I’m often asked for strategies on how to study more productively. Undergraduate students and mentees have asked me how to better study for their courses. Fellow graduate students have asked me how I studied for my preliminary exams. Learning how to teach yourself complex concepts is one of the great tasks of being a scientist. It is challenging, but empowering work.

Over the years, I’ve tried a lot of different approaches to studying and teaching myself new material. The list below is a compilation of the strategies that have worked well for me. Learning how to learn is a constant work in progress. I am always open to new ideas - please get in touch with other strategies that work for you.

If you’d like to share these with a student, colleague, or friend, you may download a pdf version here.

SIX Principles for Productive Studying

Just like learning, these principles are not linear. Everyone needs to develop their own approach to studying - these are some strategies that have worked well for me. Use any and all approaches that work for you.

💡 High Frequency, Low Intensity Engagement with the Material

  • Binge studying does not translate into long-term meaningful learning

  • Engage with the course material for a short amount of time every day

  • It’s easier to keep up than catch up! Focus on studying for and succeeding on assignments, quizzes, and exams earlier in the semester so that you are not left playing “catch up” on the final

📚 Active Reading & Writing to Learn

  • Read aloud to yourself

  • Read slowly and take notes as you move through the material

  • Rewrite concepts presented in the text in your own words

  • Write down questions about concepts don’t understand

  • Search for overarching themes. Write down connections between readings, lectures, notes, videos, and other courses

  • Create your own study guide and brainstorm potential test questions, then answer them

  • Draw mind maps, conceptual sketches, diagrams to better understand important ideas

⏰ Single Task & Limit Distractions

  • Only work on one aspect of your studies at a time

  • When you are studying, only study - no email, social media, tv, or other distractions

  • Decide on a single concept to focus on for a defined period of time (e.g. photosynthesis for 30 minutes). At the end of the time, decide to either (a) keep going or (b) focus on a new concept

🌀 Repetition is Fundamental to Learning

  • It is okay (and good!) to reread material twice or more

  • Learning happens in iterative circles of revisiting material in novel contexts

📆 Dedicate Time for Studying

  • For many people, if it’s on the calendar, it will get done

  • Schedule time to study outside of time spent working on course assignments

  • Study at least 2 hours for every 1 hour of class time per week

  • Learning takes effort and time. Monitor your study habits, track the time you spend studying, and reward yourself for the effort you put in

🗄 Use Resources to your Advantage

  • Use all the resources your instructor has made available for the course

  • Watch instructional videos from trusted sources to help reinforce material

  • Befriend your classmates, study together, challenge each other

  • Work in small groups and teach each other course material

  • Visit your instructor’s office hours with the questions that came up in your active reading