Studying advice

This guide has been written by Dr Suzanne Fergus, a chemistry lecturer and Associate Professor in Learning and Teaching at the University of Hertfordshire. Suzanne is familiar with the typical mistakes that students make and has written and published a book Study Smarter: a lecturer’s inside guide to boost your grades.

Overwhelm and motivation

Sometimes it can feel like an uphill struggle to get going and be motivated to study and learn. Continuous procrastination and not getting started can be a result of overwhelm. This is when we feel there is too much to deal with and we just keep putting things off.  When we focus on everything that we have to do, it’s common to feel overwhelmed. If you distract yourself with playing games or spending lots of time on your phone then these habits could result in overwhelm when you realise the work that you haven’t done.

A useful technique for overwhelm is to break down the work into smaller and more manageable chunks.

The Pomodoro technique helps to get you started (which is half the battle!). It’s breaking down time into 25-minute chunks and having a set task is important so, decide what you will work on for 25 minutes. Then spend 25 minutes of quality concentration and effort. Put away any distractions until you have a break. Reinforce that you have been productive and that you can do this. You can reward yourself after your daily win by spending time doing non-study activities.

Revision mistakes

Research tells us that most students use study strategies that are not the best use of their time. Do you re-read your notes? Do you copy out your notes? These approaches can feel productive but in terms of retaining information they steal your valuable time.

What to do instead? Questions lead to learning. Testing yourself and re-capping are powerful ways to boost your memory. Did you know that 20 minutes after a lecture, you will retain about 58% of the information and this is not because you were distracted? Forgetting is a natural process although it is frustrating.

There are various ways that you can recap when studying:

  • Take a blank piece of paper and test yourself
  • Teach and explain a topic out loud
  • Write a question on the topic that you then answer
  • Turn lecture outcomes into questions
Stress and worry

If you’re feeling uncertain or worried whilst studying, this can lead to stress and a sense of being lost. Our minds seek stability and answers and we can find ourselves in a spiral of thinking, all the what ifs that create the opposite to feeling a sense of control and safe. This can be draining over time and negatively impact on our mental health and wellbeing, so it is important to take some positive actions that will help manage your wellbeing if you are feeling stressed and anxious.

There is a level of uncertainty that does not cause us stress. So, it is important to re-balance what we can control and re-focus on that. This will help to reassure our brain that we are safe as not everything is going out of control. The circle of control is a great exercise to go through. Imagine a safe and protecting circle around you or think about drawing a circle.

Inside are all the things that you can control, so think about what these are, they are likely to be small yet particularly important things in your life: your routine, getting up, having breakfast, your study schedule, the tasks you are doing, time on your phone, how much news you watch.
These are the things that you want to focus on more and put your energy into these things.

Outside of your circle of control and those things that you cannot control such as the exam format, what others say and do and the news. The questions for you to consider: are you putting too much of your energy on these things that are outside your control? Are you thinking too much about them, talking too much about them? Acknowledge them yes, but then re-focus on what you can do now, today. Also seek help and guidance if you are concerned about your level of stress and worry.

Essential learning reminders:

1. Questions lead to learning

Re-reading notes or a textbook is not necessarily good studying. Yes, you will need to read information but use questions and testing to help your learning and help you remember what you are learning. Use activities (answering questions, asking questions, summarising) to engage more in the learning. A practice test improves long-term retention of knowledge or you can summarise or explain a topic in your own words.

2. Space out study topics

Break up larger teaching content into smaller units. Every 10-15 minutes include a question or activity. Space out studying of topics and mix them up. It’s not about studying one single topic for five hours, better to do five different topics for one hour each.

3. Connect to prior learning

Use pre-activities (questions, tell me about) to help surface knowledge that you already know. Use recapping questions e.g. revisit important concepts from a previous activity or recap on foundation knowledge. New knowledge will link with this prior knowledge more easily and effectively.


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