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Tools: Strategies for effective studying

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How to approach a course when you have to...Preparing summary sheets for studyingMemory strategiesHow students can best prepare for tests and examsUnderstanding key information: elaboration helpsPredicting test/exam questionsSelf-testing as a study strategy

How to approach a course when you have to…


A few courses require you to memorize specific facts or rules (e.g., language courses). Science courses such as Biology and Anatomy also require a large amount of information to be memorized, alongside understanding concepts.

How should I approach these courses?

Because memorizing is very intensive work for our brains and because brains can’t take in too much at one time, it’s better to spread the learning out.

  1. Swiss Cheese Method: nibble away to make holes in the material rather than gobbling it up all at once.
  2. Distributed Learning: Spend a short time (20-30 minutes) learning one thing and then take a break. Come back later and review what you’ve learned in the previous session. Add something new. Remember: short sessions with lots of repetition.
  3. Chunking & Making Connections: It‘s important to make connections among all the details so that they are easier to remember. For example, in Biology you might make a chart of all the hormones and proteins covered in the course with the main characteristics of each one. In French, you might make a chart of all the kinds of pronouns and their uses.


Understand Concepts

Many courses, especially in social sciences, require you to understand concepts and are not about memorizing information to regurgitate on tests. Rather, they are about reaching a deep level of understanding of the concepts. To reach this level, you have to see the BIG PICTURE.

How should I approach these courses?

Think of your course as a giant jigsaw puzzle and each lecture, each reading is a new piece of the puzzle. Your job is to fit all the pieces together.

  1. Integrate material from lectures with information from the text and additional readings.
  2. Organizing information around major themes and concepts (identified by the instructor and/or in the textbook). Make mind-maps, charts and visual outlines showing how the ideas fit together. The visual needs to show how important details form a concept and how a concept fits with the course.
  3. Test questions often ask you to evaluate, compare, and apply the concepts. So prepare study questions which reflect these ways of thinking. Use concrete examples to clarify.


Solve Problems

Many courses in Science, Engineering, and Commerce require problem-solving. Course material is best learned by doing problems. Spending time just reading your textbook is not the best use of your time. Working through the problem and then reading the theory often helps to clarify it.

How should I approach these courses?

  1. Read your textbook backwards! Skim the chapter quickly, then start on the problems at the back of the chapter. When you get stuck, go back to read the pertinent parts of the text. By doing so, you get the problem done AND understand the theory.
  2. Organize problems around concepts. Each problem is not unique but rather part of a family of problems where each procedure is a variation on the concept. To help you understand discreet differences among procedures, use maps or flow charts to show how the various procedures connect to the concept.

Also see Special Techniques for Math and Science Tests.

Source: Mary O‘Malley, Concordia University

Preparing summary sheets for studying

Why use summaries?

  • deepen your understanding of the material
  • determine the key ideas (refer to the course outline for learning objectives)
  • organize material into themes, or hierarchies
  • look for connections among ideas, concepts, or problem sets
  • reduce the volume of content for faster reviews

Summary Formats

Choose a summary method that reflects the content plus your preferred way of learning. These methods highlight studying the overall concepts. Drilling information on cue cards focuses on isolated details and complements these conceptual summary methods.

Here are some useful formats (see also: Academic Reading module):

  1. Cornell
  2. Mind-maps
  3. Charts/Tables
  4. Concept Summary
The Cornell method

When to use: To combine lecture notes or power points with text or course manuals

How to use:

  1. Start with the topic or title at the top of the page.
  2. Draw a 2-3 inch column down the left side. Have your lecture and text open together. Write points from the lecture in the larger space, and add structure from the text in the smaller column. For example, add subtitles, key terms, definitions or formula, pose questions.
  3. Finish with a 4-6 sentence summary of the unit, topic or lecture.
  4. Review by covering the larger column and asking questions based on the cues on the smaller column, or rehearsing final short summary.Cornell notes chart
Mind maps

When to use: To see associations among relational material. This method is particularly helpful to visual learners, so use colour as an additional aid.

