Study skills

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Study skills or study strategies are approaches applied to learning. They are generally critical to success in school,[1] considered essential for acquiring good grades, and useful for learning throughout one's life.

Study skills are an array of skills which tackle the process of organizing and taking in new information, retaining information, or dealing with assessments. They include mnemonics, which aid the retention of lists of information; effective reading; concentration techniques;[2] and efficient notetaking.[3]

While often left up to the student and their support network, study skills are increasingly taught in high school and at the university level. A number of books and websites are available, from works on specific techniques such as Tony Buzan's books on mind-mapping to general guides to successfully study such as those by Stella Cottrell and Understanding Examination Techniques and Effective study Strategies by Respicius Rwehumbiza.

More broadly, any skill which boosts a person's ability to study, retain and recall information which assists in and passing exams can be termed a study skill, and this could include time management and motivational techniques.

Study skills are discrete techniques that can be learned, usually in a short time, and applied to all or most fields of study. They must therefore be distinguished from strategies that are specific to a particular field of study e.g. music or technology, and from abilities inherent in the student, such as aspects of intelligence or learning styles.

Historical context[edit]

The term study skills is used for general approaches to learning, skills for specific courses of study. There are many theoretical works on the subject, including a vast number of popular books and websites. Manuals for students have been published since the 1940s[citation needed].

In the 1950s and 1960s, college instructors in the fields of psychology and the study of education used research, theory, and experience with their own students in writing manuals.[4][5] Marvin Cohn based the advice for parents in his 1979 book Helping Your Teen-Age Student on his experience as a researcher and head of a university reading clinic that tutored teenagers and young adults.[6] In 1986, when Dr. Gary Gruber’s Essential Guide to Test Taking for Kids was first published, the author had written 22 books on taking standardized tests. A work in two volumes, one for upper elementary grades and the other for middle school, the Guide has methods for taking tests and schoolwork.[7][8]


Buzan Mind Maps[edit]

Mind Maps were developed by Tony Buzan with the help of Nithiya Darshini from Malaysia. Mind maps have been known to help people to remember key facts. To develop a mind map, all you need is a sheet of paper, put the topic/subject in the beautiful middle of the page with branches coming off of it. On each branch you should only write key words and for every key word you write you should put the first image that comes into your head when you think of this key word, for example Oxygen – tree, Astronomy – stars, Stars – telescope, etc.

Rehearsal and rote learning[edit]

Main article: Rote learning

Memorization is the process of committing something to memory. The act of memorization is often a deliberate mental process undertaken in order to store in memory for later recall items such as experiences, names, appointments, addresses, telephone numbers, lists, stories, poems, pictures, maps, diagrams, facts, music or other visual, auditory, or tactical information. Memorization may also refer to the process of storing particular data into the memory of a device. One of the most basic approaches to learning any information is simply to repeat it by rote. Typically this will include reading over notes or a textbook, and re-writing notes.

Reading and listening[edit]

The weakness with rote learning is that it implies a passive reading or listening style. Educators such as John Dewey have argued that students need to learn critical thinking – questioning and weighing up evidence as they learn. This can be done during lectures or when reading books.

A student of the University of British Columbia studies for his final exams using the PQRST method.

One method used to focus on key information when studying from books is the PQRST method.[9] This method prioritizes the information in a way that relates directly to how they will be asked to use that information in an exam. PQRST is an acronym for Preview, Question, Read, Summary, Test.[10]

  1. Preview: The student looks at the topic to be learned by glancing over the major headings or the points in the syllabus.
  2. Question: The student formulates questions to be answered following a thorough examination of the topic(s).
  3. Read: The student reads through the related material, focusing on the information that best relates to the questions formulated earlier.
  4. Summary: The student summarizes the topic, bringing his or her own understanding into the process. This may include written notes, spider diagrams, flow diagrams, labeled diagrams, mnemonics, or even voice recordings.
  5. Test: The student answers the questions drafted earlier, avoiding adding any questions that might distract or change the subject.

There are a variety of studies from different colleges nationwide that show peer-communication can help increase better study habits tremendously. One study shows that an average of 73% score increase was recorded by those who were enrolled in the classes surveyed.[citation needed]

Flashcard training[edit]

Flashcards are visual cues on cards. These have numerous uses in teaching and learning, but can be used for revision. Students often make their own flashcards, or more detailed index cards – cards designed for filing, often A5 size, on which short summaries are written. Being discrete and separate, they have the advantage of allowing students to re-order them, pick a selection to read over, or choose randomly for self-testing.


