How to Learn Anything
Shortcuts to Knowledge and Understanding

3. Study Skills

Content Guide


1. How Long to Study

2. Preparation for Studying

3. The Study Environment

4. Cramming & Memory Aids

5. Objective Exams:

Multiple Choice, Fill in the Blanks, True and False

6. Essay Exams

7. Open Book Exams

8. How to Write Exams

9. Oral Presentations


1. Priorities

2. How to Achieve Goals

3. Note on Negative Thoughts

Questions to Ask Yourself


Things to Remember


study skills

Memory Map

Study Skills

Studying can be a continuing process or a short term effort (cramming). Of course the continuing process is the most effective for long term retention of information but we often need to resort to cramming information as well. This section will discuss both methods.

For the purposes of this section I assume that studying can refer to studying for university or adult education exams, for presentations, debates & speeches, and for any situation where you have to present knowledge or be evaluated. In this chapter I will use the example of a person studying for a university or college program. You can easily modify the suggestions to fit your individual needs if you are using this book for professional development at your work.

The central point to studying is knowing what you are studying for: professional development, a multiple choice exam, essay exam worth 20% or 60%, an oral exam or a presentation. STUDY WITH A VIEW TO THE TYPE OF EVALUATION because the methods are quite different.

This section will cover the following topics:

1. How Long to Study,

2. Preparation for Studying,

3. The Study Environment,

4. Cramming & Memory Aids,

5. Objective Exams:Multiple Choice, Fill in the Blanks, True and False,

6. Essay Exams,

7. Open Book Exams,

8. How to Write Exams.


The separate chapter "Taking Notes" covers, in detail, various methods of studying information over a period of months. I will not repeat that section again here except to say that studying over a long period of time is less difficult and allows you to be more relaxed when you have to present the information you have studied.

This section deals more with using the information you have learned and how to study more specifically for different situations, e.g. objective versus essay exams, and presentations.

1. How Long to Study

Whether you study systematically or cram just before an exam it is important to realize how long you should spend at each sitting. Many people believe that you must lock yourself in a room for 34 hours at a time to study constantly. In fact the best time span to study within, depending on the difficulty of the material, is 1545 minutes with a break of 510 minutes at the end.

The reason for breaking up your study time in smaller units is that we remember information best at the beginning and the end of a study period. We also remember some things that are particularly interesting to us no matter where they appear during a studying period. Therefore, if we study for 2 undisturbed hours we remember things from the beginning and end of those two hours plus a few other items. If we study for 20 minutes at a time with 10 minute breaks over a 2 hour period we will remember from 4 beginnings and 4 endings plus a few other items.

The breaks allow us to integrate the information and relax a bit before beginning with more information. By integrating the information in such a way we cut down on the studying time while increasing our effectiveness.

2. Preparation for Studying

At the beginning of a course or presentation determine what skills the instructor expects from you and how she intends to evaluate those skills i.e.deductive thinking by way of essay exams or remembering details by way of multiple choice exams. Also determine the percentage each evaluation will have i.e.40% for exams, 30% for written reports, 30% for participation. Knowing how you will be evaluated will help you divide your study time more effectively.

Make full use of any course outline to understand what the main areas of interest are. This groundwork will help you organize your studying procedure.

Many schools or programs have back copies of exams to help students understand the evaluation methods of the instructor plus what types of information are important to learn. If you can't find such exams ask your instructor for past copies.

Perhaps the two mistakes we make most often are:

1. Missing the class or lecture just before an exam. This is usually the time when an instructor reviews important information and gives indications of the exam format and content.

2. Not getting proper feedback after an evaluation:

a) When you get a test or exam back, find out what you did correctly and how you can improve in the future. The grade does not give you enough information about what you do well.

b) Write out correct answers in multiple choice, true and false, and fill in the blank exams for future reference.

c) Ask your instructor for assistance in improving your answers in essay exams. Even if you have received a high grade find out how you can maintain such a high level of proficiency. Most of us are not sure why we do well on exams and unless we ask we will never know.

3. The Study Environment

Study environments are a personal choice. Some people study best in total solitude and quiet while others study best with background music. I often study with the television on.

