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Effective Study Skills: Help for High School Students

written by: Haley Drucker • edited by: Laurie Patsalides • updated: 1/5/2012

Studying for tests and finals can seem daunting at first, but there are a lot of ways to make your study time go faster and more smoothly. From finding the right location to using notes effectively, here are some tips that prove that study skills and high school students don’t have to be at odds.

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    Studying in High School

    For many students, high school is their first real experience with studying. Classes are tougher, and cumulative final exams are a particular challenge. Studying well is a skill that needs to be practiced and honed over time, and involves a number of steps (none of which is “cram all night right before the test"). Effective studying begins with creating the right environment, takes both time and planning, and requires careful use of such tools as textbooks, notes, and graphic organizers. Study skills and high school students don't have to be enemies—instead they can work together to foster real understanding.

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    Location, Location, Location

    It’s hard to study effectively when you’re distracted. That’s obvious enough, but many students forget to pay attention not only to how they’re studying, but also to where. The best place to study is somewhere quiet and not crowded, but that doesn’t necessarily mean in your bedroom. Bedrooms are full of distractions, so sometimes it’s better to find a more impersonal location. You can go somewhere else in your house, such as a kitchen or basement, or try a library or bookstore.

    The key is to get as far away as possible from your TV and computer and video games and CD collection. If you do decide to study at home in your bedroom, at least try to choose one particular spot to always study in—and don’t do anything else in that spot except study and do other homework. That way, when you sit down you’ll immediately be put into the right mindset, because you’ll associate that location with schoolwork.

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    Massed vs. Distributed Practice

    What does this mean? Simply put, it means that good studying results from spreading many short study sessions over a long period of time. If student "A" studies for 5 hours the day before the test, and student "B" studies for 1 hour a day for 5 days before the test, student "B" will retain more information and do better on the exam. This is true even though both students studied for the same amount of time.

    There are several reasons for this. For one, long last-minute study sessions are stressful and rushed, which are far from ideal study conditions. Also, when you study a little every day over a long period of time the information has more time to sink in and start to make sense. Your brain has more time to process what you’ve learned and make connections. Remembering to distribute your study time is hugely important, and it means you’ll need to start planning your study sessions well before the test. You’ll thank yourself when test day comes around and you feel well-prepared and confident.

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    Using Reading Strategies

    Before you can study effectively, you first need to learn and understand the information you’ll need to know. Besides paying attention in class, this means reading and making good use of textbooks and other kinds of texts. Using good reading strategies helps you make sense of what you read and retain it longer, whether you’re doing a first read-through or a review.

    Reading a text more than once is often a good study idea, and leads to huge benefits in retention and comprehension (though these benefits level off after the second or third read-through). Other useful strategies include making predictions before and while reading, taking brief notes, and asking yourself what the main ideas of the text are. When studying from a textbook, pay special attention to chapter and section titles as well as anything in bold, italics, or a sidebar.

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    Taking and Using Notes

    Whether you’re taking notes during class or from a textbook, poor note taking skills can sabotage your ability to study efficiently. One thing that holds many students back is trying to take too many notes. Limit yourself to the main ideas and most important facts, especially when taking notes from a textbook that you can refer back to later. Even when taking notes during class, you don’t want to try and record every word—you’ll be too busy scribbling notes to actually understand what the teacher is saying. Jot down words and phrases that will help you remember the important concepts and then move on. Use plenty of shortcuts too, such as “b/c" instead of “because."

    Many students find it helpful to use some form of graphic organizer for note taking. There are many ways to do this, but one of the most basic is to draw a line dividing your paper into 2 columns. Then, write topic headings in the left column, while putting details and so forth in the right column. Simple structures like this help keep your notes organized and easier to review when it comes time to actually study. What’s most important, though, is to experiment and see what works best for you. There is no right way to take notes—there are only more and less helpful ways.

    When studying from your notes, don’t just read them over and over again. This doesn’t tell you if you are actually remembering and understanding the material. Instead, quiz yourself by glancing at a section or topic heading and trying to recite the rest of the information from memory. Putting it all in into your own words this way is a much better test, and lets you know how much studying you still need to do before you have the material down. You can also use your notes to create a study guide if your teacher hasn't provided one, and tailor it to make it easy to review.

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    Flashcards and Other Graphic Organizers

    Flashcards can be an incredibly helpful study tool. Like trying to remember what’s in your notes rather than just reading them, using flashcards forces you to recall the relevant information instead of just recognizing it. Don’t give in to the temptation to just read both sides—give each card the time it deserves and don’t look at the answer until you’ve come up with a guess. And give the answers out loud, even if you’re studying by yourself—we won’t get into the neuroscience of it here, but saying facts out loud helps your brain remember them more easily.

    Flashcards aren’t the only graphic organizers that can be used to improve a study session. A mind map or idea web can help you see just how the different concepts you’re learning relate to each other, and identify the main ideas. Venn diagrams help you relate two or three different ideas, texts, time periods, etc. and see how they compare and contrast. And other types of graphic organizers help you summarize information in a clear and concise way.

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    Shoot for Understanding

    While some tests require you to simply regurgitate facts and numbers, others require a deeper understanding of the subject material. In either case, you’ll be better prepared for the test if you can actually make sense out of what you’re learning. You can foster critical thinking while studying by constantly asking yourself questions such as “What is the main idea here?" “How do these concepts tie together?" and “How can I relate this to something else I already know about or have experienced?"

    Asking questions and coming up with personal, relevant examples helps you get past the surface level of memorization and start to really master the subject you’re studying. Don’t forget to mix this tactic with your other study techniques—for example you can write questions in your notes and include examples on the answer side of your note cards.

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    Happy Studying!

    Studying doesn’t have to be stressful, and it doesn’t have to be hard. A little time and effort go a long way towards improving your retention and critical understanding of important material. This is far from a comprehensive list of study tips, but these basics will start you on your way to more productive and effective study sessions. These study skills and high school students' abilities can come together to facilitate the learning process. And remember: distributing your study time is the single most important technique you can use.