Study Smarter

Not remembering what you study?
Feeling lost during lectures?
Not doing as well as you would like on exams?

It can be very frustrating to work hard studying and attending class, and still not perform well. It can seem like the information from lecture and study time just doesn't seem to stick.

Making even small changes in the way you read a textbook or take notes can make a big impact on how well you retain information. Try these study strategies to be successful in your classes, and check out the active reading strategies to help retain the information you read while studying.

 Active learning while reading

College students spend more time learning independently outside of the classroom than inside. Much of this independent study includes reading. It is important for college students to incorporate active learning strategies while reading in order to get the most out of study time. The following are effective reading strategies to help you engage with, and get the most out of, the learning you do outside the classroom:

Before you start reading:

  • Read when you’re alert and have enough time to read a text more than once.
  • Avoid distractions: Absorbing information from reading takes place in your short-term memory. Every time you move from task to task, you have to “reboot” your short-term memory and you lose the continuity of active reading. Multitasking—listening to music or texting on your cell while you read—will cause you to lose your place and force you to start over again. Every time you lose focus, you cut your effectiveness and increase the amount of time you need to complete the assignment.
  • Choose the right place. Read in a quiet, well-lit space. Libraries were designed for reading—they should be your first option! Don’t use your bed for reading textbooks; since the time you were read bedtime stories, you have probably associated reading in bed with preparation for sleeping. The combination of the cozy bed and dry text are sure to invite some shut-eye!
  • Foster an attitude of intellectual curiosity. You might not love all of the writing you’re asked to read and analyze, but you should have something interesting to say about it, even if that “something” is critical.
  • Preview the text. Explore how your text is organized. Many textbooks include resources to draw your attention to important parts. Preview learning objectives, chapter summaries, headings and subheadings, and end of chapter questions.
    Develop questions you want to answer before reading the chapter. Having prepared questions gives your reading a purpose.

While reading:

  • Write in your reading material. Underline important statements, circle vocabulary words, write questions or comments in the margins. Interact with the ideas in the margins (summarize ideas; ask questions; paraphrase difficult sentences; make personal connections; answer questions asked earlier; challenge the author; etc.). The writing serves as a visual aid for studying and makes it easier for you to remember what you’ve read or what you’d like to discuss in class. If you are borrowing a book or want to keep it unmarked so you can resell it later, try writing keywords and notes on Post-its and sticking them on the relevant pages.
  • Avoid over highlighting. Most readers tend to highlight too much, hiding key ideas in a sea of yellow lines, making it difficult to pick out the main points when it is time to review. When it comes to highlighting, less is more. Think critically before you highlight. Your choices will have a big impact on what you study and learn for the course. Make it your objective to highlight no more than 15-25% of what you read. Use highlighting after you have read a section to note the most important points, key terms, and concepts. You can’t know what the most important thing is unless you’ve read the whole section, so don’t highlight as you read.
  • Read in chunks. Read a section then reflect on what the section was about. Annotate, highlight, draw a picture, etc. after each section. Reflect if the section has answered any of your questions you developed while previewing the text. If so, summarize in your own words the answer to the question!
  • Re-read difficult sections. Each time you read a section, you’ll pick up something new. It’s not uncommon to have to read a section multiple times before the content is understandable and you are able to retain the information.
  • Avoid reading fatigue. Work for about fifty minutes, and then give yourself a break for five to ten minutes. Put down the book, walk around, get a snack, or stretch. Short physical activity will do wonders to help you feel refreshed.

After reading:

  • Review (more than once!): Within a day of reading, review your notes and recite main points out loud. This will help move information from short-term to long-term memory. Before class review your notes on the assigned reading. Have questions prepared of topics you didn’t understand. Be ready to reflect on how the lecture or classroom activities enhance the material. Review material a few times a week so you’re not cramming for an exam.
  • Look up unfamiliar words or concepts. The Oxford English Dictionary  is a good place to define words. You can also Google unfamiliar subjects. The Web is has a plethora of information to aid your learning (make sure to evaluate the credibility of the source; your instructor may be able to recommend websites to supplement required readings to support learning).


SQ3R is a reading comprehension method named for its five steps: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review.

The method offers an efficient and active approach to reading textbook material. It was created for college students but is extremely useful in a variety of situations. Classrooms all over the world have begun using this method to better understand what they’re reading.

  • Survey –You can gain insight from an academic text before you even begin the reading assignment. For example, if you are assigned a nonfiction book, read the title, the back of the book, and table of contents. Scanning this information can give you an initial idea of what you’ll be reading and some useful context for thinking about it. You can also start to make connections between the new reading and knowledge you already have, which is another strategy for retaining information. Survey the document by scanning its contents, gathering the necessary information to focus on topics and help set study goals.
    • Read the title, introduction, summary or a chapter’s first paragraph(s). This helps to orient yourself to how this chapter is organized and to understand the topic’s key points.
    • Go through each boldface heading and subheading. This will help you to create a mental structure for the topic.
    • Check all graphics and captions closely. They’re there to emphasize certain points and provide rich additional information.
    • Check reading aids and any footnotes. Emphasized text (italics, bold font, etc.) is typically introduced to catch the reader’s attention or to provide clarification.
  • Question – During this stage, you should note any questions on the subjects contained in the document. It is helpful to survey the textbook again, this time writing down the questions that you create while scanning each section. You can easily find what questions need to be answered by looking at the Learning Objectives at the beginning of a chapter, the headings, and subheadings within the chapter and the Chapter Summary or Key Points at the end of a chapter. These questions become study goals and they will become information you’ll actively search later on while going through each section in detail.
    • Write your questions down so you can fill in the answers as you read.
    • Make sure to answer the questions in your own words, rather than copying directly from the text.
  • Read – Read each section thoroughly, keeping your questions in mind. Try to find the answers and identify if you need additional ones. Mind Mapping can probably help to make sense of and correlate all the information.
  • Recall/Recite – In the recall (or recite) stage, you should go through what you read and try to answer the questions you noted before. Check in after every section, chapter or topic to make sure you understand the material and can explain it, in your own words.  It’s worth taking the time to write a short summary, even if your instructor doesn’t require it. The exercise of jotting down a few sentences or a short paragraph capturing the main ideas of the reading is enormously beneficial: it not only helps you understand and absorb what you read but gives you ready study and review materials for exams and other writing assignments. Pretend you are responsible for teaching this section to someone else. Can you do it?   It’s at this stage that you consolidate knowledge, so refrain from moving on until you can recall the core information.
  • Review – Reviewing all the collected information is the final step of the process. In this stage, you can review the collected information, go through any particular chapter, expand your own notes, or discuss the topics with colleagues and other experts. An excellent way to consolidate information is to present or teach it to someone else. It always helps to revisit what you’ve read for a quick refresher. Before class discussions or tests, it’s a good idea to review your questions, summaries and any other notes you have taken.
    The following video is an overview of the steps of the SQ3R System.


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