As the saying goes, “If you want something you've never had, you must be willing to do something you've never done.” To reach your goals, you often must step out of your comfort zone. This is no truer than for a college student faced with the unknown.
The unknown: A new course. A daunting new subject matter. An unexpected career shift. The previous quote sums up the feeling of being faced with a challenge and having to determine a way through it.
The challenge at hand? How to succeed. Or, more specifically: How to do well in a college class, even when you’re not exactly sure where to start.
Read on to discover how developing good study habits can help you on your student journey. Find tips and handy advice to improve your learning. The goal isn’t to achieve perfection but to seek consistency, efficiency and progress.
What exactly is a habit?
We have many daily ones that play a vital role in our behaviors, but what is a habit?
Simply put, habits, good or bad, are behaviors that you engage in on a regular basis—often without thinking.
The definition of a bad habit is seemingly easy to recognize. Examples that readily come to mind include excessive drinking, smoking, drug misuse, or any continual reckless behavior with a negative or undesirable impact.
However, overall, habits can be a useful force in our lives. They get us through each day, and they help establish routines to mitigate the stress of being in a perpetual decision-making state. Think of the ease with which you can make breakfast at your own house versus your first morning in a vacation rental.
Establishing good habits for college coursework taps into the same principles.
Tips for building habits
According to research, a habit is formed when a chosen “behavior is frequently and consistently performed in the same context” until it becomes automatic and effortless. Practice and regularity are the foundation of a habit, and it takes roughly 18 days to half a year for a new one to take shape.
Here are some time-tested tips for better study habits. And if these are already familiar to you, they can still serve as a good reminder that studying hard isn’t always sufficient; what often matters is how you study and the helpful habits you build along the way.
Start with small steps
Remember: It’s a marathon, not a sprint—although both marathons and sprints are hard! But the basic principle behind the popular mantra holds true: It may take a long time to complete a goal, but small steps can be achieved every day.
When it comes to school projects, try to break them into smaller, manageable parts. Outline what you’d like to accomplish in a study or work session and hold yourself accountable.
The key here is to engage in these practices daily or at least regularly. Segment your assignments into recurring work sessions. While waiting until the last minute can give you an adrenaline rush to hand in an assignment, studies show that procrastination increases stress levels and can lower your overall well-being.
Spacing out schoolwork like this can also give you enough time to revisit your work in progress. Returning to it a day later with a fresh perspective can make all the difference.
If possible, try to designate an area in your home (or your local library or shared workspace) where you can reduce distractions. Headphones or earplugs can also keep you feeling more focused while studying. Once you’re settled, simply begin.
And as for your soundtrack, it’s been shown that listening to music as a background to another activity can be distracting while mastering new material. Instead, researchers have found that white noise for focus is beneficial and may have a positive effect on memory. Knowing that certain sounds can either boost or diminish your productivity can be crucial for optimizing your study environment. You can mix and match your favorite background noises with focus-boosting apps like Noisli.
Again, strive to work this comfortable environment into your routine to make it a habit.
In a world that’s overflowing with information and competing technologies, it’s hard to nurture good study habits that aren’t, in some way, affected by the myth of multitasking.
It may be second nature to reach for your phone while listening to a lecture or watching a video. After all, just how engaged do you really have to be? It’s easy to feel convinced that your retention will be the same regardless of whether or not there’s something else happening simultaneously.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. According to one study, for example, only 2.5% of participants could multitask successfully with distractions. Other scientific research seems to echo the same sentiment: multitasking doesn’t work; constantly shifting attention from one task to another makes you less productive and more likely to make a mistake. Using different electronic devices at once, also known as media multitasking, affects the ability to process information efficiently.
Furthermore, researchers have examined the question: Is listening an active or passive process? It’s been shown that reflection and inquiry are vital parts of effective listening. So, putting your phone away during lessons and engaging with class materials (by asking questions or self-reflecting) can help you take in information more deeply and with an open, curious mind.
You might try using a pen and paper to jot down notes or questions while studying. Studies underscore the benefits of writing by hand (over typing) and its role in information retention and cognition. To bridge the gap between traditional writing and typing, check out useful tools like smart pens or reusable smart notebooks, which offer a convenient way to record and search through your notes.
After the lecture, do your best to engage in an online forum with other students. Try to answer another student’s question if you don’t have any of your own. Summarizing and explaining key points from a lecture or text can solidify your understanding.
You can also get into the habit of pausing after every lecture and quickly paraphrasing a few concepts you just learned. From your reading or viewing material, be sure to take good notes to help aid in your understanding—both at the present time and later. Use margin notations, highlighting, or sticky notes to make your observations pop for easy reference. Never underestimate the power of the written word.
Find a support system
Sometimes, despite doing everything you can to improve your study habits and routine, you may still struggle. And it doesn’t matter how many times you stare at a screen or reread the same page—we’ve all been there.
Since people excel in uniquely different ways, another perspective might be all you need to make something click. That’s why it’s important to recognize that a little extra help can ease your frustrations when learning a complex subject.
If you’re struggling with a course, consider the following:
- Find a study buddy to regularly check in with, even if it’s someone from a distance.
- Get multiple points of view and encouragement from fellow students by participating in a study group. If a group is not a feasible option, remember to regularly check in with your instructor, lecturer or professor.
- Participate in class, ask questions, and get clarification on concepts you don’t understand. Ask professors for any additional study resources to help give you more context.
Better habits mean working smarter, not harder—and that includes knowing when to ask for guidance when you need it. Sometimes, it takes a village to succeed.
Practice self-care: be kind to yourself
Self-care is not selfish. As you navigate your to-do list, it’s easy to ignore the importance of doing nothing. Prioritize taking breaks and listening to your body (and mind). While studying, take a few minutes, or even an hour, to decompress; go for a walk, meditate, or just take a quick power nap. Listening to your needs can enhance your performance and productivity.
Research supports the idea that regular study breaks help you recharge and improve memory. You may be asking yourself: How many breaks should I take while studying? You have to determine the exact amount of time that works for you. However, a survey from the time-tracking tool DeskTime suggests that individuals who are the most productive work for 112 minutes, followed by a 26-minute break. So go ahead and make break time a regular part of your study routine.
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These recommendations can help you in any area of study that you may be pursuing. Remember: The right behaviors can be a powerful force—the force of habit.