How to Study for College Exams

female student studying for college exams in library

Students are often unsure of how to study for college exams, even if they maintained good studying habits in high school. During your freshman year in particular, college exams can seem a little intimidating. The good news is that there are plenty of proven habits and techniques you can apply to boost your grades.

In addition, you should know that if you’re unsure of how to study for tests in college, then it’s likely that many of your peers are unsure as well. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help, form a study group with your classmates or contact the student resources department to inquire about tutoring availability.

Creating a Distraction-Free Study Space

Privacy can be hard to come by in a college dorm. However, you can still create a distraction-free study space. Try turning your desk to face the wall instead of the window or your roommate’s desk.

You can also wear noise-canceling headphones to block out sound while you work. If you listen to music, stick to tracks without vocals, as these are less distracting. And if you still find yourself distracted by your roommate’s TV, talk to them about scheduling mutual study times during which the TV will remain off.

Learning How to Take Good Notes During Class

The next step in figuring out how to study for college exams is learning how to take good class notes that you can review later. Focus on writing down the most important information, such as key concepts, themes, processes and dates, versus every word. You can also develop your own abbreviations to speed up note taking, like:

  • B/t: between
  • Diff: difference
  • B/c: because
  • W/: with
  • E.g.: for example
  • Gov’t: government
  • Impt: important
  • Mov’t: movement

Many students can type faster than they can write and bring their laptop to class instead. Proper note taking requires a balance between actively listening to the lecture and writing down notes; note taking and keeping up with the discussion are both important.

Keeping Your Class Materials Organized

During the course of a semester, you’ll acquire a sizable collection of class materials, including graded homework assignments, quizzes, study guides, handouts and so on. Use a separate folder for each class to keep everything organized for the duration of the semester. If a professor finds that a concept or term is important enough to include on a quiz or homework assignment, then it’s also likely to show up on a major exam. Reviewing past work and class handouts can help to prepare you for midterms and finals.

How to Study for College Exams by Creating a Schedule

One common mistake college students make is to not think about how to study for tests in college until they’re faced with a major exam one or two weeks away. The best way to study in college is to study every single day, regardless of how far away the next major exam is. By studying every day, you’ll avoid having to frantically cram for a test (which is not an effective studying method).

Each semester, you’ll develop a new schedule of classes, labs and extracurricular activities. While you’re finalizing your new schedule, you should designate blocks of time for studying every day.

It’s perfectly fine to vary the lengths of your study sessions. In fact, it can be helpful to break up your studying time into smaller blocks. For example, you might study for 20 minutes first thing in the morning, followed by a half-hour block later that day.

Experimenting With Different Studying Techniques

There are a number of established studying techniques you can use to improve your memory retention. Know that what works for someone else might not necessarily be the best method for you. So, experiment with different methods and stick with whatever works best for you.

The Leitner System

The Leitner System will be familiar to students who used flashcards in grade school. This particular method of flashcard studying uses spaced repetition, which refers to memorizing facts over periods of time, rather than trying to memorize the facts all at once. Plus, it’s customizable for your particular strengths and weaknesses on the subject matter.

To get started, you’ll need three small boxes to hold three sets of flashcards. You can use shoeboxes if you have them or you could repurpose three empty envelope boxes. Label them as follows:

  • Box 1: Review every day
  • Box 2: Review every other day
  • Box 3: Review once per week

You’ll also need to create flashcards with the question on one side of a card and the correct answer on the other. Place every flashcard in Box 1 and go through them. Place the ones you answer correctly in Box 2 and the ones you answer incorrectly back in Box 1.

On the following day, review the cards in Box 2, placing them either back in Box 2 (incorrect answer) or in Box 3 (correct answer). Next, review the cards in Box 1 again. Continue following this system throughout the semester, creating new flashcards as needed.

Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice theorizes that the act of retrieving knowledge from your brain can be a more powerful method of learning. One way to do retrieval practice is to read several pages of a textbook or listen to five minutes of a recorded lecture without taking any notes. Then, take a break from listening or reading and write down the key concepts and terms you remember. Reread that portion of the textbook or re-listen to the lecture to ensure you wrote down all the important information.

Active Recall

The active recall technique is a cousin to retrieval practice. It theorizes that students learn best when they actively nurture their memory retention while reading course materials. To practice active recall, read the textbook or handout for about five minutes. Then, close the book or look away from the handout and recite all the facts you can recall.

How to Study for Tests in College by Teaching Others

It may sound counterintuitive, but one of the most effective methods of studying for college exams is to teach others the material, even if you don’t yet have a firm grasp on it yourself. It’s called the Protégé Effect, and it works because teaching something to others forces the brain to develop a deeper understanding of the concept. This is one of the reasons why forming a study group is particularly helpful.

Assign each member of your study group a particular topic. When the group meets, you’ll teach the other group members your assigned topic, another member will teach their topic and so on. This studying method can be especially effective if you choose to teach the topic or concept that you’re struggling with the most.

Reviewing Past College Exams to Prepare for Upcoming Ones

No matter what grade you receive on your college exams, you can use them to prepare for future exams. While you review your graded exams and quizzes, pay particular attention to the questions you answered incorrectly. You should also review questions you answered correctly to reinforce the concept in your brain.

At Grand Canyon University, we’re invested to help you get the most out of your college experience, we’re pleased to offer a wealth of resources, such as academic tools, tutorials and tutoring at our Student Success Center. Begin envisioning your future at GCU by clicking on Request Info above and exploring our diverse range of degree programs.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

Loading Form


Scroll back to top