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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Organized Minimalist's College Study Tips and Tricks for Successful Learning

1) Study Scheduling- For every class you take, you'll probably need to spend about thirty to forty-five minutes a day studying or doing homework for each. You won't usually have to study this much every single day of the week for the entire, but two hours a day, five to six days a week spent on homework and/or chapter reading will probably be your average amount. When you study so consistently, it won't be a big deal if an emergency comes up and you can't study for a day (or even a few). It's very tempting to put things off until the last minute, but doing so won't create a relaxed life or a peaceful mind. Pacing yourself by studying a little bit day in and day out will help you absorb material better, compared to cramming. Spacing out studying should translate to better test scores, properly edited papers and full understanding of chapters you read, thus meaning you get higher grades. Obviously, different subjects and different professors will have varying levels of demands, though.

2) Study Location- Designate one comfortable, well-lit place to study. A dining table may be better than a desk- it's entirely up to you. I prefer lamps as opposed to overhead lights, as overheads will create more glare on textbooks and papers. This area needs to be a place where you can spread out your textbooks, binder(s), notes, laptop or other device with Internet, etc. I always keep a zippered, compartmentalized pencil bag with a small stock of supplies in my study space. This includes a mini-stapler with some extra staples, a pair of scissors, several good pens, a couple of No. 2-size mechanical pencils, a big eraser (I use this so much with math homework, it's embarrassing!), notecards, Wite-Out, a couple of binder or paper clips, yellow highlighters, Post-it notes and Post-it flags. A trash can with extra trash bags should be close at hand. You may want to put some extra lined notebook paper and maybe a hole puncher there, too. A big basket or pretty container can hold your supplies when not in use, if you can't leave them out all the time.

3) Preparation for Study Time- When studying, always have everything you'll need before you start to minimize distractions and interruptions. Something to drink, your cell phone or electronic device(s), binder, textbooks, office supplies, study aids like flashcards or printed out PowerPoints, etc. If you like to study with music or the TV on, get that going beforehand, too. Personally, I need a white noise machine, fan or music going all the time when I'm studying, as little household noises will distract me terribly otherwise.

4) Timers- Use a timer to keep on track, because it's easy to lose all sense of time. I have an app called Kitchen Timer on my Smartphone, but I also have an magnetic timer from My FlyLady timer can be set either to vibrate or to buzz. Use your timer both to signal when studying should stop and when breaks need to end.

5) Study Breaks- After 25-45 minutes of studying, I take a 5-15 minute break. I highly recommend alternating studying with something physical (a household chore, getting a drink or snack, playing with your child, taking a quick walk outdoors, etc.) This will keep your energy and brain going better. Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration (which will slow down your brain and body). Remember to eat a light snack or meal every 3-4 hours for a brain boost, too. My favorite snacks are Greek yogurt, string cheese or eating two salt-free whole grain rice cakes, an apple or a banana with peanut butter.

6) Rest Days- I recommend taking one or two days a week off of studying (plus major holidays), if at all possible. Depending upon how many classes you take and the toughness of them, this may be difficult or even impossible. But I try to take at least every Sunday off from studying, plus any major holidays. Giving my brain that rest one day a week is restorative (kind of akin to giving your body a break from an exercise routine).

7) Prioritizing- Write out in advance what you MUST accomplish for college that day and/or week in order to turn things in on time. Always start with the homework due first and/or your toughest subject at the beginning of your study session. Work systematically, completing the studying or homework for one subject before moving on to the next. Cross off completed items from your to-do list or calendar as they're done.

8) Setting Up Your Materials for Success- Here's how I organize my binder: I use one very large binder to hold everything for all of my classes. I always print out the syllabus for each class and put them in sheet protectors at the front of each divided part of my binder. As soon as I receive it, I also put my professor's phone number and email address in my cell phone, so they're on me at all times.

I use plastic dividers with pockets on both the front and the back to separate subjects. In the front pocket go assignments that I'm still working on, ones passed out in class by profs. In the back pocket go finished assignments and papers. I just use loose-leaf, college-ruled paper to write notes on. I find this simpler to organize than spiral notebooks- but everyone's different. In my binder are little slots for a highlighter, pens, a calculator, pencils, etc. I always make sure I keep this stuff in there.

I have an Emergency Medical and Surgical History sheet for myself at the very front of my binder. If anything happened to me, that info is there for anyone who has to see it. (You may be young and healthy enough that this isn't needed, but I thought I'd share that idea just in case.) Having a map of your college campus at the front doesn't hurt, either. Make sure that your college has emergency contact numbers on file, in case you're injured or become ill unexpectedly.

9) Weekly Organizing and Cleaning- Assign one day a week to clean out your purse, backpack, binder(s) and/or wallet. Keep this day the same every week. I always do this on Saturday myself. Assign one or two days a week to clean house, go to the grocery store, get gas in the car, etc.

10) Filing Papers- Use filing to your advantage. Even if you just buy an inexpensive file box (or a banker's box), some cheap manila folders and hanging file folders, you will thank yourself later! It doesn't cost much- a file box can be as cheap as $8, and manila and hanging file folders don't cost a lot.

I have an inexpensive file holder on my desk, with several separate slots to it for holding various files. In it, I keep a labeled file folder to hold already-graded papers and other items not needed for my binder (but that can't yet be thrown out) for each subject. At the end of the semester, when all final grades are in and checked for accuracy, I simply toss the unneeded papers out and empty/Wite-Out the label on the file folder for reuse.

Keep important college papers in a hanging file folder in your file cabinet, like any paperwork for admissions, letters of recommendation and financial aid stuff. Also keep any receipts in an envelope or file folder, if you itemize these expenses for your taxes.