Summary methods vary depending on the topic, but most involve condensing the large amount of information from a course or book into shorter notes. Often, these notes are then condensed further into key facts.

Organized summaries: Such as outlines showing keywords and definitions and relations, usually in a tree structure.

Spider diagrams: Using spider diagrams or mind maps can be an effective way of linking concepts together. They can be useful for planning essays and essay responses in exams. These tools can give a visual summary of a topic that preserves its logical structure, with lines used to show how different parts link together.

Visual imagery[edit]

Some learners are thought to have a visual learning style, and will benefit greatly from taking information from their studies which are often heavily verbal, and using visual techniques to help encode and retain it in memory.

Some memory techniques make use of visual memory, for example the method of loci, a system of visualising key information in real physical locations e.g. around a room.

Diagrams are often underrated tools. They can be used to bring all the information together and provide practice reorganizing what has been learned in order to produce something practical and useful. They can also aid the recall of information learned very quickly, particularly if the student made the diagram while studying the information. Pictures can then be transferred to flashcards that are very effective last-minute revision tools rather than rereading any written material.

Acronyms and mnemonics[edit]

A mnemonic is a method of organizing and memorizing information. Some use a simple phrase or fact as a trigger for a longer list of information. For example, the cardinal points of the compass can be recalled in the correct order with the phrase "Never Eat Shredded Wheat". Starting with North, the first letter of each word relates to a compass point in clockwise order round a compass.

Exam strategies[edit]

The Black-Red-Green method (developed through the Royal Literary Fund) helps the student to ensure that every aspect of the question posed has been considered, both in exams and essays.[11] The student underlines relevant parts of the question using three separate colors (or some equivalent). BLAck denotes 'BLAtant instructions', i.e. something that clearly must be done; a directive or obvious instruction. REd is a REference Point or REquired input of some kind, usually to do with definitions, terms, cited authors, theory, etc. (either explicitly referred to or strongly implied). GREen denotes GREmlins, which are subtle signals one might easily miss, or a ‘GREEN Light’ that gives a hint on how to proceed, or where to place the emphasis in answers [1]. Another popular method whilst studying is to P.E.E; Point, evidence and explain, reason being, this helps the student break down exam questions allowing them to maximize their marks/grade during the exam. Many Schools will encourage practicing the P.E. Eing method prior to an exam.


Spacing, also called distributed learning by some; helps individuals remember at least as much if not more information for a longer period of time than using only one study skill. Using spacing in addition to other study methods can improve retention and performance on tests.[12] Spacing is especially useful for retaining and recalling new material.[12] The theory of spacing is that instead of cramming all studying into one long study session an individual would split that single session to a few shorter sessions that are hours, if not days apart. Studying will not last longer than it would have originally and one is not working harder but this tool gives the user the ability to remember and recall things for a longer time period. The science behind this; according to Jost’s Law from 1897 “If two associations are of equal strength but of different age, a new repetition has a greater value for the older one”.[13] This means that if a person were to study two things once, at different times, the one studied most recently will be easier to recall.

Time management, organization and lifestyle changes[14][edit]

Often, improvements to the effectiveness of study may be achieved through changes to things unrelated to the study material itself, such as time-management, boosting motivation and avoiding procrastination, and in improvements to sleep and diet.

Time management in study sessions aims to ensure that activities that achieve the greatest benefit are given the greatest focus. A traffic lights system is a simple way of identifying the importance of information, highlighting or underlining information in colours:

  • Green: topics to be studied first; important and also simple
  • Amber: topics to be studied next; important but time-consuming
  • Red: lowest priority; complex and not vital.

This reminds students to start with the things which will provide the quickest benefit, while 'red' topics are only dealt with if time allows. The concept is similar to the ABC analysis, commonly used by workers to help prioritize. Also, some websites (such as FlashNotes) can be used for additional study materials and may help improve time management and increase motivation.

