Advice on how to study by making the best use of your time, creating a good study environment, reading and making notes effectively, keeping organised and finding appropriate resources.
Making the best use of your time
In today’s busy world we all struggle to find enough time to do everything that we need to achieve. This is particularly so when studying. Many students are balancing a number of other commitments such as a job and family responsibilities as well as study. Given the difficulty of juggling all these, good time management is vital.
When to study
An important starting point is deciding when to study. Some students decide to study for a small period of time every day. Some work better in the mornings while others are more effective later in the day. Others have just one or two days a week when they devote a longer period to study. You’ll need to decide what works best for you.
It's important not to set out with study plans which are doomed to failure. If you’re working full time it’s not realistic to study for several hours at the end of the day. You’ll need to work out what’s possible for you, and sustainable, given your other commitments.
It is possible to do little more than work and study, but only for a short period of time. Your concentration and health will suffer if there are no breaks in working and studying. So it’s important to schedule appropriate time for leisure which might be a hobby, meeting friends, playing games or just watching television.
Making good use of ‘dead time’
Effective time management requires you to be aware of how all your time is spent. It can be useful occasionally to analyse a week’s activity and to identify any ‘dead time’ - time when you’re not really doing anything useful. For many students, it is travel time. It’s possible to take a book on a bus or train or listen to a podcast and use the travelling time to study. Some students make notes onto a portable device such as an iPod, though obviously, this is not possible if you’re driving yourself!
When time for study comes, it’s important that you use it for study and avoid distractions. It’s strongly recommended that you turn off your phone when studying and make close friends and family aware of the times when you’ll be unavailable because you’re studying.
Not repeating tasks
It’s easy to waste considerable amounts of time looking for notes, remembering what has already been studied and finding appropriate sections in notes and textbooks. It is important that you keep clear records of what you’ve studied, make effective notes and keep them in an organised way. If your study materials are not kept neatly, you’ll waste time in every study session in sorting them out.
Making a plan
All studying should be planned before starting. Make sure you know any relevant deadlines – such as dates of exams or dates that coursework must be completed. It’s then important to work out how long it will take to study the material that has to be covered: tutors should be able to advise on this. You then need to write out a plan, clearly identifying what parts of the material need to be covered each week.
It is quite possible that unforeseen events, such as illness, will occur which disrupt your plans. So if at all possible, it’s helpful to build some contingency into your plan that allows for work to be rescheduled.
Although it is important for students to study all the relevant material, studying will not be successful if it is just a process of rushing through material which is not properly learnt. You should build time into your study plan to test understanding and knowledge. Tutors should be able to provide sample questions that could be used to test what has been absorbed from the study process. If you feel you’re struggling because you don’t understand the material, speak to your personal tutor. It’s very important not to delay in asking for help.
Creating an appropriate environment
As well as effective time management, it’s also crucial to create an environment that is conducive to study.
Finding a suitable place to study
A suitable place for study is quiet, free from interruptions and somewhere where study materials can be stored without them being disturbed by someone else. For some students there will be an appropriate place to study where you are living. For others this may not be possible, and locations such as a library, resource centre, a quiet room in your workplace or a room at a friend’s house will be more appropriate. Having a place that you associate with study will help you focus on study when you are there – some students have a ‘favourite’ seat in the library, for instance, though try to avoid getting too dependent on this as it may not always be free when you want it!
You may want to consider whether studying in the same room you sleep in works for you. If possible, and unless you are living in a study-bedroom combined, students should avoid studying in their bedrooms. Sleep can be disrupted when the place of study becomes associated with the place of sleep. If this is unavoidable, try to have a specific part of the room devoted to study rather than the whole room containing study material.
Studying can be a lonely process. Working with other students can make the whole learning process more fun and can also be more motivating than working alone. Many courses offer group work assignments to combat this as well as to offer shared learning experiences.
To remove the loneliness of learning, consider:
Taking turns in hosting a study session, set an agenda, organise contributions or plan a debate.
Setting up an e-group so that information can be shared quickly and easily – students can e-mail each other with information about interesting media programmes and articles. Your college’s shared online learning resources may offer this kind of facility.
Sharing research and reading by splitting up subjects and asking for summaries and highlights of key points.
Circulating your discoveries and case examples to ensure that all are aware of the hottest topics.
Reviewing and providing feedback on other students' assignments or practice exam questions.
