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There are as many study strategies as there are students, but perhaps you’ve mainly stuck to the basics, like flash cards and taking copious notes. Since retaining and recalling information is about much more than reading, why not try some novel approaches?

Using multiple strategies will make information stick more than using just one. Here are some creative ideas to rescue you from the studying doldrums.

Understand the “Why”

Many students get a boost from knowing the “why,” or purpose, of material they’re being taught. For example, you might ask, “How does this concept play out in real situations?” This can help you embed information more thoroughly in your memory, and recall it more accurately.

Innovative Study Strategies

Test Yourself 
As you read through material, think to yourself, “How might my instructor frame a test question?” In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 72 percent of respondents indicated that they use practice tests when studying.

Make it Bright 
Jazz up your notes with highlighters. Andrea B., a junior at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, says, “My favorite ways to study are highlighting and color-coding. Colors make it fun and easier for me to remember.” If highlighters are too bright for you, try underlining with colored pencils instead.

Try this highlighting strategy

Color code information in the way that suits you best. You can use highlighters, colored pencils, or pens.

One option is the stoplight method. It an be used three different ways:
  1. Use the colors to organize information by topic, theory, and/or perspective.
  2. Indicate how one concept relates to another by highlighting them in the same color.
  3. Colors can indicate your level of comfort with the material. For example:
    • Red (or pink, since red might be hard to read through) means you feel the information is very unclear. Ask your instructor, teaching assistant, or a classmate for some help.
    • Yellow indicates that you need to give this information a bit more attention in order to really understand it. Reread your class notes or try diagramming the concepts.
    • Green sections of material are already familiar. You feel confident in your ability to recall it when needed.
Another clever way to use this method is by making three piles of flashcards. Color-code the cards based on this color scheme, and circulate the red cards the most.

We remember things that make us laugh. If you have to memorize a list, why not make it into a funny acrostic sentence, like “Please Excuse MyDear Aunt Sally” (for the order of operations) from high school algebra class?

Concept Sheet
A more positive spin on the “cheat sheet,” this is a piece of paper with the most important points from your study material.

An example of a concept sheet

For a given assignment or course, create a “cheat sheet” of essential information. Referring to it often will help solidify the concepts. You can include:
  • Key words
  • Diagrams
  • Pictures (to jog your memory)
  • Charts and other data
Use the concept sheet to quiz yourself regularly. Just remember, you can’t actually bring it to an exam unless specifi cally permitted by the instructor.

Social Studying
Group studying can be helpful.

  • Quiz one another.
  • Debate different perspectives.
  • Teach one another concepts.

Cindy B., a graduate student at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, says, “My favorite strategy for memorizing is to make a master document that synthesizes all the information, then record it and listen to it while driving.”

There are also millions of free podcasts available for download online. For example, RadioLab, a National Public Radio program, focuses specifically on exploring perspectives in science and philosophy. The hosts use a unique audio production style to make dense topics understandable.

Break It Down
Dr. Damien Clement, a professor at West Virginia University in Morgantown, explains that material will seem much less daunting when divided up, so start reviewing at least a week before an exam.

Studying can sometimes feel like a drag, but with some creativity, it can be more effective, and even enjoyable.

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Burns, T. and Sinfield, S. (2012). The Complete Guide to Success at University (3rd Ed). SAGE Publications: Thousand Oaks, California.

Dartmouth University, Academic Skills Center, Where to Study/How to Study