How to study smarter

Studying at university can be tough sometimes.

If you’re a recent school leaver you may find your tried and trusted study skills are no longer working for you in the university environment. Alison Hillier from Academic Learning Support refers to this as the ‘culture shock’ – where previously successful students become crippled by having to self-direct their learning, as well as becoming derailed by their new-found freedoms and the distractions of campus life.

At the other end of the spectrum there are the mature-aged students, potentially entering university with no study skills whatsoever, as well as a slew of responsibilities and guilts eating away at your study time. Personally, I spent high school years reading comics, listening to Metallica and tripping over myself.

Regardless of your background, becoming an independent learner and discovering ways to do so that are meaningful and successful can be more challenging than the degree itself.

Much has been written about ‘multiple intelligences’ and ‘learning personalities’, although Alison is quick to distance herself from these concepts. She believes all students are capable of learning across all styles, and no one should concentrate too heavily on one at the detriment to the others. Rather than try and figure out if you’re a visual learner, or a spatial one, Alison suggests some more structured and practical tips to boost your study success.

What time should you study best?

It’s important to recognise within yourself what times you are the most able to focus. Are you a weird morning person, or a night owl like myself and the other sensible people?

It’s important to target your study times when you’re actually cognitively capable of doing the tasks. If you work better in the morning, use that time to do some of the more brain-baking tasks you have; data analysis, essay writing, crunching through difficult readings.

At the times when your head starts to feel a bit like tinned spaghetti you can do some uni admin; answer emails, download your lecture notes and readings for upcoming classes, do some database searches, or proofread an essay. Anything not too mentally taxing that still needs to get done.

Get group wise

Do you prefer to study alone or in groups? If you’re the former, guess what, you might need to get past that. Demonstrating that you can work effectively in a group increases your employability, and the portability of your degree.

Now, we all know group work can be a nightmare that you can’t wake up from, but forming a study group can be the most helpful thing you can do. Gather together a small group (“No more than five,” suggests Alison) of likeminded goons and meet each week. You can approach people in your tutes, or send some feelers out on a discussion board.

Head to the learning lounge; the information common; a computer lab; book a group study room in the library; bring a picnic rug and aeroguard; or even hang around after tutorial to see if anyone is using the room after.

Alison suggests doing ‘jigsaw reading’: “Divide the week’s readings up between members of the group. Each person writes a summary of the reading, shares it, and then teaches everyone else the content.”

This is a fantastic way to condense the amount of time you spend doing readings without losing any of the information.

Where should you study?

Are you a home body, or do you operate better at uni? I’m quite capable of studying at home, whereas Alison has to be on campus to be productive. She recommends “treating uni like a job. If you’re lucky enough to not have work commitments during the week, come to uni in the morning and stay all day. Find a spot you like to work and head there in between classes. Once you establish a routine, you’ll be amazed at your productivity. The added benefit, is that when you get home you don’t really have to do anything uni related.”

If you’re working at home, try and find a space that you can dedicate to uni work, to get yourself in that zone. Working from home comes with a bevy of inbuilt distractions, be they television, housework or a cheeky nap. Alison recommends studying for “one and a half to two hours at a time, followed by a short break to rejuvenate yourself.”

I find studying for an hour and a half, followed by thirty minutes of housework solves the burning out problem as well as the procrastination problem; although the nap problem still remains unsolved.

Incidental Study

Alison is a big fan of ‘incidental study’. Use the tiny bits of time you have throughout the day where you are in between tasks to get a little bit of study in. Waiting at a bus stop, in a queue, or to pick the kids up from school? Do some reading. If you’re at the gym, or going for a run, download a PDF to voice reader and have your textbook read to you in the dulcet tones of a GPS.

Alison explains, “If you have your stuff with you, you can build an extra hour or two hours a week just in those little spaces.  Arrive at uni an hour early, get a good park, and walk the ring road listening to your readings. Not only will you get a good park, you  get some exercise and some work done.”

Make some flash cards and enlist housemates or siblings into quizzing you while you make dinner or do housework. You can even make little post-it notes with keywords on them and put them where you’ll have no choice but to look at them.

A hot tip from me is invest in a packet of shower crayons. You can brainstorm an essay in the shower, and, to be honest, all my best sentences seem to come to me in the shower, and being able to scribble them on the wall saves you dashing about the house looking for paper with a towel around you, only to forget the sentence as soon as you pick up a pen in your soggy paw.


Alison’s final piece of advice is: “Don’t be a hero.”

“You can’t do everything. Find one thing that you hate doing – the one thing that brings you the least amount of joy in your life – and find a way to outsource it.”

Alison’s most hated thing is hanging socks on the line, “It brings me no joy. I see it as a waste of time. I outsource it by putting them in a dryer. Some people might find it meditative, but I hate it.”

A brief caveat – if the one thing you hate doing is uni work then don’t outsource that. Here’s a link to the university’s academic integrity policy.

My thing is any kind of outdoor labour. I’m quite happy to let others take care of the mowing, gardening or weeding. I have guinea pigs and they look after all that rubbish for me. The time you save doing meaningless tasks you can then add to your study plan.

Uni is different for everyone, but recognising and reflecting on how you operate as an individual and tailoring your study to suit – as well as using the time you have in the most effective manner – will help you on the road to success. It doesn’t matter if you’re a damn genius straight out of high school, a single parent struggling with their juggling act, or anywhere else on the University’s incredibly diverse student spectrum, there is a way to study smarter and more effectively.

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