How to use:

  1. Identify the main topic or concept in the web’s center. Structure sub-topics in the next layer.
  2. Add information such as Point, Interpretation, Explanation/evidence/example (PIE) for each detail.
  3. Look for recurring ideas, to see connections among various sub-topics.

Mind maps can be as compressed or as comprehensive as you wish by adding additional sub-sections.


When to use: If there was a repeated pattern to the material you are summarizing; to facilitate comparative thinking.

How to use:

  1. Identify the topics covered along the top of the chart, and the pattern of sub-topics along the side. This is the more conceptual thinking, and filling in the details of each cell is a more factual focus.
  2. Completing the matrix allows you to study all about a single theory (i.e., within a column) and compare details across theories (i.e., across rows).


Theories of Personality

Trait Psychoanalytic Behavioural Humanistic
Social context
Key ideas
Application of theory
Concept summary

When to use: If you are working with math or computational material (finance, physics, chemistry, etc.). It encourages conceptual thinking in addition to performing calculations.

How to use:

  1. Identify the key concepts taught and the various applications related to those concepts.
  2. Design a summary sheet what highlights key information such as: concept title, allowable key formula, definitions, other important information (sign conventions, exceptions, etc) simple example or explanation, list of relevant knowns and unknowns to help distinguish between problems or concepts.

For a completed example (“acid-base chemistry”), see our Quantitative Problem Solving section under Concept Summary.

Memory strategies for exam prep

So how do we remember? Attention → Encoding

1. Attention

Before you can encode the information, you must begin by attending to (i.e., thinking about) it. Then…

2. Encoding

Translate incoming information into a mental representation: Picture (visualize it), Sound (say it), and Meaning (put it into your own words).

Think “GULP”: GET it, USE it, LINK it, and PICTURE it.


  • Chunking/organization
  • Recite: preferably out loud
  • Distributed practice: study in small chunks over a period of time
  • Mind-maps
  • Mnemonics /Acronyms (e.g., S.A.S.S. = Student Academic Success Services!)
  • Rhymes and songs
  • Pegging: link new information to something known

See our online module on Memory Strategies for more information.

The generation effect and levels of performance

How students can best prepare for tests and exams

In a 2005 study, 109 American university students participated in an experiment that involved reading a passage and responding to a 20-item multiple choice test. The students were randomly assigned to one of four groups. The four conditions involved:

  • reading and copying (final test mark 64.50%)
  • reading and highlighting (final test mark 77%)
  • reading and taking notes (final test mark 79.50%)
  • reading and generating questions (final test mark 89.10% – targeted* information)
    * targeted refers to items determined by the student as important to study


Source: Van Blerkom, D., Van Blerkom, M.L., & Bertsch, S. (2005). “Study strategies and generative learning: What works?” CRLA. November. University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

The generation effect

Students retain information they have targeted and generated better than study materials that were generated and targeted by others. This has been dubbed the generation effect. Mental operations in which the student engages while generating materials, such as more distinctive encoding, may produce these results.

(Begg et al., 1991 as cited in Foos et al., 1994; Crutcher & Healy, 1989 as cited in Foos et al., 1994).

Application for students: four levels of performance

🙂 Lowest level — students are simply told what to study

🙂 🙂  Higher level — students are instructed to use the materials and are given some specific study materials or techniques (i.e., professor-generated materials)

🙂 🙂 🙂 Even higher level — students generated their own study outlines

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 Highest level — students generated their own question(s) or questions with answers

Conclusion: Generating potential test questions while preparing for exams is an effective technique for improving performance on materials targeted by those test questions!

Source: Foos, P.W., Mora, J.J. & Tkacz, S. (1994). Student study techniques and the generation effect.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 86, 567-576.

What does elaboration mean?

What does it mean to elaborate? Many things!

  • Going beyond rote memorization of information,
  • Adding details to ideas or concepts,
  • Clarifying the meaning of ideas,
  • Explaining the relationship between two or more concepts,
  • Making inferences,
  • Analyzing the idea/concept for its component parts,
  • Applying the concept to a new situation or creating an analogy, and
  • Connecting/linking material being learned with information already known.
Question stems to help you elaborate

Why don’t students elaborate?

