships among the ideas.
  • Draw concept maps – visual diargams of how terms, principles, and ideas interconnect.
  • Paraphrase or create an executive summary for each reading or lecture.

3. Write structurally sound answers.

  • Preview a list of key words used in essay questions and what they imply in terms of answer content and structure.
  • Give yourself opportunities to practice writing essay answers. Examine the structure of the answers.
  • Learn how to use algorithms for answering typical question types. For example, a prototype answer for a “compare and contrast” item might always include two points of similarity between the two concepts and two points of difference. Develop generic outlines or concept maps for common types of questions into which you can plug the specifics of the topic.
  • Learn time-management techniques for essay writing, for example, scanning all the items and parceling out an appropriate amount of time to spend on each according to weight or importance; spending a few minutes outlining an answer before writing, or having a checklist for quickly evaluating answers before completing the exam (such as “did you answer the question?” “are the transitions clear?” “is evidence provided for each assertion?” and so on).

Objective Exams

  1. Avoid Exam Panic! If you are well-prepared, you are not likely to block or panic on exams. Plan ahead so you’re truly prepared.
  2. To be well-prepared:
    • attend class consistently
    • read all assigned material, preferably using the SQ3R method(pre-read)
    • take good class notes, preferably using the Cornell Method
  3. You should start preparing for exams on the very first day of classes!
  4. What To Study
    • Focus on key terms, definitions of these terms and examples that clarify meaning–(boldface, italics, charts, diagrams, etc.)
    • Be aware of enumerations (lists of items) found in your notes or text. These lists can be the basis for an essay question.
    • Points emphasized in the text and lecture/class.
    • Questions on past quizzes and tests or questions at the end of textbook chapters.
  5. Getting ready
    • Be prepared to memorize a certain amount of material.
    • Ask your instructor what kind of items will be on the test.
    • Be sure to review carefully all the main points presented in the class.
    • Make up practice test items. (This way you will be getting into the rhythm of taking the test and you may even be able to predict some of the questions the instructor will ask)

Taking the Exam

  1. Answer all easier questions first. (Put a check mark beside more difficult ones and continue working through the test.)
  2. Go back and spend remaining time with more difficult questions you have marked.
  3. Answer ALL questions! Guess if you must; by doing so, you are bound to pick up at least a few points.
  4. Ask the instructor to explain any item that isn’t clear.
  5. Circle or underline the key words in a difficult question. This strategy can help you untangle a complicated question.
  6. Take advantage of the full time given and go over the exam carefully for possible mistakes.

Multiple Choice Tips

  1. You may not always be given a perfect answer. You must choose the best answer possible.
  2. If you can write on the test, cross out answers that you know are incorrect.
  3. Read all possible answers, especially when the first answer seems correct.
  4. With difficult items, do the following:
    • Read the question and then the first possible answer. Next, read the question again and the second possible answer and so on until you have read the question with each separate answer. Breaking the items down this way will often help you identify the option that most logically answers the question.
    • Try not to look at the answers when you return to difficult questions. Instead, supply your own answer and then look for the option which is closest to your response.
  5. If and when you must guess (which should NOT be often):
    • The longest (most complete and inclusive) answer is often correct.
    • If two answers are similar, except for one or two words, choose one of these answers.
    • If two answers have similar sounding words (intermediate-intermittent), choose one of these answers.
    • If the answer calls for a sentence completion, eliminate the answers that would not form grammatically correct sentences.
    • An answer in the middle, especially the one with the most words, is often correct.
    • If two answers have opposite meaning, one of them is probably correct.
    • Answers with qualifiers, such as generally, probably, most, often, some, sometimes, and usually, are frequently correct and true.
    • Answers with absolute words, such as all, always, everyone, everybody, never, no one, nobody, none and only, are usually incorrect or false.
  6. Make up practice test items. (This way you will be getting into the rhythm of taking the test and you may even be able to predict some of the questions the instructor will ask)


The following words are commonly found on test questions. Understanding them is essential to success on these kinds of questions. Study these key words thoroughly. Know them backwards and forwards.