Research has suggested that some background music is beneficial in developing a studying rhythmi.e. music with 60 beats per minute (like a heart beat) and in 4/4 time. Music by Vivaldi is a good example. It relaxes the body and mind making them more receptive to learning. Heavy rock music has been shown to disturb that relaxing effect but again this is a personal choice that you need to make for yourself.

The location where you study also requires a choice. If possible find a place where you can consistently study, whether it is in your home, library, or office.

Avoid distractions from the phone or surprise visits.

Before you begin your session make sure you have enough paper, pencils and pens, healthy snacks, and something to drinkso that you don't have an excuse to stop studying until your scheduled break.

Make your studying location special so that you enjoy being there. This is easier said than done but something to aim for.

4. Cramming and Memory Aids

There are some specific techniques to cramming. Below is a list you can follow:

1. Maintain your normal schedule as much as possible (e.g.have an excellent supper, do some exercise even if it is just a walk after dinner, etc.).

2. Cram close to a test or exam time because cramming is based on short term memory. Keep in mind the format of the exam at all times so that you don't waste time memorizing great details when the exam will ask for essays on the broad understanding of the information,

3. Be organized during your cramming so that you have your notes divided by each lecture (not in one large pile!).Have any text books at hand and try to have your studying location neat so that you feel organized rather than flustered.

4. Remember to study in 1545 sessions with a ten minute break to relax and integrate the information.

5. The night before:

a) review lecture schedules, preview notes, and write key points on cue cards,

b) read your notes and relevant text passages and summarize them on cue cards,

c) make special notes on formulae, policies, main facts, definitions,

d) make special notes based on what you know about the exam format (eg. essay versus multiple choice),

e) before going to sleep have all your cue cards ready for the next morning plus your pens, identification, candy, and paperthat you will need for your exam. You do not want to be rushed in the morning,

f) go to sleep at a decent time (no all nighters) because a relaxed mind remembers more and is better prepared to recall the information you will need for your exam.

6. The morning of your exam:

a) get up at your normal hour but in a relaxed way,

b) eat a good breakfast or at least some fluids if you are not hungry,

c) review your cue cards beginning with the broadest topics and then moving toward more detail,

d) before leaving for the exam sit down in a quiet place, close your eyes, smile and relax your body visualizing yourself successfully completing exam,

e) if possible do not rush to the exam site, but rather enjoy the trip. On arrival do not spend much time reviewing information with all the students who are panicking. Remain calm and (although it sounds strange) smile.

It works.

Memory Aids

Memory is basically a system of recording, retaining and retrieving information much like a mental file cabinet.

Whether you are cramming or studying over a long period of time, memory requires active participation. Even boring ideas and facts can be made interesting and therefore memorable.

1. Visualize things, e.g.completing a procedure rather than just studying the procedure on paper.

2. Combine new information with things you already know. Various chapters in this book deal with similar information, but in different ways, e.g.time management for studying, for writing, and for organizing your work. Build upon your first understanding and branch out much like a memory map described in the Notetaking chapter. In this way you don't have to relearn information; rather add to what you already know.

3. Organized notes (no matter what method you use) make all the difference. Divide them into manageable units.

4. Be physically active. When memorizing information stand up and walk about while reciting information out loud.

5. Test your knowledge again in an active way, e.g. have someone quiz you, recite information, or write summaries of your information.

6. Use cue cards to help you memorize, e.g.:

a) learning languages by putting verbs, nouns by subject matter, etc.on cards;

b) definitions;

c) formulae;

d) procedures.

7. Use diagrams, maps, chronological events to integrate further information.

When you have more time, check out the chapter on "Improving Your Memory".


There are two similar lists of 10 items below. You could make up your own including shopping lists, a to-do list, new word definitions, or a list of top movies.

Memorize the first list in the same way you normally memorize things. [dog, street light, hamburger, friend, clothes pins, green, tall, book, computer, pen]

Memorize the second list using some of the techniques described above. [cookie, typewriter, picture, stereo, Jane, scarf, video, poem, yellow, daughter]

Tomorrow try to recopy your lists. Which do you remember most clearly and easily?

5. Objective Exams

Multiple choice, true and false, and fill in the blanks, are examples of objective exams. They do not require you to present ideas but rather to find an answer from among others or give one word answers.

This type of exam involves detail to the extent that the choice between possible answers is often made purposely difficult.