11) Overall Scheduling, To-Do List and Task Reminders- Use a calendar and/or day planner, if you don't already. If you prefer a wall calendar, FlyLady sell a good one ( I simply use Google Calendar. Anytime I think of a task I have to do, I type it into the appropriate next time slot. I set my calendar to email reminders to my Gmail account for everything I put in it, too. This keeps me super-organized and streamlines to-do's.

12) Writing Major Papers and Oral Presentations- I spend fifteen to forty-five minutes a day, five to six days a week, writing or working on Excel spreadsheets or PowerPoint presentations for class (as applicable). Starting early on the semester is absolutely key. It's extremely tempting to ignore writing work during the first weeks of classes, but doing research and starting papers early prevent cramming and late-night panic attacks later on. If I don't need to write or edit my work that day, I re-read the writing assignments the professor wrote up (and email them with any questions, if needed), or I use the time for researching. The earlier you come up with the topic that you'll be writing a paper or presentation on, the sooner you can start researching and writing for it. After writing your final draft of anything, step away from the paper or presentation for awhile. Come back when you feel mentally refreshed and edit it then, double-checking spelling and grammar. I also re-read the assignment one last time before turning it in, just to make sure that I didn't skip over some required element of the paper.

If your professor will allow it (some are really cool and will offer this, so long as you give them a reasonable amount of time), send them a copy of the final paper to review before you turn it in. Their suggestions can help you get the highest grade possible. I do this whenever possible, and it's often saved me from making an error somewhere.

13) Accepting Your Needs and Limits- Be realistic about your personal limitations and body's cycles of energy vs. exhaustion. Schedule studying for your sharpest hours, if that's at all an option. (I know that sometimes it isn't, though!) If you're a night owl, work with this and study when it's dark out. If you're an early bird, take advantage of the morning time. Try to get minor household chores out of the way before studying, so that your head is clear for focusing on the college work. If we have lots of personal or household to-dos hanging over our heads, that can be a real distraction while studying.

14) Preparing for Each Class Period- Read the chapter which will be covered in the next class beforehand, if at all possible. Write down any questions that come up while reading which the book doesn't ultimately answer, so that you'll know what to ask come next class period. If provided, skim over supplemental materials and websites given by professors before class, too.

15) Reading for Classes- It's entirely up to you, but I often save my study session time for doing actual homework or practice problems from a textbook, and spend an hour or so before bedtime on college reading. Generally, I read the chapter(s) I'll be going over in the next class period, according to the syllabus. I typically stick to reading on only one subject a night. Reading the material right before bed, highlighting and writing down any questions as you go, has been shown in some studies to help people retain the info better. When done consistently, this will almost certainly make it possible to keep up on chapter reading.

16) Professor Notes- If they'll allow it, download or print out the PowerPoint presentations, flashcards or professor's own notes. Read them along with the chapter(s) assigned before and after class. This is an essential aid for many students, having teacher notes available for them to peruse at their own pace, so don't be afraid to ask this of your professor. This is true even if you take good notes while in class. Downloading my accounting professor's PowerPoints to my Smartphone REALLY helped me ace the class. I was able to look over them before class (just like reading the chapter) and determine my weak points in advance. Then I'd have a general idea of what questions to ask and where I'd have to give extra attention in class time taking my own notes. You'll probably still want to skim over or re-read the chapter again after class, but it will make learning go much more smoothly and quickly. I usually re-read the notes or PowerPoint one more time after class too, just to reinforce the material. This really helps come test time!

17) Using Technology to Your Advantage- I write all papers, presentations and spreadsheets in Google Drive. Since it's on Google's own servers, I won't lose my work if my computer or cell phone crashed. I keep my address book, recipes, poems, etc., on there, too- that way, they're available to me at all times via my Smartphone or laptop. Unlike MS programs, your Google account can be accessed anywhere. This means no flash drives to carry around! Since Google is password-protected, it's a secure option. It's easy to transfer Google docs to Word, Excel and PowerPoint presentation format, too. You can also email your Google work via a URL link so it's shared easily, instead of having to attach documents the old-fashioned way to emails.

18) Dealing with Forgetfulness- I always pack my binder, backpack and lunch the night before class. I put my backpack and anything else that I'll need to take with me the following day by the front door. This makes my mornings less hairy and keeps my stress level down- and I'm less likely to forget important things I have to take with me. Anything and everything you can do the night before- laying out tomorrow's clothes, bathing, prepping lunches and snacks, making sure you have clean laundry, running the dishwasher, etc.- will help create smoother mornings and less stress. 


  1. Wow! Fantastic post Lizzie!


    So many amazing tips here!
    Thank you for sharing!!

    ...I'd like to suggest studying on campus. I find I do my best studying when I'm at school. It's too easy for me to get distracted and to procrastinate when I'm at home.
    When I'm on campus it's like I have a job to do. I'm a student and I'm there to learn...and I take that very serious.
    My campus had a room set up called a Student Success Center. They had a bunch of tables to sit at, and it was pretty much a study room (kinda like the library minus all the books lol). Next to this room was a computer lab.
    It was a great place for me to get my work done!
    One of my biggest downfalls in college was when I stopped taking advantage of the Student Success Center...and instead decided to do all my schoolwork at home.

    1. I concur! :) I use my time between classes in our Honors lounge. Students know not to chatter or goof off there. It's also great to use this downtime for planning. Look over your calendar and update the to-list. Write out your dinner menu and grocery list. Catch up on online shopping chores. Anything that tends to get pushed aside by the demands of home- and those who live in it! College can really be an oasis...