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Confused male student

Avoiding Study Traps

formerly from the

Delaware State Education Association


While we think we know what it means to study, we often bring old habits to the study process. What worked in high school will not work in college level classes. We must take a fresh look to discover what skills help us on our way to academic success in college courses.

Here are some frequent comments from beginning college students when asked about how they study. If you find yourself using any of these responses, read the suggestions that follow to help you think differently about what studying means to you.


"I don't know where to begin."

Take control of your learning. Try some of these approaches to help you get started on your studies.

  • Ask yourself questions. What do you already know? What do you need to learn? What confuses you? Where can you find the answers?

  • Make a list of all the things you have to do.

  • Break your workload down into manageable chunks.

  • Prioritize! Do what's most important first.

  • Schedule your time realistically.

  • Don't skip classes, especially near an exam—you may miss a review session or important tips about what will app rear on a test or what the professor feels to be most important.

  • Use that hour in between classes to review your notes.

  • Begin studying early, with an hour or two per day and slowly build as the exam approaches.

Photo of a female student looking over the top of a large stack of books


"I've got so much to study and so little time."

Since anyone you ask will tell you the same thing, ask yourself what you can do about this. Then take action!

Begin previewing by looking over your assignments, readings, handouts, and class notes to see what they contain and how they are organized.

Again, ask yourself questions to help determine how much time is needed and how it is best used.

  • How long are the readings?

  • How long does it take you to read a sample page.

  • How many pages can you read in 30 minutes?

  • How many sections are in the chapter?

  • How much of the chapter information is new information? How much do you already know?

  • What topics has your instructor emphasized in class?

  • Which parts do you not understand?

  • How do you best learn information? Use different approaches to help retain the information.

Bored student


"This stuff is so boring, I can't even stay awake reading it."

No one said learning was easy, so do something to create interest! There are other students in class, the ones getting the As, who have found ways to make this subject fascinating. It is not the subject matter but the attitude one brings to it that creates interest.

  • Attack! Get actively involved with the text as you read.

  • Keep asking yourself questions, such as, "What is important to remember about this section?"

  • Take notes and underline/highlight main concepts.

  • Draw pictures or diagrams related to the paragraph content in the text margin.

  • Discuss the material with others in your class. Form study groups. Learning happens best when ideas are discussed.

  • Stay on the offensive, especially with material that you don't find interesting. Reading passively (not making yourself do something with the material that you are reading) means you are missing important points.


"But I like to study in bed."

The greater the similarity between the study setting and the test setting, the greater the likelihood that material studied will be recalled during the test. If you are not taking a test in bed, don't study there!


Frustrated male student"I read it. I understand it. But I just can't remember it!"

We remember best the things that are most meaningful to us. As you are reading, try to add your own examples to new information you are learning. Try to integrate what you're studying with what you already know. You will be able to remember new material better if you can link it to something that's already meaningful to you.

  • Chunking: This is an effective way to simplify and make information more meaningful. Suppose you wanted to remember the colors in the visible spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). You would have to memorize seven "chunks" of information in order. But if you take the first letter of each color, you can spell the name, "Roy G. Biv" and reduce the information to three "chunks."

  • Mnemonics: This term includes any memory-assisting technique that helps us to associate new information with something familiar. For example, to remember a formula or equation, we may use letters of the alphabet to represent certain numbers. Then we can change an abstract formula into a more meaningful word or phrase so we'll be able to remember it better. Sound-alike associations can be very effective, too, especially while trying to learn a new language. The key is to create your own links so you won't forget them.


"I guess I understand it."

Test yourself. Make up questions about key sections in notes or reading. Keep in mind what the professor has stressed in the course. Examine the relationships between concepts and sections. Often, simply by changing section headings you can make up many effective questions. For example, a section entitled "Bystander Apathy" might be changed into questions such as, What is bystander apathy? What are the causes of bystander apathy? What are some examples of bystander apathy? Try to read for the answers to your questions. Then use them as a self-test, trying to answer them without looking at your text or notes. If you don't know it, simply repeat the process until you do.


"There's too much to remember."

Organize! Information is remembered better if it is represented in an organized framework that will make retrieval more systematic. There are many techniques that can help you organize new information.

  • Write chapter outlines or summaries; emphasize relationships between sections.

  • Group information into categories or hierarchies whenever possible.

  • Use concept mapping. Draw a diagram to organize and interrelate material. For example, if you are trying to understand the causes of World War I, you could make a chart listing all the major countries involved across the top and then list the important issues and events down the side. Next, in the boxes in between you could describe the impact each issue had on each country to help you understand these complex historical developments.


"I knew it a minute ago."

Review. After reading a section, try to recall the information contained in it. Try answering the questions you made up for that section. If you cannot remember enough, re-read portions you had trouble with. The more time you spend reviewing the more you tend to remember. Even after the point where information can be perfectly recalled, further study makes the material less likely to be forgotten entirely. In other words, you can't over study. However, how you organize and integrate new information is still more important than how much time you spend studying.


"Cramming before a test helps keep information fresh in my mind."

Spacing out your study time is crucial. Start studying now. Keep studying as you go along, reviewing what you have already covered before beginning new material. Begin with an hour or two a day about one week before the exam, and then increase study time as the exam approaches. Recall increases when study time is spread out over time.


Frustrated female student

"I'm going to stay up all night until I get this."

Avoid mental exhaustion. When studying, take frequent short breaks. Before a test have a rested mind. When you take a study break and just before you go to sleep at night, don't think about schoolwork. Relax and unwind, mentally and physically. It's more important than ever to take care of yourself before an exam. Eat well and get enough sleep and exercise.


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