Study Strategies

You are here: ...
Home / Study Strategies / Studying for Exams

Studying for Exams

Every Day:

  • For each of your classes, spend a few minutes going over the notes you took that day – filling in gaps, clarifying points, thinking about the major concepts.
  • Use a two-column system for taking notes, with headings or questions to the left and details on the right. When it’s time to study, cover the right side of the notes and quiz yourself.
  • Constantly paraphrase as you read: “Oh, I see, she’s saying ___.”
  • Stop at the end of a paragraph or section to highlight a phrase or to write a brief note in the margin. (Most students find that using a combined approach provides the most flexibility.)
  • Focus on charts, diagrams, and outlines, especially in the sciences.
  • If the textbook is very difficult, buy a review book or look online for a summary of the material. Use these resources to preview a given chapter in your text. Understanding the simplified version beforehand helps with comprehension, and it usually won’t increase your study time because you will be able to read your textbook more quickly.
  • Space out your study sessions. Research indicates that you will learn more if you study a topic for a short period on three separate occasions rather than studying for a longer period just once.

Don’t Just Memorize:

  • Most college courses require that you do more than simply fill your head with isolated facts. Be sure to paraphrase ideas and relate one idea to another. For example, don’t simply memorize each psychological theory in isolation; look for similarities and differences.
  • Study with another student or with a group. Try to explain what you’ve learned to your study partners or even to a relative who knows nothing about the subject. Having to verbalize ideas rather than simply reciting facts will help to deepen your understanding.
  • Focus on examples because they can frequently help you comprehend complex ideas.
  • Visualize the information if you can. (Half of your brain works in pictures, so use that half.)
  • Actively look for areas of confusion. Talk with professors and T.A.’s after class, asking them to explain whatever you find confusing.

Decide What to Learn:

  • Narrow your focus. If you try to learn everything that might possibly be tested, you may spread yourself too thin and not be able to learn anything thoroughly.
  • Ask yourself what you would test if you were the professor.
  • Pay close attention to the following: study guides, review sessions, topics mentioned in the class before the exam, material written on the board or overhead.
  • Ask other students what they think will be on the exam. Talk to the professor.

Review Tools:

  • Develop summary sheets, charts, or diagrams to help with review. Be brief. You don’t want to simply recopy your notes; you are trying to condense and paraphrase.
  • Use flashcards sparingly. Some students spend hours making cards but don’t allow enough time to actually use them. Cards can be useful for memorizing isolated facts (such as drugs for a pharmacy class) but they are not as helpful for learning ideas. That said, quizzing yourself can be very helpful. One way to avoid the busy work of making cards is by using a two-column system for taking lecture notes (the Cornell System). As you take notes in class, you are creating a method for quizzing yourself later (see the handout on taking lecture notes).


  • Don’t simply stuff your head with facts; think of a method for recalling each idea or fact. Relate the new information to something you already know.
  • Write concepts on a blackboard (the large size seems to help).
  • Walk around while reciting your notes or quizzing yourself.
  • Avoid marathon study sessions; instead, review frequently and in small time periods with plenty of breaks.
  • Use mnemonic devices for large lists or facts that are difficult to recall.
  • Each time you sit down to study, use a mixture of study activities. For example, you might read your textbook for a while, then apply the concepts to a few problems, and finally memorize a set of terms or formulas.

Practice Exams:

  • Spend a significant amount of study time on quizzing yourself. Research indicates that the cognitive process of retrieval helps cement material into your memory. The other advantage is that quizzing yourself will tell you how well you know the material and how much more time you need to spend studying.
  • Ask the professor for a copy of an old exam or at least a few sample questions. Analyze how the professor words questions and also look for patterns of thinking. What does the professor think is important and how does he/she ask a question?
  • Give yourself 2 to 4 practice exams before taking an exam in a problem solving course such as math, physics, or chemistry. If the professor makes a practice exam available, use that as a model and write your own additional exams. Also use questions at the end of a chapter.
  • Do at least one timed practice exam. Many math exams can be difficult to finish in time, so you need to practice working under time constraints. (The more practice problems you do, the faster you will get.)