Successful studying requires a bit more than just showing up in class. Read through ISIC's tips on how to improve your study skills and abilities!

Study skills and abilities

Student life is wonderful - being immersed in what you find most interesting and what motivates you is great, and learning new things keeps you fresh and going. However, studying and student life in general is also tiring and stressful from time to time, and it's hard to turn that busy life into an entity that is meaningful, helps you learn and doesn't wear you out. Behind all successful studies are the abilities and skills to study and enhance your studying methods. By study abilities and skills we mean the often complicated equation of your study methods, techniques, environment and general well-being. 

You can improve your study skills and ability by tracking and monitoring your learning and studying routines and methods critically. The aim is always to be a better learner. You get to learn new things throughout your life; the better you master different studying techniques and know yourself as a learner, the better learner you'll become. In this article, we've gathered some practical tricks and tips for you to find the best studying style, methods and techniques for you. Read through and at least try a few new things! 

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Challenging and cheering on yourself

Procrastinating and dismissing your studies are common obstacles on every student's path. It's tempting to avoid sitting down to study, if your calendar is booked full or the sun's out or there's a new great movie on Netflix... We all know there are as many reasons as there are students. Sometimes the reasons are stress-related and the sheer amount of work to do gets you petrified. Procrastination tends to lead to last minute cramming and all-nighters, which in turn tend to lead to unsatisfactory grades and results. And those tend to get even the most high-spirited student down. If you think your studies are stagnating because of stress or anxiety, seek out to your course teacher or your school's counselor. Most schools offer services, courses and groups to help you get back your study motivation and teach you better studying methods, as well as to help you cope with stress. 

If you belittle yourself as a learner and underestimate your abilities to study constantly, you are sure not to be motivated to take a hold of your studies with any more enthusiasm than before. Here are some key elements to help you get started with becoming a better learner and enhance your study abilities and skills:

Be proactive about your own studying. No one will force you to study or come asking you to do more or be more committed. If you want to achieve something in your studies (and not just nearly pass your exams), you need to push yourself to study and focus on the topics of your interest and passion. 

Believing in yourself is at the heart of all learning and studying. A single great grade may give you a good boost on your self-confidence, but a single bad one may wash that away in a second. Building long-lasting self-confidence is challenging, but will get you a long way. When you learn something really well once, and that labour bears fruit, it will concretely show you your own abilities and skills and helps you to believe in yourself. In the future, you can trust that success follows the work you do as a learner and student. Show yourself what you can do - it will help you believe in yourself also in the future and during hardships. 

Be responsible about your own learning. Schedule your learning and studying already at the start of the semester/academic year. Use the course structure or course timetable as your blueprint when you are planning your daily studying schedules. These are the first steps towards well-timed studying and resting, and you'll avoid last minute desperate cramming a day before your exam. 

Stop multi-tasking. Even though multi-tasking maybe possible in household chores and everyday life, it's ill-suited for studying. When it's time to sit down with your course material, find a peaceful spot and be prepared to cut off from everything that may disturb you (your phone, for starters, if you're not using it to study). The more and the more often something distracts you while you are trying to study, the less you'll remember of the things you are currently trying to learn. Focusing intensely can be hard, and sometimes we are distracted by outside factors whether we want it or not. There are many ways to help stay focused; it may be a chill Spotify list to cut off the outside noises, holding a 5 minute break after 25 minutes of hard focus (Pomodoro method), or an app to prevent you from checking your social media or email while studying (try Forest, for example). 

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Diverse studying

Questioning is a great way to learn new things. If something that was taught or presented during the lecture doesn't really make sense to you or you feel like you missed something, chop the topic into smaller entities and go through them one at a time. To ask "why?" is a great way to get your thinking going! Ask yourself questions and challenge the answers you give - this way your mind will remain perky throughout your study session, and a clear path will be drawn to your memory about what and how you learned. Comparing the scenarios you are studying to everyday life and occurrences in your daily life is a good way to both remember things and demonstrate the concepts in practice. Many of us learn more easily with practical, real-life examples so try to extend the topics you are studying to your everyday life. 

