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There are as many study strategies as there are students, but perhaps you’ve mainly stuck to the basics, like using 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 help information stick more than using just one. Here are some creative ideas to rescue you from the studying doldrums.

Understand the “Why”

Many students benefit 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, 75 percent of respondents indicated that they use practice tests when studying.

Make it Bright
Jazz up your notes with highlighters. Patricia D., a third-year student at the University of Toronto in Ontario, thinks that highlighting and colour coding is the best way to organize her study materials. She says, “Classifying things in different categories forces me to process what I’m learning, as opposed to just reading.” If highlighters are too bright for you, try underlining with coloured pencils instead.

Try this highlighting strategy

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

One option is to use the stoplight method, which, as the name suggests, involves the use of red, yellow and green highlighters. It can be used three different ways:

  • Use the colours to organize information by topic, theory, and/or perspective.
  • Indicate how one concept relates to another by highlighting them in the same colour.
  • Colours 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. Colour code the cards based on this colour 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 My Dear Aunt Sally” (for the order of operations) from high school math class?

Concept Sheet
A more positive spin on the “cheat sheet,” this is a piece of paper that includes 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, though, you can’t actually bring it to an exam unless specifically permitted by the instructor.

Social Studying
Group studying can be helpful.

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

Matthew A., a third-year student at the University of Western Ontario in London, says he takes audio recordings of the lectures and replays them as a way to study.

There are also millions of free audiobooks and podcasts available for download online. For example, TV Ontario’s Big Ideas is a Web site with links to a variety of academic podcasts on topics like psychology, astronomy, and religion.

Break It Down
Melissa Staddon, a coordinator for the Student Academic Success Centre at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, explains that students usually feel better able to handle their workload if it can be broken down into smaller parts.

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

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Get help or find out more
The following resources offer study tips & tricks.

O’Day, D. and Budniak, A. (2012). How to Succeed at University. (Canadian Edition). eBookIt.com: Toronto, Ontario.

Athabasca University, Learner Support Services, Study Skills

Wilfred Laurier University, Learning Services, Study Skills & Supplemental Instruction

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