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Most parents and students will see success at university in terms of grades and academic performance. Therefore they assume that ‘studying hard’ is paramount. However, it is not always clear what ‘studying hard’ actually means.

Particularly as the role of university today is not just to develop knowledge expertise but to develop employability skills that can be transferred from the classroom to the boardroom.

Assessments at University will not simply focus on how much a student knows. Rather, high grades are awarded for how well they develop and communicate ideas or how well they have applied theories to solve problems.

A common question from undergraduate students on any assessment is ‘how many words do I need ; how many references should I include’ but this is missing the point. The question they should be asking is ‘how many arguments should I make; how much evidence to I need to present for this viewpoint’.

So ‘studying hard’ has been replaced by ‘studying effectively’. Universities provide all new students with material and introductory courses on writing and study skills geared towards the academic needs of the discipline.

Certainly this information is essential for students beginning any degree programme. However, aside from these core skills there are several other factors indicated by research which likely differentiate the truly effective students. 

Strategy No 1: Study a little at a time and often

The university calendar is structured so that learning happens for a set number of weeks (usually 12 per semester) followed by a main assessment (exam). This implies for many students that studying is an activity they undertake after the teaching weeks and prior to the assessment.

In contrast, the body of research on learning and memory tells us that the most effective studying would happen in small regular batches throughout the semester. Students should learn the information early on and then use the final run-up to the exam only for review and revision.

Any simple activity such as writing up notes, discussing material with friends and doing the additional readings when done regularly and soon after each class will be a far more efficient use of time than hours spent memorising material in the days leading up to the exam.

Strategy No. 2: Engage in active study vs passive study

Students will hear from tutors that their priority task is to ‘read’…’do the recommended readings’…’do wider reading’…’read, read, read’. While reading of course forms the basis for any university course, it should not be seen as the focus for exam study itself.

In fact, students should also take heed of the ‘testing effect’ phenomenon shown across research in the last two decades. This phenomenon suggests the most effective study strategy is answering test questions (triggering memory retrieval) or writing essay questions.

This activity strengthens memory through the process of constantly bringing the information backwards and forwards from memory or having to use it to plan essay answers.

Similarly this testing effect can come from teaching the information verbally to others. Talk about the subject with classmates or in study groups or talk to parents who may be more patient to listen. This Self-testing should be done following a break from the books and without them in front of you for the best results. 

Strategy No. 3: Don’t sacrifice sleep

Many students have tried to use the strategy of last minute cramming for exams, working all night right up to the exam in the hopes that the information will be fresh in mind.

However a 2007 study showed that as the mind tires your ability to learn new information is impaired so all night study activities are likely to be counter-productive. For some students getting enough sleep at night is a genuine problem caused by work and study pressures or living arrangements.

If this is the case evidence also provides support for the benefits of daytime napping. Napping even for small amounts of time when you feel yourself nodding off can boost concentration. Allowing yourself to nap rather than feeling you must force yourself to push through is a relief and decreases the additional stress on your mind. 

Strategy No. 4: Use handouts wisely

Most tutors will make slide handouts or lecture notes available prior to class. generally, students understand they are expected to bring them to class But they may not fully understand the purpose of this practice. (indeed some students may turn up with the handouts instead of a pen). In a direct experiment of the impact of handouts in 2009, students who were given handouts ahead of time had a better memory for what the lecture had covered at follow up test.

This was because they were able to write additional information down and listen to the lecturer rather than attempting to copy every single word being said or simply listening passively.

With this in mind, the most effective students will both print off the handouts and read through them before class. This gives an even better basis for your brain to predict how the lecture will be structured, what to expect and what is likely to be key information for writing down. 

Strategy No. 5: Attitude over Ability

No matter how a student may be performing at the start of the course it is important to have a mindset of confidence. Research from the University of Central Florida showed higher ‘self efficacy; - a feeling of general competence – will impact positively on actual performance irrespective of ability.

Self efficacy doesn’t breed intelligence, rather it makes breeds confidence and willingness to face challenges. Similarly, students who saw performance and intelligence as something that could be developed rather than set in genetics did better. That is, your attitude about the potential for success can be as important as your baseline ability levels. 

Strategy No. 6: Put aside procrastination or, ditch delaying things

Procrastination is the dirty secret, guilty pleasure and all round pesky habit affecting everyone at one time of another. In fact 75 per cent of US students self-identified as procrastinators and 50 per cent stated it was a significant problem. Especially with the long deadlines for assignments and many distractions at university it can be easy to fall into procrastination.

Research by Piers Steel confirms that procrastination occurs most when we find a task unpleasant or boring (which likely applies to many assignments students will encounter). Steel also suggests some people are more prone to procrastination than others - but this does not mean inbuilt procrastinators are doomed .

For both habitual and occasional procrastinators, making changes to the task or environment can reduce the risks. For example break the task down into small steps with rewards at the end, set challenges so the task becomes a series of discrete goals, or make it more social by including group activities.

People who are prone to procrastinate are generally distractible by nature and find it harder to stay on task. Therefore create a study environment without distraction no TV/radio and if possible no internet.

Finally, don’t add to procrastination by stressing or feeling helpless over it. Everyone procrastinates at one time or another and research by Michael Wohl in Canada has indicated that simply forgiving yourself when you get stuck in the procrastination cycle can help set you free from it. 

Strategy No. 7: Understand everyday Problem-solving

Students may see problem solving as something they are only likely to encounter in certain subjects. But problem solving is a central part of our daily lives and all students must problem solve in order to successfully navigate their studies.

For example, deadlines will be set at the same time, requirements for different subjects may clash, the pressures of extra curricular sports need to be fit around course-loads.

Psychology has a long history of investigating the processes involved in problem solving which can be applied to effective university management. For example, problems should first be broken down and analysed into a ‘problem space’.

So a university assignment can be described by a series of stages and ‘jobs’ such as literature searching, planning, drafting and reviewing. Or with issues such as meeting deadlines the ‘problem’ can be analysed in terms of priorities and scope of each task.

Once this ‘problem space’ is understood and the series of steps through is mapped out the task will feel more concrete and manageable. While this all seems quite abstract it essentially means that students should not blindly approach assignments, or hope that day to day problems will somehow work themselves out.

Instead students who take initiative in seeking help, work little by little towards a goal or simply take two minutes to think about the processes involved in a task before making a start will be in a far better position for success.