Given how our wellbeing can have such a tremendous impact on our intellectual (academic) ability, your ENGWellness Team has created, updated, and revised a new (and even more beefy) Study Tips section! If you are feeling the pressure or just want to be proactive, below are some strategies and tips compiled from thoroughly supported scientific research. We've also included links to other departments on campus that support academic skill building!
Check out the drop-down boxes below for a compilation of the very best study habits (as per the research). For added comedic value, we've also included a list of the worst study habits that students use. In an effort to support our community through the quick transition to online learning, we've developed new guides to maximize your success in this digital age! Let's get learning:
Let's preface this section with the statement ‘everybody is different’, but we thought it would be important to highlight some of the ineffective things students do when studying or exam season arrives. Some people work well with what others might consider poor habits, but don’t adopt a specific practice just because it’s working for your friends and you feel like it should work for you. You may need to modify, refine, and adapt something to meet your particular needs – but that’s the joy of being human! The following is a list (based on current data, in no particular order) of the most ineffective study habits compiled from multiple studies (including our own observations).
No more fun and games… (“It’s so much fun studying for MODS!” – said no student ever…)
Being a student has its fun side, and that side shouldn’t be neglected even though you have work to do. In fact, taking the time to enjoy yourself is correlated with better academic performance! Not only that but a good mood improves the value of perceived rewards, like the gratification of new knowledge, the accomplishment of completing something, etc. An improved mood increases the intrinsic (internalized) reward felt by people when doing an activity which can assist with motivation .
Studies have proven a link between mood when studying and mood during information recall (i.e. during a test). Feeling in a particular mood when studying can have significant benefits (improved learning, thinking, memory, judgment), especially when you assume the same mood state when you are being tested . Now we know what you’re thinking… and no, being sad while studying and being sad while tested will NOT have the same results as being positive. Why? Because a relaxed and positive mood prompts our brains to be more strategic in it’s use of resources for processing information and paying attention . Basically, a positive mood increases cognitive flexibility. A negative mind is usually a pre-occupied and emotionally burdened one which tends to reallocate precious mental resources in unexpected (and often unhelpful) ways.
Participation in intramural and recreational programs also have linked improvements with grade point averages (instead of distracting from them) . Interestingly enough, modest gaming and computer use doesn’t have a negative impact on performance either (and we stress the word modest) .
Given the multitude of demands you’re all working with, we can understand how fun often takes a back seat to everything else. Just remember that there is actual value in having a good time once and awhile, with the added benefit of improved cognitive function. Find the time (any time) for something that you enjoy. Even five minutes here or there can make all the difference.
TL;DR: All work and no play makes for a dull student.
Neglecting your physical needs (“Who needs to eat when I have so many practice problems to choke down?!”)
We likely don’t need to lecture on the importance of good nutrition, adequate hydration, and modest exercise when it comes to cognitive efficiency, but we're going to do it anyway! They are important. In fact, we're so confident about the importance of these needs that we're not going to source the research. There is a TON of data which suggests that these baseline needs are key to maintaining optimal executive functioning (all the brain stuff).
Taking a brisk walk or jog as a study break; taking the stairs instead of the elevator; packing a lunch or some snacks before you head out for the day; and bringing a refillable water bottle with you can all make a substantial impact for how well your memory retains and recalls information and how well you can actually engage with the course content. So easy, yet so underrated.
TL;DR: Optimal performing student = food + water + occasional movement.
Neglecting sleep (“Sleep is for the weak!” – said no one with even the simplest understanding of physiological restorative processes!)
As always, time is your most precious resource as an Engineering student. And we're sure we all know that time spent in a sleep deprived fog is arguably time well wasted. Compromised sleep impacts your ability to focus and your concentration, yet it’s still a popular go-to for students just before an exam. Although it may seem obvious, research suggests that there is a clear association between sleep deprivation and poor academic performance . When sleep quality was assessed against neurocognitive performance (decision-making skills, memory function, attention, and most thinking in general), surprise surprise, poor sleep quality results in a decline in academic performance !