For those in study-related jobs, visiting other students’ workplaces to broaden your knowledge and understanding.
Students spend a lot of study time reading and reading for study is a different process from leisure reading. It’s important that your reading process is effective, so that you don’t need to re-read what you’ve already covered at the start of the next study session.
One approach that can be useful is SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recall, Review):
Survey - The starting point is get an overview of the text by reading the title, the contents list, the summary if there is one. By doing this you can determine whether it is relevant. It’s also important to use the survey technique to find out if all the text is relevant or just certain parts. It’s easy to waste time by reading irrelevant material.
Question – It’s necessary to ask yourself questions about what you’re reading. You might ask what a chapter is about and how the information will help you. You can turn the headings and sub-headings into questions and look for answers in the text.
Read - The next step is to read the material. Take time at the end of each section to reflect on what you’ve read and to make notes (see the next section). Highlight key words and phrases (assuming what you’re reading is your own personal copy!).
Recall - Before moving on it’s important to take time to recall the main points of the text. If you can’t, it suggests that you’ve not really absorbed what you’ve read and it might be necessary to re-read the relevant parts.
Review - The final step is to think about what has just been read. How does it fit in with the topic that you are studying? How can the material be used? Has the reading introduced any new terms and concepts that are not understood? How can this be addressed?
There are other reading techniques (see Useful contacts), though most focus on a quick scan, an in-depth read, and time to process what you’ve read. Try a few to see what works for you.
Making notes effectively
You’ll probably expect to make notes when you are in lectures (very few people can manage without doing this), but it’s crucial that you also make effective notes when you study by yourself. If you haven’t got notes, then much of the studying process has to be repeated when it comes to preparing for writing coursework or sitting an exam.
As with reading, people have their own preferences for note-taking and you may need to try a few ways to see works well for you. Possible approaches are:
drawing mind maps (diagrams which show the links between different concepts or points) as a pictorial way of showing the key themes
using bullet points to summarise main points under each heading
writing out quite lengthy notes, summarising information in your own words. As well as recording notes that can be used in the future this is also a useful way of testing understanding of the material
using a different coloured pen (or a highlighter) when writing exact words from the text so you can detect these later when looking for possible quotes.
It is very important to keep a reference of the source of all your notes. It’s good to get into the habit of doing this at the start of each new section of notes, or for each lecture. Any material that you later use in coursework has to be referenced, so you'll need to have a record of the full reference or the material will not be usable. It’s easy to waste a lot of time later on trying to locate the source of information you’ve previously studied if you haven’t noted it down at the time.
Keeping your study materials organised
As your course gets underway, you’re likely to accumulate paper – lecture notes, notes from your reading, tutor handouts, completed tasks, and so on. It’s important to be organised about filing these papers. Possible approaches are:
using spiral-bound notebooks for lecture notes – a different one for each set of lectures so all your notes on one topic are together
having a set of folders – with different colours for different topics
using section dividers for different types of materials or for different subjects within the topic.
Much of your work is likely to be held in computer files so it’s also important to keep these organised in such a way that you can easily find your documents again. You’ll also need to make sure you back-up your files.
Finding appropriate resources
It’s important not to waste study time in using unsuitable sources. Some of these sources will be defined by the tutor who has set the work. However, you’ll also be expected to find your own appropriate sources.
Textbooks may be consulted in some public libraries, college or university libraries, or purchased.
Journals may also be available from your college or university library as paper copies or online. CIPD has a large range of online journal articles which CIPD members can access via the CIPD website. [link]
All students look for information online. But while there are many excellent websites, you do need to take care because not all websites are reliable. When looking at an unfamiliar website, ask yourself:
- who wrote the text and what are their credentials?
- is the author likely to be biased in what they say?
- how old is the information?
It can be hard to find answers to these questions so students are often advised to keep to websites of well-respected organisations such as the CIPD, academic institutions and government bodies.
Companies own websites often provide useful material. Information relating to a large number of companies can also be accessed by CIPD members through the CIPD website.
Useful contacts and books
COTTRELL, S. (2013) The study skills handbook. 4th ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
HORN. R. (2009) The business skills handbook. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
NORTHEDGE, A. (2005) The good study guide. 2nd ed. Milton Keynes: Open University.
OPEN UNIVERSITY. (2007) Develop effective study strategies. Milton Keynes: Open University
OPEN UNIVERSITY. (2007) Reading and taking notes. Milton Keynes: Open University
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