John T. Stallworth, J.D., Ph.D.
David S. Litton, Ph.D.
Carol Pierce-Davis, Ph.D.
Rebecca Redwood, LMSW-ACP
Theodore Carlos, M.A., LPC
Whitney Humphrey, M.A., LMFT-A
Dona Stallworth, Ph.D.

Study Skills For Success


Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is to make you do the thing you have to do, when it a ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it is the first lesson that ought to be learned."  Thomas Huxley

Although Huxley's words may ring true, the process of studying for many of us can be arduous with much mental headbanging and little reward. Others study with little discomfort while attaining success and satisfaction. They learn the class material, and, they learn it efficiently. Their secrets are simple. They have the ability to fully concentrate on their work and they have an active concrete way to identify and retain the important facts, ideas, and concepts of the study material.


Reducing distractions to learning will help you to focus and maintain your concentration. To concentrate:

Control your environment.

Do I have a place for study that I can call my own?

A good study environment is highly individualized. What works for one person may not work for another. A place where you can study regularly and do nothing else may be the best of all possible worlds. In choosing your study place, consider the following:

  • Noise: What level of noise and what kind of noise can I tolerate? Do you need total silence, or will silence drive you up the wall? A dog barking, music playing, or people's voices in the background may interfere with your concentration. As a general rule, quieter is better, but LISTEN And decide for yourself.
  • Sight: Can I see what I am reading? Adequate lighting that covers your study materials is a must as poor lighting can cause drowsiness and headaches. Besides my study materials, what else may be in my field of vision? Posters, magazines, television, or people walking by can lure your eyes and attention away from the work at hand. Don't study near major traffic paths or in a place where the TV is on.
  • Touch: How comfortable do I want to be when I am studying? Hard chairs and cold rooms can be painfully uncomfortable, while recliners and beds may encourage you to sleep. Consider what furniture and room temperature will provide you a level of comfort that enhances your ability to concentrate.
  • Taste and Smell: Is eating while I study okay? Eating while studying can reduce your attention to your work. Contrary to popular belief, eating junk food can make you more drowsy when performing a sedentary activity like studying. It is a better idea to munch on food during a study break or after you have finished.

Organize your study time.

When is a good time to study and how should I structure this time?

First, if you consider your daily routine, you will find that you do certain things at certain times, e.g. eat, sleep, attend classes. You may also find that there are certain parts of the day when you feel more energetic; these are the times when you learn most easily and efficiently. So, set aside designated time periods to study during those parts of your day that you are most energized and then maintain these study times on a regular basis.

How long should I study at one time?

The length of your designated study times should be two to three hours. Of course this amount may vary depending upon your ability and the type and difficulty of your class assignments. When you sit down to study, start with the difficult or boring classes since they require the most energy, even though you may want to give priority to those classes that most interest you.

How do I pace myself?

Divide class assignments into smaller parts and set time goals for each part. As a general rule, work intensely for a period of no more than fifty minutes and then take a ten minute break. Relax during these breaks with a snack, conversation, walk, etc. Using reasonable time limits in this manner will help you to organize your work and to focus your attention, while reducing the likelihood that you will feel overwhelmed.

Stop Daydreaming

How can I stop daydreaming?

Simple: Don't start! You can prevent daydreaming by identifying and reducing the sources of daydreaming. Such sources include the fear of material to be studied, unfinished activities and obligations, overlong work assignments, and long conversations just before starting to study. Learning to relax, managing your time to meet your needs and obligations, organizing your study time, and managing what you do during the time immediately preceding your designated study times are ways of increasing your ability to concentrate and to limit daydreaming. If your mind begins to wander, consider taking a short study break.

Be Prepared

Do I have everything I need to study?

Examples of necessary study materials include course syllabi, reserved readings, books, notebooks, pencils, pens, rulers, erasers, paper, and a dictionary. Gather all your needed materials together before starting to study so that you won't be interrupted by the necessity to track down missing items. While studying, jot down things that need to be done. Once you have written them down you don't have to think about them and your study will not be disturbed.

Maintain a Positive Attitude.

Learn to laugh at your mistakes
Alternate work with relaxation
Make time for friendships
Eat a healthy diet
Exercise daily
Take time out for your favorite TV comedy show.


The SQ3R method of study and memory techniques is recommended to you as a prescription for effective learning.

What is it?

The SQ3R method identifies five specific steps of effective study: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review.

Survey. Get familiar with the material you are preparing to study. Take a minute or two (only) to survey the entire assignment. Observe headings and read any summaries to see how the material is organized. If there are illustrations or charts, scan them carefully as they give clues to the overall emphasis of the reading material.

Question. Ask yourself questions based on your survey of the reading material Turn the boldface headings into questions, e.g., The Genetic Code into an active question such as, What is the genetic code? or Why is it called a code? Turn the summary statements and any italicized phrase into questions. Ask yourself questions about charts and graphs and then seek answers to all your questions.

Read. Now you are reading, not passively, but actively with definite questions you wish to answer in mind. Read for main ideas and important details. When you reach the end of a headed section, go back and mark the main ideas. Use your own system of marking, but whatever you use, use it consistently. You can choose to underline, highlight, write key words in the margin, bracket significant paragraphs, etc. Indicate the relationships among main ideas by joining a word or two in the margin, or by using arrows to connect the ideas. Make your marks simple and have a good reason for every mark you make. Whatever system you use, don't over do it; highlighting everything is no better than highlighting nothing.