Now we were students once too back in the day, and we know there are a swath of factors that can lead to inadequate or unrestful sleep. It would serve you well (not just as a student, but think beyond that) to try to identify the factors preventing you from getting a good night’s rest. Are anxious or ruminating thoughts keeping you up or waking you up? Is it too hot/too cold in your room and you often wake up in a puddle or icicle? Are you eating, drinking, being rowdy too close to bedtime? These are all common reasons with some common and some uncommon solutions. The first step is to identify what factors are impacting your ability to sleep and methodically work to address them.
Now we struggled to find a source on this (mainly because it varies), but if you really want to highlight the importance of sleeping, it’s neat to work out how much of your life you spend catching zzzz’s. Assuming the average night’s sleep is eight hours (one third of a day), and further assuming you live to say the age of 75. Well, that’s simple enough math, right? 9,125 days… 25 years. A third of your life is spent asleep (and for good reason)!
Brute force studying (“If I can just grind out these chapters in 32 hours straight, I’ll be done studying!”)
Again, we get it. Time being the determining factor, sometimes cramming is a reality for a lot of us. Although it may be an effective process for some (and we would truly argue the use of the word effective here), research suggests it’s not the best way to engage large blocks of content. Especially for those hoping to commit some of it to memory! Indeed, spacing up your studying into smaller, more manageable increments is the solution . There is even a robust amount of data supporting the act of taking breaks to improve focus and concentration . Remember, study hours are not proportional to the quality of studying!
TL;DR: Space out your study sessions (more on that below) and pause once in awhile. Try something like the Pomodoro technique or a similar variant.
The BEST Study Habits money can buy:
Let's again preface this with, ‘everybody is different’. The following is a compilation of the latest research for what are considered the best (or most optimal) study habits and strategies (in no particular order). As with the above, don’t neglect the baseline needs for productivity (good nutrition, adequate hydration, and modest exercise) along with sleeping. These habits work best when you are at your physical and mental best. Here we go!
Grouping bits of information (aka. ‘Chunking’)
Our brains LOVE correlations and information that relates with other bits of information. In fact, it’s much easier to retain and recall information if it is chunked together. But what is chunking besides a very uncomfortable word to type? Chunking is to break down information into meaningful groups, even if they are comprised from different chapters or subjects. It’s essentially how we organize the information in our brains (and into smaller more meaningful groups or units). This way of organizing the information optimizes the organization within our memory and improves how we learn .
Spacing out study sessions
And no, we don’t mean ‘spaced out’ as in, you’re completely out of it. Space OUT your study sessions and then wait for a while. This is the opposite (and more beneficial) habit to the brute force studying method referenced above. Spacing out your study sessions (or what topics/courses you are studying) leads to more robust memory formation . Research shows that distributing learning over time and repeating information over increasing periods strengthens memories and buffers against information decay (forgetting). There are two particular techniques that utilize the spacing concept:
Spaced Repetition: The first time you use spacing and revise your study material, wait for a few minutes and go back to it. Then wait for 30 mins. Then 1 hour… then four. Eventually, you should break up the studying of certain subjects by longer and longer intervals (days). This practice reinforces the information in your memory and limits the amount of information decay!
Distributed Practice: Is the same as spaced repetition above, but without increasing the time intervals. So you would study specific subjects/courses every 30-40 hours as an example. You distribute your learning over time which helps to solidify those neural pathways.
TL;DR: Spacing out your studying of specific concepts, subjects, and/or courses is a more efficient way to use memory.
Let’s imagine that you have three topics (A, B, C) that you need to study for the next five days. An inefficient yet common technique would be to spend time on A and then move to B and then to C. Interleaving is studying concepts in pseudo-parallel instead of sequentially. Instead of studying AAABBBCCC, Interleaving suggests that we should do ABC ABC ABC, and for good reason. Interleaving has proven more beneficial for those studying related concepts . Especially those studying mathematical concepts ! Full disclosure, due to how new the idea of interleaving is in learning, this study method might take some getting used to (as it goes against the conventional ‘massed learning’ which exists almost everywhere).
So, in example, you take your topic A and then spend mini-blocks of 30 mins on A, 30 on B, 30 on C. Plan your studying as ABC ABC ABC or get creative (ABC, ACB, BCA). All of these should be short interleaved sessions and you should repeat the study pattern over a long period of time; not in a single stretch. Combine with the spacing technique above and buckle up.
TL;DR: Try studying related concepts/subjects in parallel instead of sequentially.