Knowing that these tests are detail oriented your studying should concentrate on details like definitions, processes, examples, and theories. A review of the course outline or highlighted terms in the index of a text will give you valuable clues to the questions the exam will contain. Look at sample exams from a similar course or, if that is not possible, look at samples from any course in the same field. These are excellent sources for getting used to the format.

If you can get past exams use them to preview your studying sessions and then try to answer them without notes near the end of your studying.

Some tips about objective exams:

1. Answer the easiest questions first to build your confidence. Put a pencil check by questions you want to return to (the difficult questions or questions you have answered but are not 100% sure you have the right answer).

2. Check for the best and most accurate answer. Often more than one possibility would be correct even in true and false questions. Choose the answer that is most correct.

3. Beware of words such as: never, always, completely because they are absolutes and few things in the world are absolute.

4. Do not look for patterns in answers e.g.alternating true and false. Too risky!

5. After reading the question think of the answer before reading the options given.

6. Eliminate bad answers right away in difficult multiple choice questions and choose from the remaining answers.

7. GUESSING the answer is an option. If there is no penalty then always guess. If there is a penalty analyze the risk. For example if the wrong answers are subtracted from the right answers then judge the risk on each answer. However if your lose 1/2 or 1/4 of a point for a wrong answer then the risk is not as great.

8. When guessing, consider:

a) often the shortest or longest answer is correct after various options are eliminated,

b) check that your option agrees grammatically with the question i.e.question in singular yet one response is in plural,

c) trust your instincts,

d) think like your instructor i.e.if instructor uses complex sentences then the answer may be in complex form.

9. Trusting your instincts is a good plan but does not mean you cannot change an answer. Make changes when you think your new choice is better or more accurate. Use calm logic to decide!

10. ALWAYS go over each answer to verify that you have not made an error in circling the wrong answer, that you have written in an incorrect word or that you wrongly circled "false" when you meant to circle "true".

6. Essay Exams

Essay exams include those with short answers and lengthy essays.

Some tips for essay exams:

1. Read the whole exam first to understand how much each question is worth and assign the number of minutes you will spend on each according to the value of marks i.e.spend more time on a question worth 30% than a question worth 5%.

2. Choose the order in which you will answer questions beginning with the ones you are most comfortable with.

3. Read the questions carefully looking for key words such as "list" (do a list only), "explain" (explain not compare), "compare" (do not make a list).

4. Make sure that you understand how much you have to answer. Often you only need to answer 2 questions out of 5, yet many students answer all 5 questions (and badly too!).

5. Once you understand what is required TAKE A BREAK and look around the room, see the people frantically writing without an organized plan, do some deep breathing to relax. You cannot write effectively in a panic.

6. Pick the best questions first (often short answer ones will help you to get warmed up). If they require more than a few words write a few points down quickly on scrap paper or in the answer book.Organize them in the order you wish and write your answer.

7. When working on longer essays begin by doing a rough outline (in the answer book), organize your thoughts with main points and supplementary details numbered in order of significance and then relax for a moment (put your pen down and deep breathe for 2 minutes). Getting your points down first allows you to concentrate on writing style rather than worrying about getting all the important facts in your answer.

8. After you have the organized plan, concentrate on writing an effective introduction/thesis.

9. In writing the main body of your work check with your rough plan to get the points in the correct order.

10. A strong conclusion to an essay question needs both a summary of your answer (check your rough plan for key points) and a positive, assertive concluding statement.

11. If you do not have sufficient time to write your answer out, use your rough plan to write a clear argument in point form.

12. For a visually pleasing and easily read answer double space your answer, put an extra space between paragraphs and quite a few spaces between answers in case you wish to add something later.

13. Be neat!

14. After you have completed all your answers take a quick break to relax (yet again!). You will have time if you have followed the other steps.

15. Go over your answers to check for grammar and spelling errors.Imagine your instructor reviewing dozens of papers and finally coming along one that is neat, organized and easy to read.

16. Do not leave early unless you have reviewed all your answers and are completely satisfied. Remember that most of us think of just the right thing to add to an answer as we are leaving the exam room!

7. Open Book Exams

Open book exams are often the most difficult because we assume, incorrectly, that they are easy. After all, we have all the answers at our fingertips.