  • In a well-organized text you can, with practice, outline the chapters right in the margins with a word or two of comment for the major ideas. If you still wish to have separate chapter notes, you can use your marginal notes as headings and subheadings for a chapter outline. The well-thumbed, well marked textbook is the best review text of all.
  • Do not underline or highlight sentences as you re-read them. Look at a couple of paragraphs at a time and use your questions as a guide to determine the words and phrases you wish to underline. Select what you highlight with care and only after you have read all the surrounding sentences. You do not want to end up with excessive underlining or highlighting.

Recite. Look away from the assignment and ask yourself the questions you have developed. If you can answer the questions without referring back to the text, you know the material at the present time. If you cannot answer the questions without looking to the text, you need to re-read and repeat the study process. This recitation or recall step fixes the material in your mind. It will make reviewing for exams easier. Simply understanding while you read is not enough.

Review: Briefly review each headed sections as you complete it. This review
reinforces your memory of the material.

For subsequent headed sections, apply the question, read, recite, and review steps again. Approach your assignment in this fashion until it is completed. Finally, review the entire lesson by skimming over the headings and looking over your markings and notes, reciting what you have previously learned. Re-read enough to check yourself, to refresh your memory, and to see that you have not omitted important concepts. Review should always occur immediately after you have studied. Reviewing helps you to remember and thus reduces your necessity to cram for exams. The final review for an exam should, like your first review, emphasize recitation. Your final review will, however, be more extensive and intensive. You will profit from giving more attention to the earlier materials and apportion your study time so that you can review all material that will be included on the test.

Why should I use the SQ3R Method?

SQ3R is an excellent technique for improving your ability to concentrate and to comprehend. The method helps you to be active and selective in your reading and study, looking for answers to your questions, and helping you to recognize what is important and what is not. Further, it promotes your ability to remember the material. For a while you may find that your old, more passive study habits, will interfere with this active method of study. But if you will learn to apply SQ3R, you will find it rewarding and time-saving in the long run.

What errors do people make in using the SQ3R Method?

Some common errors made by students new to using the SQ3R method include:

  • Failing to turn topic headings into questions. Developing the questions takes time and concentration, however it is time and effort well spent since it promotes retention of the material and thus reduces review time for exams.
  • Taking notes from assignments in too much detail. Some students notes look very similar to the original text. Rather than writing such complete notes, think about what you have read, condense the material and extract the key concepts. Then, place these key concepts into your own words and write them as your notes. This promotes review and recall.
  • Failing to use notes for review. Use your notes whenever you review and review on a periodic schedule. Do not wait until shortly before exams to review. Review every few days.
  • Using SQ3R is rigid and mechanical. You may alter the study techniques to better suit your personal needs and the nature and difficulty of your study material. Some classes will require less note-taking, reciting, and reviewing, and some more. Customize the method to fit your needs.
  • Believing that SQ3R takes too much time. It takes practice and commitment to learn a new method of study. But, we guarantee that if you take the time to learn and use SQ3R, you will learn more effectively and efficiently.


We never actually lose what we have once experienced and learned. A problem may exist, however, in knowing how to retrieve information from the past. The SQ3R method of learning enhances your ability to retain and recall information. Here are a few other suggestions for helping your memory

  • Remember in a Context. Know the structure of what you are studying so that you may organize details and their relationship to each other in a context. If the whole makes sense, the parts are easier to recall.
  • Meaningful material is remembered more readily than is meaningless. The more meaningful the material to you, the more relationships you can see, the more principles you can understand, the more you will remember.
  • Overlearn certain types of material, e.g. formulas in math and science, parts of speech and grammar rules, verb conjugations in foreign languages, etc. A pack of file cards is useful as an overlearning tool for the type of material that lays a foundation for future learning. If you are studying complicated terminology or a formula, write the terminology or formula on one side of a card and the definition or usage on the other. Then, use the "flip" cards to review the essential information.
  • Use all your senses in learning: visual, auditory, tactile, etc. See the material in different ways such as by reading the text and your notes, then say it to yourself and hear how it sounds, write the material down and see what it looks like, say it aloud, think how you might apply the material and envision that experience. Let your senses reinforce each other as you learn.
  • Deliberately build associations Visualize concrete facts. For example, a medical student might memorize all the nerves and then visualize the nervous system and attach labels to each nerve. Or, try using nemonic devices. Make up your own. For example using the fictitious name ROY G BIV as a way to recall the spectrum has been used by thousands of students. Once Roy G Biv is in mind, then recall R=red, O=orange, Y=yellow, G=green, B=blue, I=indigo, and V=violet. Take a close look the next time you see a rainbow. Thus, it becomes only necessary to remember the name in order to trigger your recall of the colors in the spectrum.
  • Practice in the farm which you are to be tested. Once initial learning has occurred, it is more effective to do some chemistry problems than to re-read how to do them. Rehearse a speech by giving it out loud, prepare for an oral exam by speaking, prepare for translation by translating, etc.
  • Expectations are extremely important. If you are mentally ready to be interested and to learn, it is likely that you will learn and experience some satisfaction in doing so. On the other hand, if you begin an assignment with a belief that it will be boring or too hard for you, it probably will be.

These memory techniques used in conjunction with the SQ3R method will help you to retain and recall important facts, ideas, and concepts you are studying. Employing this method may feel awkward at first, but through practice and the subsequent success you will experience, it will soon become a familiar and reliable tool for academic success.


Algier, A. S. (1975) Everything you need to know about learning. Dubuque,
lowa: Kendall/Hunt Co.

Deese, E. K., & Deese, J. (1979) How to study. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Paus, E. (1962) How to Study in College. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

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