ANALYZE - Break into separate parts and examine, discuss or interpret each part.

COMPARE - Examine two or more things. Identify similarities and differences. Comparisons generally ask for similarities more than differences. (See CONTRAST).

CONTRAST - Show differences. Set in opposition.

CRITICIZE - Make judgments. Evaluate comparative worth. Criticism often involves analysis.

DEFINE - Give the meaning, usually a meaning specific to the course or subject. Determine the precise limits of the term to be defined. Explain the exact meaning. Definitions are usually short.

DESCRIBE - Give a detailed account. Make a picture with words. List characteristics, qualities, and parts.

DISCUSS - Consider and debate or argue the pros and cons of an issue. Write about any conflict. Compare and Contrast.

ENUMERATE - List several ideas, aspects, events, things, qualities, reasons, etc.

EVALUATE - Give your opinion of an expert. Include evidence to support the evaluation.

ILLUSTRATE - Give concrete examples. Explain clearly by using comparisons or examples.

INTERPRET - Comment upon, give examples, describe relationships. Explain the meaning. Describe, then evaluate.

OUTLINE - Describe the main ideas, characteristics, or events. (Does not mean “write a Roman numeral/letter outline.”)

PROVE - Support with facts (especially facts presented in class or in the text).

STATE - Explain precisely.

SUMMARIZE - Give a brief, condensed account. Include conclusions. Avoid unnecessary details.

TRACE - Show the order of events or progress of a subject or event.

Test-Taking Without Fear

  1. A certain amount of fear or anxiety before or during a test is normal, and it can even help you focus your resources on solving the immediate problem. But, irrational fear, or excessive anxiety about a test situation is detrimental to concentration and performance.
  2. The good news is that there are ways to eliminate the crippling anxiety and fear that plague some students before and during exams. Before an exam, one should: Practice good study habits, prepare well, be organized, and keep a file for papers.
  3. Remember: Test preparation begins the first day of class. Keep up with reading assignments, underline important facts, and make written notes of points emphasized by your instructor. Don’t wait until the last minute to prepare for a test. Frantic, last-minute cramming usually results in confusion and increased anxiety.
  4. From your instructor, find out the type of test being given. Does it consist of essays, fill-in-the-blanks, multiple choice, or a combination? Be sure to find out about the length of the exam and the topics covered, and write down the date, time, and place of the exam. Time and effort spent worrying about when and where the exam will be held are wasted and only increase your anxiety.
  5. Get a good night’s sleep before the exam. Fatigue reduces your ability to perform and increases your anxiety. This is another reason that late-night cramming is a bad idea.
  6. If other classes have taken the test before you, don’t be overly concerned by rumors about the difficulty of the test. Tests are always hard for those who are not prepared.
  7. Have all the necessary paper, pencils, calculators, and other aids permitted by your instructor ready beforehand. Don’t be forced to scramble around for supplies just before the exam. Furthermore, the habit of being on time or early will allow you a moment to relax before the test starts.
  8. Thinking about a pleasant experience for a moment or two can put you in a good frame of mind.
  9. Listen carefully to pre-examination instructions. If you have any questions, ask them now. Don’t be afraid to ask for a clarification of instructions. When you receive your exam, take a moment to read carefully any instructions on the test itself. This will be time well spent. You don’t want to give incorrect answers because you misunderstand the instructions.
  10. In most tests, there will be questions you can’t answer. Don’t worry about these. Skip them and move on to questions you can answer. After answering the easy questions, go back and work on the harder ones. Work as fast and accurately as possible. Budget your time carefully, but remember that excessive worry over a time limit will reduce your performance.
  11. Daydream: Substitute worry thoughts with pleasant ones (being with someone special or being out in the sunshine, etc.) most of us live up to our own expectations; if we spend a lot of time thinking how poorly we’ll do, it will increase our chances for failure.

Contact Aspire

Beth Zinn
Sr Program Support Assistant

The Aspire office is located on the first floor of the Elliot Center (map).