Your books are a tool and are only helpful if you know how to use them. Open book exams often cover more material than other types of exams because your instructor assumes that you can find the answers quickly. Open book exams are not an excuse to study less.

Prepare as you would for any exam (i.e. objective or essay exams). If you need to use your book often then understand how to find information quickly. Become an expert at using the Index and Tables of Contents, Illustrations, and Appendices. Try using past exams or similar examples to locate information quickly.

Because an exam is called "Open Book" does not mean you need to depend on your books. Open book exams allow the use of summary sheets for formulae, definitions, etc. so that they are at hand when you need them. This method is preferable to searching for the information in the book.

8. How to Write Exams

Although some of the following points have been mentioned they bear repeating.

1. Before going to an exam do some deep breathing, stretching and relaxing. Eat a proper meal beforehand. Don't loose your sense of humor and remember that few exams are worth the worry we put ourselves through. Negative thoughts are our worst enemy before an examination. You want the adrenaline that comes from a challenge but not the terror.

2. When you are in the examination room do some more deep breathing to blow out some of the tension that often comes from an exam. Listen to the instructor's directions about how the exam will go, the time you will have, how they want you to identify yourself on your answer sheets, how they want you to double space, and other important information that can help you improve the presentation of your work.

3. Preview the exam to get an idea of its content and jot down any information in key words that comes to you just so they don't clutter your mind. Once on paper you can forget about the information until you need it.

4. Budget your time so that you don't waste time on questions of little value.

5. Read each question and underline key words so that you understand what is actually required of you.

6. Leave space between paragraphs and even a page free between answers so there is room to add information later.

7. You must review your answers to correct spelling and grammar errors and to make your writing more presentable.

Note: At this point you may be questioning if you will have enough time to do all the things I have suggested.

The reason most people run out of time is that they spend a lot of time worrying about the exam and once they get the questions they begin to write and write and write.

You, on the other hand, will be organized in your studying and in the way you will write your exam. You will not have to worry about forgetting to add something to an answer because you have written down most of the facts, in draft form, within the first few minutes of the exam. The rest of the time is spent on writing those facts in a concise and readable way.

The more structure you give to your written presentation the more time you will have later on during the exam to write and the more relaxed you will be. You will have fewer surprises because you will know what you are doing from the moment you begin your exam until you finish. Most students will not have that confidence.

Try this method (or those parts you are comfortable with) during your first test/exam and modify any procedures for future exams.

9. Oral Presentations

Preparing for an oral presentation is very similar to preparing for a written exam. You still need to do some deep breathing beforehand, eat well, get enough sleep, and prepare any notes you will be able to use during your presentation. Read the section #8 above for some extra tips.

The main difference between oral presentations and written exams are:

1. Oral presentations often permit you to use summary notes to speak from. These notes should be concise and act as reminders rather than written like a speech.

  1. 2.Answering questions during an oral presentation (or even a oral exam) means that much of the organization of answers must occur in your mind. You won't have time to write down an answer. Whenyou are asked a question do not answer right away but collect your thoughts, organize them in some order and then follow them.You can practice these as you would for a written exam. Get someone to ask you some questions so you can practice this oral format. Also read the chapter on improving your memory since it gives tips of how to organize information in your head and remember it.

  2. 3.


To study effectively you need to know what you are studying for. Is it a written essay exam, a presentation or a true-and-false quiz?

Before you begin to study you need to organize your study environment so that you are comfortable there. Have all the papers, pens and assorted goodies there so that you will not have to leave the area every few minutes. Organize your notes.

Take scheduled breaks every 15-45 minutes. Use the break to stretch, take a quick walk, or to do something else relaxing.

Always have enough time scheduled to reward yourself for a job well done. Studying can be stressful (does not have to be!) and it can be boring at times. Rewarding yourself gives you something to look forward to!


Whenever you finish learning new information it is helpful to take a moment or two to evaluate what you have found most useful and what you would like to do with that information. This process can be very useful whether you write out the answers or just think about them.

1. What general concepts, ideas or techniques have you learned?

2. List at least three techniques from this chapter that you could use immediately.

3. What other concepts, ideas or techniques do you want to learn?

4. Is there anything you have learned that you could pass on to your colleagues, family members or friends?

  1. 5.Do you have any further comments or ideas you want to record based on what you have learned?