Combine different sources for information. Oftentimes before the exam you'll notice that you have a course book, your own notes from the lectures, course material handed out by the lecturer and maybe a hefty load of online material as well. Still, you feel like you haven't really gotten the common thread between them. Compare your main points and key notes in all your course material and your course book(s). This way you can draft yourself a meaningful combination of the key elements in all your study material, and you'll remember them when you sit down to take your exam. 

Use your imagination. When you sit down to study, your mind may start to wander quite easily and quite often. We are not talking about disturbances from the outside, but rather whatever it is that pops into your mind when you are reading through your material. If something you read makes you think about something else, that is related to that subject, that's great, because it will stick to your memory more likely (and you might find it easier to cast your mind back to that inner monologue rather than the text that you've read). If your mind wanders to something else entirely, stop that train of thought and return to your book/notes. Use your imagination, but don't let it steal your focus!

Remember the lecturers. It is the teacher's/lecturer's responsibility to both guide you and make studying meaningful to you. Even though you hold the responsibility of your own learning and attendance, the lecturers also need to evolve and should receive feedback, if you find that the course is not providing what it should. Also, don't forget that your teachers and lecturers are experts in what you are trying to learn; they are the ones to help you with your course work, essays and exam answers (especially the ones you did not do so well at). 

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Finding your way to study

Groups and friends supporting your learning. Practice with your friends and course buddies. Write essays together, do random tests in a group, and then compare your answers - you are sure to find that you missed some points others remembered and vice versa. Going through the materials together in a group also helps all of you to see and agree on what the main points in the material are. Rehearsing the material together and teaching some things to your friends is also an effective way to learn and memorize. It may also help you gain a new perspective to the topic when you have to teach it someone else understandably. After the exam, gather to read through your answers and compare them to fill in any gaps in your or your friends' answers. 

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What works for you? Writing notes, reading out loud, drawing, teaching the topic to others... there are many ways to help you remember the stuff you are studying. We are all individual learners with different skills and abilities to learn and study. Some learn by listening, some have to write notes, some want to read and highlight the text as they go. Skills and abilities aside, most of us learn the best when the thing we are trying to learn is a meaningful entity. If the material seems unstructured to you, try turn your notes of the lectures into stories with a clear "plot". It's much easier to reread the course book and material when you see the common thread. When the "plot" is clear to you, you'll remember the details much better, too. 

Build integrity. If you feel like the notes you've done on the lectures and the course material you've received are a mess and the topics covered in them make little or no sense, no worries! Comb through your notes and organize them in a way that makes the most sense to you or that works the best for your reading routine. Some find it easier to read the topics from the conclusion to the introduction - why not try that if you feel like you are lost with your material? Keep it together by taking a small break after each separate topic: what was this topic about and how do I understand what I just read/learned? It may well be that you end up adding to your notes things and thoughts that aren't present in the material, but to which your train of thought has taken you. Good! Remember that when you are studying, you are also teaching yourself. 

Practice and rehearse. If you've ever performed in a school play, sung in a choir, played an instrument, held a speech or participated in a dancing number, you know that it required a lot of practice. It's silly to think that we'd be able to pull of an exam by reading through the material once among our other daily business. An exam, written or oral, is like any performance: you need to practice and rehearse. Read out loud, write down a practice answer, listen to your lecturer or recordings on the subject - whatever helps you to prepare for the performance on the exam day. 

