Learning at college requires processing and retaining a high volume of information across various disciplines and subjects at the same time, which can be a daunting task, especially if the information is brand new. In response, college students try out varied approaches to their learning – often drawing from their high school experiences and modeling what they see their peers doing. While it’s great to try different styles and approaches to learning and studying for your courses, it's smart to incorporate into your daily habits some learning practices that are backed up by current research.
Below are some effective learning practices suggested by research in the cognitive and learning sciences:
Take ownership of your educational experience.
As an engaged learner, it is important to take an active, self-directed role in your academic experience. Taking agency might feel new to you. In high school, you might have felt like you had little control over your learning experience, so transitioning to an environment where you are implicitly expected to be in the driver’s seat can be disorienting.
A shift in your mindset regarding your agency, however, can make a big difference in your ability to learn effectively and get the results you want out of your courses.
Here are four concrete actions you can take to assert ownership over your education:
- Attend office hours. Come prepared with questions for your instructor about lectures, readings, or other aspects of the course.
- Schedule meetings with administrators and faculty to discuss your academic trajectory and educational goals. You might meet with your academic adviser, course heads, or the Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS) in your concentration.
- Identify areas for growth and development based on your academic goals. Then, explore opportunities to shape and further refine your skills in those areas.
- Advocate for support, tools, equipment, or considerations that address your learning needs.
Seek out opportunities for active learning.
Many courses include opportunities for active and engaged learning within their structure. Take advantage of those opportunities in order to enhance your understanding of the material. If such opportunities are not built into the course structure, you can develop your own active learning strategies, including joining study groups and using other active studying techniques. Anytime you grapple actively with your course material, rather than taking it in passively, you’re engaging in active learning. By doing so, you are increasing your retention of key course concepts.
One particularly effective way to help yourself stay focused and engaged in the learning process is to cultivate learning communities, such as accountability groups and study groups. Working in the company of other engaged learners can help remind you why you love learning or why you chose a particular course, concentration, research project, or field of study. Those reminders can re-energize and refocus your efforts.
Practice study strategies that promote deep learning.
In an attempt to keep up with the demands of college, many students learn concepts just in time for assessment benchmarks (tests, exams, and quizzes). The problem with this methodology is that, for many disciplines (and especially in STEM), the concepts build on one another. Students survive the course only to be met at the final with concepts from the first quiz that they have forgotten long ago. This is why deep learning is important. Deep learning occurs when students use study strategies that ensure course ideas and concepts are embedded into long-term, rather than just short-term, memory. Building your study plans and review sessions in a way that helps create a conceptual framing of the material will serve you now and in the long run.
Here are some study strategies that promote deep learning:
Concept Mapping: A concept map is a visualization of knowledge that is organized by the relationships between the topics. At its core, it is made of concepts that are connected together by lines (or arrows) that are labeled with the relationship between the concepts.
Collaboration: You don’t have to go it alone. In fact, research on learning suggests that it’s best not to. Using study groups, ARC accountability hours, office hours, question centers, and other opportunities to engage with your peers helps you not only test your understanding but also learn different approaches to tackling the material.
Self-test: Quiz yourself about the material you need to know with your notes put away. Refamiliarize yourself with the answers to questions you get wrong, wait a few hours, and then try asking yourself again. Use practice tests provided by your courses or use free apps to create quizzes for yourself.
Create a connection: As you try to understand how all the concepts and ideas from your course fit together, try to associate new information with something you already know. Making connections can help you create a more holistic picture of the material you’re learning.
Teach someone (even yourself!): Try teaching someone the concept you’re trying to remember. You can even try to talk to yourself about it! Vocalizing helps activate different sensory processes, which can enhance memory and help you embed concepts more deeply.
Interleave: We often think we’ll do best if we study one subject for long periods of time, but research contradicts this. Try to work with smaller units of time (a half-hour to an hour) and switch up your subjects. Return to concepts you studied earlier at intervals to ensure you learned them sufficiently.
Be intentional about getting started and avoiding procrastination.
When students struggle to complete tasks and projects, their procrastination is not because of laziness, but rather because of the anxiety and negative emotions that accompany starting the task. Understanding what conditions promote or derail your intention to begin a task can help you avoid procrastinating.
Consider the following tips for getting started:
Eat the Frog: The frog is that one thing you have on your to-do list that you have absolutely no motivation to do and that you’re most likely to procrastinate on. Eating the frog means to just do it, as the first thing you do, and get it over with. If you don’t, odds are that you’ll procrastinate all day. With that one task done, you will experience a sense of accomplishment at the beginning of your day and gain some momentum that will help you move through the rest of your tasks.
Pomodoro Technique: Sometimes, we can procrastinate because we’re overwhelmed by the sheer amount of time we expect it will take to complete a task. But, while it might feel hard to sit down for several hours to work on something, most of us feel we can easily work for a half hour on almost any task. Enter the Pomodoro Technique! When faced with any large task or series of tasks, break the work down into short, timed intervals (25 minutes or so) that are spaced out by short breaks (5 minutes). Working in short intervals trains your brain to focus for manageable periods of time and helps you stay on top of deadlines. With time, the Pomodoro Technique can even help improve your attention span and concentration. Pomodoro is a cyclical system. You work in short sprints, which makes sure you’re consistently productive. You also get to take regular breaks that bolster your motivation and get you ready for your next pomodoro.
Distraction Pads: Sometimes we stop a task that took us a lot of time to get started on because we get distracted by something else. To avoid this, have a notepad beside you while working, and every time you get distracted with a thought, write it down, then push it aside for later. Distracting thoughts can be anything from remembering that you still have another assignment to complete to daydreaming about your next meal. Later on in the day, when you have some free time, you can review your distraction pad to see if any of those thoughts are important and need to be addressed.
Online Apps: It can be hard to rely on our own force of will to get ourselves to start a task, so consider using an external support. There are many self-control apps available for free online (search for "self-control apps"). Check out a few and decide on one that seems most likely to help you eliminate the distractions that can get in the way of starting and completing your work.
Engage in metacognition.
An effective skill for learning is metacognition. Metacognition is the process of “thinking about thinking” or reflecting on personal habits, knowledge, and approaches to learning. Engaging in metacognition enables students to become aware of what they need to do to initiate and persist in tasks, to evaluate their own learning strategies, and to invest the adequate mental effort to succeed. When students work at being aware of their own thinking and learning, they are more likely to recognize patterns and to intentionally transfer knowledge and skills to solve increasingly complex problems. They also develop a greater sense of self-efficacy.
Mentally checking in with yourself while you study is a great metacognitive technique for assessing your level of understanding. Asking lots of “why,” “how,” and “what” questions about the material you’re reviewing helps you to be reflective about your learning and to strategize about how to tackle tricky material. If you know something, you should be able to explain to yourself how you know it. If you don’t know something, you should start by identifying exactly what you don’t know and determining how you can find the answer.
Metacognition is important in helping us overcome illusions of competence (our brain’s natural inclination to think that we know more than we actually know). All too often students don’t discover what they really know until they take a test. Metacognition helps you be a better judge of how well you understand your course material, which then enables you to refine your approach to studying and better prepare for tests.