Effective studying

Thinking about how best to learn.

Being an effective student means using your time well, making notes that are useful and organising your ideas. The IAD Learning resources pages contain strategies and tools for effective studying. This page has additional approaches to study that are known to make a difference.

For University level study, you may find that you need to develop and adapt approaches to learning that have worked for you in the past as your learning at University will be more self-directed.

The basics

Be engaged

Being active and engaged makes studying more interesting; boredom is the enemy. Making learning a bit more challenging, and less passive, makes learning more satisfying and memorable. This involves pausing to ask questions and looking for the main points in response to your source material. Actively looking for connections between different ideas and different parts of a course can help generate deeper understanding. 

Spaced learning

Spreading out your study sessions over time, sometimes known as spaced learning, leads to improved learning compared to massed study e.g. just before an exam in revision week.

Spaced learning seems to be particularly effective when combined with self-testing. It does mean planning ahead – dividing study topics and periods up and spacing them out rather than cramming. You can also mix up types of information or problems, a technique known as interleaving.

Spaced learning (pdf)      Spaced learning (Word rtf)

Using notes and making summaries

Using notes in an active way helps makes learning more effective. Look for points for and against an argument. Summarise the main points on a table/grid or concept map. Different parts of a topic can be linked together to form a bigger picture to which examples or case studies can be added. Aim to construct meaning for yourself.

Note restructuring makes some suggestions and includes a method for using lecture slide notes more actively.

Note restructuring (pdf)       Note restructuring (Word rtf)


Self-testing is a powerful way to learn. Practising retrieving content in varied ways makes it easier to recall at a future point.

Re-reading notes and texts can lead us to we think we have a better grasp of the content than we really do simply because it is familiar. Try leaving a time gap between reading material and writing a summary. This time gap could be as short as an hour or as long as a day. Summarising from memory and then checking the summary afterwards makes us more aware of any misunderstandings and points that have been missed. 

It isn't enough just to be able to recall material because it also needs to be used well and fitted into a bigger picture. Making up and using mock questions which mimic the style and type of exam you are sitting can help you practice selecting material to construct a convincing answer.

Ways to self-test (pdf)         Ways to self-test (Word rtf)

Focusing and routine

It can be difficult to get down to work when distracted. The key to being more productive is to make small but effective changes to study habits. This could be as simple as going to a particular place to study. It might mean controlling distractions by turning a phone off or having a self-imposed no web browsing rule. 

One way to change your study habits is to adopt new routines. The timer method is a study routine where you focus intently on working on a task for a set amount of time and then have a short break. Our web page on Time management has a handout explaining the Timer method and other tools to help prioritise and organise study sessions.

Time management

Managing the volume of reading

Using books and other texts strategically and in a focused way will make the best use of time. Aim to think actively when reading and target in-depth reading of texts on those deserving most attention e.g. essential texts.

Also think carefully about what (and what sections) to use. Try to have a set of questions in mind about your reading and write them down. As you are reading, seek the answers to them?

Beware of repetitive time-wasting strategies. Re-reading texts is not a particularly good way to study and spending time being busy looking for material in the library or online may mean there isn’t time to read and analyse all of it.

Reading at University

Go further

Thinking about making changes

Thinking about past experiences can help inform the present and the future. It is about understanding ourselves better making manageable changes.  

Thinking about making changes (pdf)          Thinking about making changes (Word rtf)

Reflection can be used to improve our own practice, performance and skills. It can help to develop and expand future employability. The University’s Employability Consultancy have created a Reflection Toolkit of resources, models and questions.

The Reflection Toolkit