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  • Writer's picturePrem Sundaram

10 College Tips for Studying Smarter not Harder

Updated: Jan 28, 2022

How can students improve their studying habits and save time? Here's a guide to learning based on what we have found - and some of our own thoughts too!

College is different than High School

Girl Studying
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

New college students often make the mistake of just entering into College or University thinking it's just the same as High School, but just more study. This is the first mistake. One key to study smarter not harder is to realize that your old study habits might need to change, your whole educational psychology might need to be reviewed. Don't worry, we won't sit you down on a couch - at least not yet :)

What's the difference between studying at School compared to College?

College is about developing a critical thinking mindset. In many cases it's more than just learning terms and vocabulary. Today, College students are fortunate to have lots of pre-prepared learning materials and lecture recordings, so it is less important to take the notes of a lecture class.

This provides the opportunity for the student to listen to the lecture and then afterwards summarize the key points or spend time going over the class notes to learn and understand. It also provides the opportunity to engage with the lecturer on the topic - and this becomes even more apparent in graduate studies where you really are creating your own innovative content and research insights.

This shift from memorization to critical thinking should be remembered. In your final years of study you will find yourself writing essays and speaking on topics that synthesize everything you have learned - and not just coming up with short answers like you did at school. Students that master this change will find that this is one of biggest outcomes as a result of going to College.

Perhaps the bottom line is that at College and University you are in charge of your motivation and the content you create. Check out some of the articles we reference at the end of this article which go into this deeper.

How do I Study Smarter, not Harder?

OK, so you want to know how to study more effectively without putting in any extra effort? Well, I'm sorry to say that effort is certainly needed, so just relying on your will power seldom does it! Psychological studies indicate that relying on will power alone is going to be limited.

More importantly, it's about habits, structure and attitude. It's important to have a good sense of ease when studying for college. Put firmly into place routines and structures that will help you achieve good grades without having to do unnecessary overtime on the study. Keeping a balance is important as you will see. We'll explore some of the best methods for learning. Several of these strategies have scientific backing while some are just based on college students experience.

Is there an 'Easiest' way to study?

There is no easy way to study, as each person's learning process is different. However, there are some techniques that can make studying easier and more effective. One such technique is to create a study schedule and stick to it. This will help you to stay organized and focused on your studies. Additionally, breaking down your work into smaller tasks can make it seem less daunting and more manageable. Finally, studying in a quiet and distraction-free environment can help you to focus better.

Good Study Skills Matter

Study skills at College and University matter now more than ever and science points to ones that really work.

Students will read notes and books, but one important method is to separate the lecture from the review. What we mean by this is that when you are in your class lecture, listen to the content, understand the concepts. You don't need to get bogged down into all the details that you don't understand - just flag them for review later. Just don't try and mix summarizing the class or making study notes while you are listening to the new lecture content. It's a bit like don't try and summarize notes while you are taking them! Separate the stages. This is one way to study smarter.

College students should leverage the tools they have access to. In one of your study sessions use this time to review the lecture material and then make your summary notes in a note tool. These may or may not be 'flashcards' - often if the class was long you might want to create a summary note of the class so you can create a mental model to remember it. Following this summary work study session, you might then also create flashcards to help remember specific formulas, concepts etc. There are many apps to create study class notes and flashcards - including NoteDex.

You will find the right style for you - and it will of course depend on the class. A language class will require different note taking than a physics class. Do ask your friends how they study. You might be surprised and can help each other to study smarter!

1. Understand the Study Cycle

The study cycles created by Frank Christ describe the various parts of learning: reading & observing classes and analyzing your knowledge and understanding - and the way you do this. Although each of these appears evident at first glance, students often use shortcuts to get better grades. You might skip reading during classes for fear the professor covers the same material during the class but this misses an important chance to learn in a different mode (read and listen) and to gain benefit from the repetition and distributed practices you'll receive.

Image of the Study Cycle
Image courtesy Sandra McGuire The Study Cycle (


Preview the notes and other study materials before class to develop a better idea of what will be covered.


Don't skip the interactive opportunity! Answer and ask questions and take meaningful notes during class. Use a class note taking app for taking study notes.


Start the process of memorization during the day, take about 10 minutes to review your class notes. This reinforces new concepts and increases confidence.


Read your notes and materials from the last week to make mental connections. As you study, ask yourself ‘how,’ ‘why,’ and ‘what if’ questions. Don’t forget, repetition is the key.


This is where you reflect on your understanding and mastery of the topic. Are you confident? Could I teach it to someone else?

These study strategies for college students will really help in your goal to study smart.

2. Reading is not Studying

Simply looking at your book or notes will not really engage your brain. You will be reading classes without studying them. Worse, a new read can be forgot fast! Reading is of course an important component in preparing for study; however, a good learning process requires active participation in material if one wants to learn and remember.

Active interaction involves building meaning from text and connecting the ideas. Active learning means highlighting text or outline, reading again or writing. You can create handwritten notes of your study material using a good note taking app such as NoteDex that supports a digital pen stylus - or take handwritten index card style short notes. This process of active learning using handwriting helps to connect your note taking - imprinting on your brain neuron patterns. Active learning is a critical part of your successful learning strategy.