In addition to time management, sleep is an important lifestyle change that could effect your studying. Sleeping less means that you have more time to study. This is a true fact, but just because you are “studying,” does not necessarily mean that your brain is processing everything that you are trying to learn or memorize. It is a proven fact that sleeping more can help you study better, because your brain can process more facts when it has had the rest it needs every night.[15]

In addition to time management and sleep, emotional state of mind matters when a student is studying, according to Benedict Carey in his book “The Surprising Truth About How We Learn and Why It Happens” when speaking about studying versus test taking “we perform better on tests when in the same state of mind as when we studied”[16] If an individual is calm or nervous in class; replicating that emotion can assist in studying. With replicating the emotion an individual is more likely to recall more information if they are in the same state of mind when in class. This also goes the other direction; if one is upset but normally calm in class it’s much better to wait until they are feeling calmer to study. At the time of the test or class they will remember more.

Study environment[edit]

Studying can also be more effective if one changes their environment while studying. For example: the first time studying the material, one can study in a bedroom, the second time one can study outside, and the final time one can study in a coffee shop. The thinking behind this is that as when an individual changes their environment the brain associates different aspects of the learning and gives a stronger hold and additional brain pathways with which to access the information. In this context environment can mean many things; from location, to sounds, to smells, to other stimuli including foods. When discussing environment in regards to its affect on studying and retention Carey says “a simple change in venue improved retrieval strength (memory) by 40 percent.”[17] Another change in the environment can be background music; if people study with music playing and they are able to play the same music during test time they will recall more of the information they studied.[18] According to Carey “background music weaves itself subconsciously into the fabric of stored memory.”[19] This “distraction” in the background helps to create more vivid memories with the studied material.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Contributions of Study Skills to Academic Competence.". Educational Resources Information Center. ISSN 0279-6015. Retrieved 2009-02-01. 
  2. ^ Bremer, Rod. The Manual: A Guide to the Ultimate Study Method (Second ed.). Fons Sapientiae Publishing. ISBN 978-0993496424. 
  3. ^ Archived March 19, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  4. ^ Preston, Rah (1959). Teaching Study Habits and Skills, Rinehart. Original from the University of Maryland digitized August 7, 2006.
  5. ^ Kranyik, Robert and Shankman, Florence V. (1963). How to Teach Study Skills, Teacher’s Practical Press.
  6. ^ Cohn, Marvin (1979). Helping Your Teen-age Student: What Parents Can Do to Improve Reading and Study Skills, Dutton, ISBN 978-0-525-93065-5.
  7. ^ Gruber, Gary (1986). Dr. Gary Gruber’s Essential Guide to Test Taking for Kids, Grades 3, 4, 5, Quill, ISBN 978-0-688-06350-4.
  8. ^ Gruber, Gary (1986). Dr. Gary Gruber’s Essential Guide to Test Taking for Kids, Grades 6, 7, 8, 9, Quill, ISBN 978-0-688-06351-1.
  9. ^ Gopalakrishnan, Karthika (2009-01-08). "Students tackle stress as board exams draw". The Times Of India. 
  10. ^ Stangl, Werner. "The PQRST Method of Studying".  Robinson, Francis Pleasant (1970). Effective study. New York: Harper & Row. 
  11. ^ Royal Literary Fund: Mission Possible: the Study Skills Pack
  12. ^ a b Carey, Benedict (2015). The Surprising Truth About How We Learn And Why It Happens. New York: Random House. pp. 65–66. ISBN 978-0-8129-8429-3. 
  13. ^ Carey, Benedict (2015). The Surprising Truth About How We Learn And Why It Happens. New York: Random House. p. 68. ISBN 978-0-8129-8429-3. 
  14. ^ College Success: Study Strategies and Skills, Jean A. Reynolds, ©1996 by Allyn & Bacon, Boston
  15. ^ Study Efficiently TeenLife Media, January, 2015
  16. ^ Carey, Benedict (2015). The Surprising Truth About How We Learn And Why It Happens. New York: Random House. p. 47. ISBN 978-0-8129-8429-3. 
  17. ^ Carey, Benedict (2015). The Surprising Truth About How We Learn And Why It Happens. New York: Random House. p. 62. ISBN 978-0-8129-8429-3. 
  18. ^ Carey, Benedict (2015). The Surprising Truth About How We Learn And Why It Happens. New York: Random House. p. 50. ISBN 978-0-8129-8429-3. 
  19. ^ a b Carey, Benedict (2015). The Surprising Truth About How We Learn And Why It Happens. New York: Random House. p. 51. ISBN 978-0-8129-8429-3. 

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