  2. 6.


The following references are only a few of the many useful resources that you can find in your local libraries, within your school library, and in your local book stores. Look for further books but also for journal articles, magazine reports, films, videos and audio cassettes. Also keep in mind how much you can learn from experts in the field, including people in your school.

For more intensive research, read the suggestions in the chapter "Writing and Researching Papers".

Apps, Jerold W. (1982). Study skills for adults returning to school (2nd ed). New York: McGraw-Hill. 200 pages.

Based on adult education principles of learning, Apps presents practical learning skills for people returning to school including information on taking notes, reading, studying, and managing your study time.

Bell, Barbara Gurrier. (1984). Tools in the learning trade. New Jersey: Scarecrow Press. 179 pages.

Presents and her eight indispensable tools for college students with specific recommendations and critiques of: dictionaries, synonym books, writing guides, one-volume general encyclopedia, research guides, style manuals, calculators and computers, and handbooks on creative thinking.

Brown, Barbara. (1980). Supermind: The ultimate energy. New York: Harper and Row. 286 pages with index.

Brown uses her background in brain and behavior research to argue the existence of super mentality within people. She documents the poverty of scientifically acceptable notions of mind capabilities. She examines the mind-body connection and how that can improve or harm a person's health. Also examines the evolutionary argument for intelligence in humans and how the unconscious mind's potential needs further study.

Buzan, Tony. (1980). Make the most of your mind. New York: Anchor Press.

Buzan's books are filled with practical information on the human mind and how knowing more about it can help us use it more effectively.

. (1971). The mechanism of mind. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.

. (1974). Use your head. London: British Broadcasting System.

Crampton, Esme. (1980). Good words, well spoken: A handbook of speech for people in all walks of life. Toronto: The Norman Press. 179 pages with illustrations.

Although this book is primarily for public speaking and using the telephone effectively, it does give useful information for people who have oral exams or must defend their papers or dissertations before an academic committee.

Gibbs, John J. (1990). Dancing with your books: the Zen way of studying. Markham, ON: Penguin Books. 181 pages.

This books describes the Zen philosophy of concentrating on the journey of learning rather than worrying about the end result. It includes some standard studying skills with an emphasis on relaxing one's mind and body to be absorbed in the present moments of learning.

Grassick, Patrick. (1983). Making the grade: What you need to know about how to prepare for and write tests. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada. 147 pages.

Includes information on preparing for exams, how to write tests, what to do about anxiety, how to take lecture notes, how to study from textbooks, and a few speed reading skills.

MacFarlane, Polly and Hodson, Sandra. (1983). Studying effectively: An integrated system. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 46 pages with examples.

A practical and concise look at concentration, scheduling, listening skills, taking sequential notes, reading texts, writing exams and papers, and memory and learning skills.

McCarthy, Michael, J. (1991). Mastering the information age: a course in working smarter, thinking better, and learning faster. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher. 306 pages with illustrations and memory aids.

Beginning with the premise that more new information has been produced in the last 30 years than in the previous 5,000, McCarthy presents his material in three parts: developing broad-based personal skills, acquiring specific management of information skills (e.g. speed reading), and effective communication and presentation skills. His approach is based on an accelerated learning model developed by Dr. Georgi Lozanov (Bulgerian language expert) and similar to other "superlearning" experts.

Millman, Jason and Pauk, Walter. (1969). How to take tests. New York: McGraw Hill. 176 pages with illustrations and examples.

Examines the principles of exam readiness (intellectual, emotional and physical), how to write/answer any type of exam including: oral exams, open book, vocabulary, reading comprehension, number solving, graphs, essay, sentence completion, multiple choice, etc.

Ostrander, S. and Schroeder, N. (1979). Superlearning. New York: Delacoste Press. 342 pages with index and exercises.

Examines the concept and practical applications of superlearning, superperformance, and super-rapport. Presents exercises and examples of how people can achieve faster and more comprehensive learning with less stress and anxiety.

van Bommel, Harry (1985). The busy person's guide to notetaking, speed reading, studying and time management North York: Skills Development Publishing.

Presents practical information on taking notes, speed reading, studying and time management techniques to encourage a comprehensive and integrated approach to studying.


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