3. Problems are your Friend

Often technical courses involve working with and solving problems (as in mathematics, physics, economics). Focusing your studies on problems and a questions can be part of your study strategies. Make your notes on what the problem is, and your item list / steps of the solution. Identify what are the common questions that would be asked for in a particular course or lecture. Even ask your Professor. Practice tests with questions should be part of your self testing regime.

4. Spacing out is Good

One of the most effective learning techniques is “distributed practice”, which means to study over multiple shorter periods over several weeks. It is best practice to work on each class a couple of minutes per day. Overall time spent studying is then similar to or less than a few marathon library classes, but you will learn more and be retained information longer-term—this will give you a better grade in the final exam!

It matters more what length of study you take rather than how long you have studied. Long study sessions cause poor concentration and therefore poor understanding and persistence. Simply put you get tired. The spacing out is also good when you are trying to memorize lots of information such as with flashcards, and spaced repetition (like the Leitner model) will help for long term memory. You can use a flashcard app with spaced repetition like NoteDex

5. Sometimes it's Good to be Intense

Not everyone studies the same way at University but doing it regularly is key. Intensive study sessions are brief and can allow you to get things done without a waste of time. Shorter study times with intensive study improve performance over lengthy studies and can be part of your plan to study smarter. Intensive learning sessions may be 30 minutes or 45 minutes long and contain active study techniques. You do this with your exercise, now do high impact study sessions instead!

Self-tests have been shown to increase learning intensity and effectiveness by enhancing a students' study capacity. Your brain is like any other muscle in your body - if you work out it will develop capacity. There is a lot of psychological science to support this and there is a reason that most of your classes are not more than 1 hour!

6. Use Downtime to your Advantage

As much as study is important, you can't study all the time and your brain needs time in between to work in the background - to form its neural connections and connect key concepts. This is well documented in various experimental psychology studies. Downtime is a critical component to study smarter not harder.

Give yourself the time to relax and to get enough sleep. If you have a tired brain you will not be energetic and efficient during your study sessions - this will compound and be worse on the day of your final. Think about how an athlete trains - you are in a long study marathon and need to focus on sleeping well, getting exercise, getting fresh air, eating healthy food - as much as studying. And you can see if you are being efficient in your whole study habits, you will naturally study in shorter more efficient periods because of this study-life balance. This is how you study smarter, not harder. Having a social life is also important! All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy - as they say!

7. Silence isn't Golden

Does your concentration improve with background noise? Some people find it beneficial to study with music while others are distracted. For some people, a library silence might distract even more than gym noise. If quiet rooms are distracting and you prefer studying within a library setting, then try to sit say on the ground floor, where there is the buzz of the surroundings.

You might also choose to use noise canceling headphones which might help you to focus and eliminate background noise. What is your favorite music to listen to when studying?

8. Become a Teacher

This is one of the Pro Study Tips on how to study smarter. Try explaining the content yourself and teach students what you know! This could take place in a study group, in partnership or alone. If you speak aloud, it helps you understand what you have lost. You should also be using examples and connecting key concepts like the teachers do.

It's ok (and encouraged) that you use your notes in hand. In some cases you might have to rely on the notes to explain what is going on, but ultimately you can learn it with no notes. Making a quiz for yourself helps you think as a teacher. Create your own quizzes in your own words! Use an index card or flash cards app like NoteDex to create your notes and questions for quick reference.

9. Reconsider Multitasking

The most recent research indicates that multitasking can actually reduce efficiency and productivity by reducing time spent focused on the key tasks. To be smarter and not harder you have to stop focusing on studying at all times and doing many things at once. Social networking, internet use, gaming or texting may affect your study experience greatly. Research has shown that multi-tasking can increase the time required for gaining knowledge as it increases the complexity of the learning process. Eliminating distractions allows you complete engagement in your studies. Study smarter not harder!

10. Change your Settings and Time

Find different places to study at - even outside campus. Learn what times you study best. You might find you concentrate best at 10:15 am, but not at 10:00 a.m. Maybe you are more productive in coffee shops or in your apartment. Maybe when you're studying at home you're falling asleep. Identify a range of places within and near campus which can provide a good study environment. Ultimately, find out the places you find comfortable to study.

Take Control of your Calendar

Controlling your time is important for the success in achieving your goals. If you can, you should develop a study schedule. Then you can complete assignments and stay on track. How do you keep your schedule organized? You can create a weekly schedule using a tool like NoteDex (shown) where we see here how a student has organized their study week using a table:

Index Card used as Weekly Planner
Example Weekly Planner created using NoteDex App

Conclusion: Study Smarter not Harder

Developing good study habits will pay off over the duration of your College or University course - and beyond. In this article we showed a number of studying tips to help you study smarter. Being a college student can be very stressful, juggling new independence, money and new surroundings. We hope that this blog post has given you some ideas how to study efficiently - and to get those high grades!

Works consulted and tools referenced:


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