Elaboration is a valuable tool to help you go beyond rote memorization of information to higher levels of thinking and learning. But many students don’t elaborate while studying, because of time pressures and/or they aren’t sure how to do it.

How do I elaborate?

Generating questions will help you elaborate. Use some of the generic questions stems below to help you generate content-specific questions (from lectures, readings, notes, etc.). Then, study by answering your questions, individually or in study groups, and checking your answers.

  • What is a new example of…? How would you use it to…?
  • What would happen if…?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of…?
  • What do we already know about…?
  • How does it tie in with what we learned before? Explain why…?
  • Explain how…? How does it affect?
  • What is the meaning of…? Why is it important?
  • What is the difference between …and…? How are…and…similar?
  • What is the best…, and why?
  • What are some possible solutions for the problem of…?
  • Compare…and…with regard to…?
  • How does…effect or lead to…? What do you think causes…?
  • Do you agree and disagree with this statement: …? Support your answer.

Source: King, A. (1992). “Facilitating elaborative learning through guided student generated questioning.” Educational Psychologist. 27(1). 111-126.

Predicting test/exam questions

Listen for clues in lectures

  • Verbal clues: Professors often give clues to what will be on the exam so observe and listen carefully. Sometimes professors give direct instructions for the test while other clues can be more subtle. For example, if your instructor repeats an idea several times, writes it on the board, or returns to it in a subsequent lecture, you can be sure that it’s important enough to appear on an exam.
  • Non-verbal clues: Don’t forget that non-verbal cues such as gestures showing a critical point, pauses, and looking at notes indicate something is important. If a professor reads a section out loud, take note.
  • Questions: Pay close attention to questions the prof asks in lecture.
  • Outside readings: When your required readings are covered extensively in a lecture, you can bet they are important.

Study smarter, not harder

  • Put yourself into the professor’s head. What kind of questions would you ask? Refer to the learning objectives in the course outline or syllabus.
  • Save and review all graded materials. Quizzes, lab sheets, essays. Quiz questions often reappear on final exam in an altered form.
  • Get organized! Have a separate folder, file, or section in your notes labelled “Test Questions.”
  • Add questions on a regular basis. While the material is fresh (i.e., after each lecture and assignment), add possible test questions to your list.


Part of studying smarter is asking the person who knows — the professor! The format to the test can help you predict questions, so ask the professor how long the test will be and what kinds of questions to expect (e.g., multiple choice). Do this early in the term so that you can listen carefully in lectures from the beginning and brainstorm test questions appropriately.

Practice solving problems

For math and science courses, extend practice as needed: using homework questions, practice working them out anew, using different variables.

See also: Special Techniques for Math and Science Tests.


Adapted from: Ellis, D. (1995). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 168.


Self-testing as a study strategy

The key to self-testing is not to wait until right before your test! To be effective, the attributes of self-testing procedure should be in place over the course of the term. The following set the foundation for self-testing:

Reviewing lecture notes as soon as possible after each class.

◯ Identifying what you know and what hasn’t been clearly understood.

◯ Combining lecture and reading assignment notes into understandable summaries.

◯ Reviewing course material regularly instead of cramming.


Self-testing should be a part of each study session!

As noted above, effective studying involves reviewing course material on a regular basis. That means:

After lectures/tutorials

Lecture or tutorial notes need to be reviewed as soon as possible after each class. What does “reviewing” look like?

  • Test your knowledge and understanding using the notes containing examples and applications of concepts presented.
  • Relate new knowledge to previous topics covered.
  • Link old to new information, which will help you
    • understand the old information better,
    • remember all material covered, and
    • make predictions about what may occur next.

BONUS: Any information that was not well understood can be addressed immediately (asking questions in class, in tutorial).

After reading/note-making

At the end of each reading (e.g., chapter, journal article), set aside a part of your study session just to review your notes. Students often postpone self-testing until just before a scheduled test — it will still help to self-test, but by this time it’s too late for full effectiveness.


Brogue, C. (1993). Studying in the Content Areas: Science. Clearwater, FL: H&H Publishing Co.