Give clues for your memory. When we are nervous, it's quite common that our memory fails us. I'm sure you've sat down in an exam and after reading the first question realized that nothing, absolutely nothing comes to mind about the topic. Don't panic, but take a step back and circle the question calmly. If it feels like the main point of the topic is at the tip of your tongue, but you just can't get it, what else do you know about the topic? Cast your mind back to the moment you were studying the topic and start to reread the material slowly in your head. You may remember a random thought you had when you were studying the subject like how nice it would be to go out and enjoy a beautiful summer day. Then the summer day takes you to summary and suddenly you see the text right in front of you. Our brain makes connections that may not make sense to us and in ways that we will only realize later on. When nervous, sit back for a moment and let your memory work in its pace and own quirky ways. 

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Studying and free-time

Breaks and relaxing. Make sure you take breaks when studying. During your break you should stand up and walk around for a bit, draw or take a nap - something that will really allow your brain to rest (no, browsing your phone isn't resting). Some need longer breaks while others have short breaks but often. Anyway, taking breaks will help you both focus on your studies and study for longer periods of time. Be cautious, however, that taking breaks doesn't take the lead - it can be a slippery slope to procrastination. To keep up the good habit of taking breaks it's probably the best to have a set time for how long your breaks are. 15-20 minutes is well enough for you to get up, go out and have a bit of fresh air or lying down for a nap. A clear break doing something else entirely will keep your brain active and focused.

Sleep. A tale as old as time, but so true. Make sure you get enough sleep and avoid late night cramming and all-nighters. When you're finished studying for the day, go for a walk or spend time with friends or at a hobby to get your mind of studying. If you feel like you'd like a quick rehearse, you can lightly read through your notes before you turn off the lights and hit the sack. 

Sports and exercise. Doing exercise or sports regularly will help you unwind, and positively affects your health, quality of sleep and vitality, all of which are pretty essential considering study abilities. We don't mean hardcore training every evening of the week - light walks or leisurely cycling are also great ways to unwind and get your heart rate up moderately.

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Hobbies and the skills they teach you. Hobbies can be a big part of relaxation and recovery. They, like breaks, take your mind off studying and give a boost to your energy levels, when you are doing something you love and choose to spend your free-time on. Hobbies are beneficial in many ways, as they teach commitment, co-working and perseverance - all necessary skills in student and working life. At your hobby, you may also have to solve problems or think strategies that will later on help you navigate through problems and puzzles while studying. If you are studying languages or reading a lot during your free-time, for example, you may notice that learning languages at school is easier, when you have more parallels. Attending your hobby you may also find people who can assist you with your studies or working life later on.  

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What's in it for me?

Find utility in all topics. Even though a topic may feel hard and even unnecessary for you to learn, try to think about its usefulness: surely there is something you can learn from this. Especially when a subject feels demotivating and even off-putting, you should try to see why it could be useful to you. The usefulness doesn't have to be obviously related to the topic - it can also be a realization on what study methods and techniques work for you (which isn't a small feat). If it gets hard to find any usefulness in the topic you are trying to study, try to place that topic in your everyday life or what is happening in the world now. A concrete approach may help you see some utility in a topic that otherwise does not have your interest.

Grades aren't everything but they help you monitor. It stings to get a bad grade, especially if you've worked hard on the course and for the exam. Instead of giving up, throwing in the towel or getting mad at the teacher, take a good look at your answer and your studying habits. You can't excel on all courses and in all exams, and there just isn't enough time to put an equal effort to all your courses. It's perfectly alright, if you've spent your time on something else and have decided to work on another course that is more important to you. Still, your grades tell about the level of your study abilities and skills, and if they are repeatedly not what you want them to be, you may be studying in ways that are not working for you. Chat with your lecturers/teachers and course buddies, and try a new method or a technique of learning. Don't give up if the change isn't immediate; enter another new technique, mix and match and when you see an improvement in a grades, it's time to congratulate yourself. You've found a way of studying that suits you! Don't forget to use your school's services - many offer courses on academic writing, grammar, how to write a good essay etc., as well as courses on time management and effective studying. Seek out your counselor and ask about courses/services to help you study more effectively and also cope with study stress. 


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