Absorbing and taking in information is one piece of the puzzle, the other is to accurately recall that information when presented with a test. Simply reading your notes and texts does not guarantee remembering (as I’m sure a lot of us already know!). The ability to remember (recall) is a developed skill and the key to enhancing it is to PRACTICE ! Do your assignments (or redo them) and make use of whatever practice problems or tests you can. You can strengthen your understanding of a specific concept by repeatedly testing yourself . In fact, this practice works best when combined with the other methods above (like chunking or spacing)!
There is one psychological trick to this technique however. It turns out that pressure (or a lack of confidence) can impact the effectiveness of retrieval and recall . The key is to feel confident that what you are doing is effective and is working for you. Combine this technique with some of the other best tips, and you will begin to notice a substantial improvement in how you study.
TL;DR: Practice makes perfect!
Make it Relate
There is a good amount of data that supports the notion that you know things better that relate to you (if you doubt this, what’s your birthday? Now how do you spell my surname? – no peaking!) and this understanding can prove quite useful when studying. Of course, the methods through which individuals make information relate more to them or their experience varies, but here are a couple of standard ones that several students already use:
Vary cognitive representations: What the heck is a cognitive representation you ask? It’s how you represent something… in your head. OK – uh – let’s use something you’re familiar with as an example. How about a good ol’ formula! Well, you can write out the formula as it’s expressed mathematically (boring), but that’s not varying the representation in your mind (maybe if you colour it a bit). Instead, speak the formula in words. Draw it mentally or write it on paper using different symbols. The more ways you can represent it (as long as it makes sense to you), the better!
Teach back the material: Sure, sitting and absorbing the text is a good time for some, but if you’re not practicing retrieval you’re not strengthening your ability to recall that information. Further to that, teaching back what you’ve learned to someone else is a tried and proven way to enhance memory retrieval AND make the information relate more to you. Pro tip: don’t teach back the information verbatim. Vary your vocabulary and pretend you’re talking to a wellness coordinator who understands little about the exciting and intricate world of thermodynamics. If you’re pressed to find someone to talk at, you can even do this practice yourself by speaking the information out loud (and again, varying the complexity of your vocabulary).
Ask questions: It’s always good practice to ask Profs and TAs for clarification when needed, but another great practice is to form your own questions regarding the content. The key here is that you’re able to formulate an answer (ambiguous content that you don’t quite fully understand might not be the best choice for this tip) and again vary the representation of that answer. You could ask ‘what if’ type questions and further extrapolate how the information you’re learning relates to the real world. This again reinforces those neural pathways for recall.
TL;DR: The more meaningful the information is the more likely you’ll remember it.
The Science behind Taking a Break
We added a link above that highlighted the importance of taking a break once in awhile, but let’s just say we got lost down the rabbit hole of research around ‘breaks’ and, well, it’s actually considerably important. So important, our updated version of this guide will now include a section on the importance of taking a break! We know you’re all so eager to hear the scoop!
A study out of the University of Illinois sought to determine the effectiveness of prolonged work or study periods without a break. The results were what you would expect – those who diverted from the allocated 50 min task were able to stay sharp and focused when they returned. The other group (without a break) had a notable decline in performance. Amazingly, performance for the group that took breaks seemed to be unimpaired by time ! Another study from the University of South Florida and the University of California found a correlation between the length of a break and how long information was retained !
The jury is out, folks, and taking a break is proven to be beneficial for learning, studying, and memory. While the above studies suggest that a break-time is a crucial component for any study session, it’s important to understand that there are both effective and ineffective ways to break. Facebook and social media as an example have linked increases to stress and anxiety (sorry, Zuck), whereas exercise, engaging with people in real-time, or walking around in nature all have positive impacts! Even if you can’t physically move (don’t wanna lose that sweet study spot), breaking by reviewing different content can help. That poor neglected CSE isn’t going to study itself!
Just remember that life is full of setbacks and letdowns. The trick is to learn and grow from your situation and experiences. It’s okay to make mistakes, but what’s not okay is to not learn anything from them. Failing is another opportunity to get it right!
Thanks for checking out our section on general study tips and strategies! If you're ready to take your learning to the next step, take a look at some of our resources on Online Learning! There are also fantastic Learning Resources to be found at the Student Success Office. Happy studying!
If you're if you're digging for more tips, please contact us at: ENGWellness@uwaterloo.ca!