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Study smart

What you must know about studying

The biggest mistake that students make is to spend lots of time re-reading course materials.  Do not make this mistake.  Instead, use strategies that will help you practice the skills you’ll need on the test and maximize your memory recall.

Active studying vs Passive studying

Studying is not the same thing as reviewing. Reviewing involves passively re-reading or re-listening. Effective studying is more like practicing.

Think about it this way: if you have a violin recital coming up, you could review the sheet notes of the song you plan to play. That would help familiarize you with the music. But it would not be enough. You need to pick up the violin and practice playing the piece many times, refining your playing as you go along.

Similarly, if you want to be able to recall information on a test, solve a problem, or express yourself in writing, you need to practice doing those things when you study. It’s not enough to re-read or re-listen to the material. You need to actively engage with the material in the way you will be tested.

Keep in mind active studying is more work than passive studying. Many students choose passive studying strategies because they are easier. But if you want to improve your performance, you’ll have better results with an active approach.


Material to study

Active studying

Passive studying

Lecture notes and powerpoint slides
  • Pause frequently to put notes down and then explain key points, concepts, or facts in your own words from memory
  • Quiz yourself as you go along
  • Regularly summarize main points
  • Make flash cards (in your own words)
Re-read notes from start to end
Assigned texts and articles Before you start reviewing the text:

  • Identify information to look for based on what your professor emphasized in lectures
  • Go to the back of chapters, read the summaries, and try to do the practice problems to identify areas you need to focus on

As you review the text:

  • Change chapter headings into questions and cover up the text below so you can try to summarize each section before reviewing it
  • Compare and contrast concepts in your own words
  • Explain complex or difficult information as if you were teaching it to someone else
  • Make flash cards (in your own words)
Read the text multiple times in an effort to memorize the content

Assigned problems, exercises, and practice tests
  • Try to solve problems on your own first and then look at class examples
  • Take at least one practice test timed without looking at your notes
  • Try to solve the problem while using class examples as a reference
  • Look at your notes as soon as you get stuck



Space it out

distributed practice

You get more bang for your buck when you study the same material for multiple shorter study sessions than you do with one large study session. Instead of studying for 3 hours straight, study the material for 1/2 hour on 6 different days. This is called distributed practice.

There are a couple theories about why distributed practice works better:

  • Your brain gets better at recalling information the more times it has to do it. You can think about distributed studying as providing your brain with recall practice.
  • When we study information, our brain connects the information with contextual cues (ie. how you were feeling, environmental factors like sound and light, etc.). When we study information multiple times, we help it connect to more cues in our brain. This increases the likelihood that we can find it later.

Keep in mind, distributed practice refers to studying the same material multiple times. If you study chapter 12 one day and chapter 13 the next day, this is not distributed practice even if both chapters will be covered on the exam. To get the full benefits of distributed practice, it would be more effective to review both chapters during both study sessions.

It’s not just about remembering…it’s also about learning!

Research suggests that distributed practice not only helps improve memory, but it also increases your ability to apply and generalize concepts. Therefore, setting up a consistent schedule to review course material can improve your performance beyond just exam scores.

Study where you will take your exam

Studying in the same location where you will take an exam can increase your recall during the exam. Remember, when you learn information, your brain records it along with contextual cues. Being in the same environment can help your brain locate information more easily because some of the contextual clues will be the same when you take the exam. Studying where you will take your exam can also familiarize you with the environment and decrease your anxiety during the test.

If you will take your exam at the DRS Testing Center, contact us at or 206-221-9117 to inquire about scheduling studying.

Match your strategy to your exam

Remember, studying means practicing. Would you train the same way for an endurance event as you would for a strength event? No. The tasks are different so they require different training methods. Similarly, different types of tests require different practice strategies.

lots of memorization icon

Exams that ask you to recall specific dates, names, step-by-step processes, and facts involve lots of memorization. It won’t be enough to just learn the information. What you need to practice is recalling the information.

Flashcards and flashcards apps

Flashcards are a time-tested strategy for memorizing large amounts of information. Write your own flashcards. This is important. Remember, active strategies are waaaaaaaaaay better than passive ones. As you create flashcards, you engage with the material. You have to figure out what’s important. You have to put things into your own words. The act of creating flashcards increases your recall before you’ve even started quizzing yourself with them.

If you are unable to handwrite cards or would prefer to create digital flashcards, there are many flashcards apps you can use.

Quiz yourself all the time

Make a point of quizzing yourself on the information whenever possible. Stop frequently while you review assigned readings to generate questions in your head about the material you just read. Review your notes regularly and do the same thing.

Review information that you know well

It makes sense to spend the most time reviewing information that you don’t know. But make sure also to study the stuff you do know. Research suggests that students who retest themselves on information they could remember easily previously do as much as twice better than students who skipped this step.

solving problems icon

If your exam will include problems, then you need to practice solving them. This means practicing not the steps involved but also how to troubleshoot when you run into difficulty.

Do lots and lots of problems

Let’s repeat that, do lots and lots of problems:

  • Work through text book problems. Hint: some professors use an exam bank provided by the textbook company to create their exams.
  • Rework any homework problems you didn’t understand.
  • Do as many practice exams as possible. Always try to complete at least one practice exam timed without looking at your notes to simulate the exam experience.

Practice completing problems without referencing notes

You may need your notes the first time you try doing a problem. But make sure to put them away and give yourself lots of practice solving problems without them. It’s ok if you find yourself unable to solve problems easily this way. This will reveal what you need to spend time learning. It will also make you better at handling situations when you can’t figure out what to do right away. Look at your notes only after you’ve put in good effort to solve the problem on your own. Then make sure to have a plan for how you’ll study the skill or fact you were missing.

Memorize key formulas, facts, etc.

It sounds obvious, but sometimes when students focus on solving problems, they forget to memorize key facts like formulas or steps of a process that they will need on an exam. Make sure you keep a running list of these facts next to you when you try to solve problems so you can create flashcards of them. If you are allowed to bring a cue-sheet to the exam, this will also help you figure out what needs to be on it.

Work with others…but watch out for pitfalls in study groups

Teaching someone else how to work through a problem is an excellent way to study. So is getting 1-1 help understanding steps or concepts. Study groups can be helpful but not when others do most of the solving. If your study group moves too quickly, ask them to slow down. Make sure you understand every step of a problem before moving on to the next one.

explaining of analyzing information icon

Short answers and essay tests require you to be able to recall information, formulate an idea, and then express yourself effectively. Make sure to practice these skills.

Practice synthesizing the class material into new ideas

There are many ways to practice analyzing information:

  • Compare and contrast concepts
  • Create visual representations of ideas
  • Explain how different concepts are related
  • Apply concepts to real-life situations

Teach it to someone else

One of the most effective ways to practice explaining information is to teach it to someone else. You can do this formally during a study session. You can also slip in chances to practice when you talk with friends or family about what you’re learning.


Being able to summarize information quickly is key to writing efficiently. As you study all your various class material, stop frequently to summarize the information. Imagine how you would use that summary to launch an explanation or an argument.