I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been an awful studier in the past. My notes were mediocre, I barely opened my textbooks, and studying for a test consisted of looking over pages of notes the night before the test. Since I was able to get by with my bad study habits for so long, I figured I must be doing something right. Last semester, however, one of my professors went over her best studying techniques from college and completely changed the way I studied from that point on.

This might not be revolutionary or new to some of you, but for those students out there who simply don’t know how to study correctly, this will help give you some direction.

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Taking Notes

Depending on how your professor lectures, the way you take notes might change slightly. Some professors rely heavily on textbooks, while others use their own notes to highlight the more important parts of the lesson.

What I’ve noticed when taking notes in class is that the more I write, the less information I take in. So instead of trying to write down every word the professor is saying, I started listening to what was being said first, and then jotted down notes about areas that seemed important. Some of the key parts of lectures I write down in my notes are:

  • Keywords/definitions
  • Dates
  • Names
  • Specific chapters/headings in the textbook

I use my notes primarily as a way to recall points in the lecture. I might write down the name of an important person mentioned in the lecture, then write down a couple of words to remind me of who they are. For example, I could write:

Frederick Taylor: Father of scientific management, stressed efficiency and simplifying jobs. Wrote Principles of Scientific Management.

This isn’t a lot of information, but it’s enough to jog my memory. Since I wasn’t focused on writing down everything the professor mentioned about Taylor, my brain was able to focus more on the context of what was being said rather than just the words.

I know this particular method won’t work for everyone. It requires you to be a very good listener and have a fairly decent memory to recall the lecture. But that’s why we have nifty little devices called recorders.
If you have problems remembering information from lectures, grab a voice recorder to record your lectures. Even if you do use my method, having a voice recorder is still a great idea because you can play back certain parts of the lecture to recollect your memory. Recorded lectures will also come in handy in the next part of my studying method.

Editor’s Note: It’s a good idea to ask your professors for permission before recording lectures.

Re-Writing Your Notes

This is the part my professor taught me that really took my studying to the next level. A lot of times as college students, we can try to get by with doing as little work as possible. But putting in a little extra effort can go a long way. You’re paying for the classes, so you might as well get the most out of them, right?

What this step involves is exactly what the heading implies: We’re going to re-write the notes we took in class. The more times you see something, the more likely you are to take in the information and actually learn it, rather than just memorize it.

I’m a marketing guy, so I like to reference the Rule of Seven. The Rule of Seven says that a customer has to see an ad at least seven times before they will purchase a product or service. The reason I bring this up is to show the power of repetition.

The first time you write your notes (even using my method above), you may find that you have a ton of information that’s unorganized or incomplete. You’ll also probably have tons of pages worth of notes which is a big no-no.

You’re not going to re-write your notes word for word. The goal here is to re-write the notes in a more structured and contracted form similar to an outline. You want to be able to easily skim your notes, so including headings and bullets can be really helpful.

If you record your lectures, you can use the audio to reference any specific points of interest or importance.

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The Role of Your Textbook

The importance of your textbook will depend on your professor. Like I mentioned in the beginning, some instructors rely heavily on textbooks while others use it as a reference point. The method my professor taught me doesn’t require much use of the textbook at all — which is what I really like about it.

I’ve found that, for most classes, the information that’s on exams mostly comes from what the instructor is talking about during the lecture. Your textbook should be used as a reference point, not as your primary studying material. The bulk of what you’re studying should come from the notes you take in class.


In sales, they use the acronym ABC, which means “Always Be Closing.” For students, I say ABS  – Always Be Studying. What this basically means is: Don’t wait until two days before an exam to look at your notes. You should be studying from your notes on a regular basis.

I struggled with this for years; but once I realized that it’s actually a lot easier to study gradually over the course of several days or weeks instead of cramming in one night. I saw huge improvements and was a lot less stressed during exams.

Imagine if a boxer waited until a couple of days before a fight to start studying their opponent. They would have a general idea of what to expect, but nowhere near as much information as they would have if they had been studying all of the opponent’s fights for weeks. You have to develop the same mentality when you study for a test.

The more time you take to study, the more information you’re able to absorb. When it’s time for an exam, you’re more than prepared. You don’t have to worry about whether or not you know all the material because you’ve been looking at it for weeks. At that point, the exam is as easy as filling out an information sheet at the doctor’s office. You know all the answers and it’s just a matter of putting it down on paper.

The takeaway here is that, the better prepared you are, the less pressure you’re going to be under. Compare the quality of a microwave pizza to one made with homemade dough, fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes, and fresh-sliced pepperoni. The homemade pizza requires more work and patience, but the outcome is so much better than the frozen alternative.

Similarly, when you put the extra time and effort into studying, you’ll see much better results.

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Image: Jenn Vargas