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Guide to studying effectively

You may already have experience of university-level study but are you working to your full potential? Do you understand what is expected of you, are you using your time effectively, and are you keeping on top of your reading and assignments? Here are some tips to help you during your studies at Stockholm University.

Student studying. Photographer: Niklas Björling

One of the greatest challenges of studying at a new university is understanding what is expected of you, and one of the best ways of doing this is to make sure that you are well-informed about things like your course schedule, coure literature, and assessment tasks and exams.

Course guides

When information becomes available for your course on your online learning platform, one of the first things you should do is to find and familiarize yourself with the course guide. While this document can take many different forms, it will normally set out the specific expectations for the course, the main forms of assessment, and sometimes also detailed assessment criteria.

Course literature

In or together with the course guide, you will receive a reading list. At Stockholm University you are expected to acquire the readings on this list yourself, and for many courses readers are not available for sale in the campus bookshop. Acquiring the readings normally involves checking the university library catalogue for articles and books that are available in digital formats, and borrowing or purchasing books that are only available in paper form.

It is important to acquire the course literature as early as possible as there can be competition for paper copies of course texts once a course has begun.

Schedules

Another important source of information is your course schedule. Classes at Stockholm University often take place on different days and at different times each week. They can also change at short notice.

For these reasons it is important to check your course schedule regularly. Up-to-date schedules are available via the university’s scheduling platform Timeedit and these can be accessed on the Timeedit page for your course or by subscribing to your course schedule in a calendar app.

Study time

When you receive your course schedule, it might seem that you have fewer classes and more independent study time than you are used to. Full-time study at higher education institutions in Sweden is planned around a 40-hour study week, including lectures and seminars. To be able to complete your course successfully you will need to make effective use of your independent study time to read the course literature, revise course content, prepare individual and group assignments and prepare for take-home or on-campus exams.

For more information on using your time effectively, read on!

Time of day

Understanding your study preferences is an important step towards using your time effectively. When do you study best? Are you a morning person or an evening person? Whatever your preference, prioritise the most demanding tasks during these periods (reading and writing, for example) and save less demanding tasks (finding sources, admin tasks) for times of day when you know you have more trouble staying focused.

Location

Do you prefer to work around other people or on your own? Do you prefer to work in the library or dedicated study spaces? Develop a routine around working in the space that feels most productive and comfortable for you.

Even if you like to work around other people and can tolerate some background noise, most people benefit from working in environments where they have as few distractions as possible. Additional steps you can take to reduce distractions in your study space are to switch off your mobile phone, switch off your internet (if it is not needed), and keep the space around you organised.

The pomodoro method is an excellent way to stay focused and avoid distraction when you read or write. The basic principle of the pomodoro method is to work in blocks of time with short breaks between them. After getting through a number of blocks, you give yourself a longer break.

By limiting the amount of time you work for and taking regular breaks, you ensure that you always have enough energy to hold your focus. Knowing that you are going to work for a limited time also makes it easier to get started and avoid getting distracted.

The amount of time you work and rest depends on what works best for you. Try 45-minute blocks of working time and 15-minute breaks to start with. After 3-4 blocks of work you can give yourself a longer break.

When you take your short breaks, keep in mind that one of the benefits of the pomodoro method is to stop your brain from becoming oversaturated with new information. Use your short breaks to go for a short walk or get a coffee, but avoid things like games, chats and online news that involve more stimulation or information. This way ensure that you are rested and ready for each new block of work.

An effective approach to reading is to divide reading into three stages: previewing, deep reading and reviewing. The objectives of these stages are to activate your existing knowledge of the topic, engage actively with the text, and then check your understanding of the text.

Before you begin

Before you even begin previewing a text, however, it is useful to think about the purpose of your reading. You might ask yourself the following questions:

  • How do the contents of the text relate to the overall learning objectives for the course?
  • What is the topic of the lecture or seminar I am reading the text for?
  • Am I reading the text together with a set of seminar questions?
  • What other texts am I reading for this seminar or lecture and how do they fit together?
  • Will I need to revise the contents of the text for an exam or essay later on?

Thinking about these questions before you read will help you to focus your time and attention on the most important parts of the text.

Previewing

The aim of previewing a text is to help you understand roughly what the text is about, where you can find the most relevant information, and how the author has structured the text. Having this ‘big picture’ view of the text is useful because it will help you to focus on what is important and avoid getting stuck in the small details.

Previewing a text can involve a number of different activities:

  • reading the abstract or book covers
  • looking at the table of contents
  • looking at headings and subheadings
  • looking at words in bold or italics
  • reading introductions and conclusions
  • reading topic sentences (usually the first sentences of each paragraph)
  • skim reading the whole text

An important thing to remember when you preview a text is that you do not need to understand everything you read at this stage. The idea is to give yourself an overview to help you prepare for deep reading.

Deep reading

This is the part of the reading process where you want to read carefully and engage with the text actively. This means thinking about what you read as you read it, and relating the text to the course content and to other texts you have read. Before you start reading deeply, consider again what the purpose of your reading is.

Taking notes as you read is one of the best ways of ensuring that you are engaging with the text actively. This can mean noting down key concepts, points and ideas, but also your reflections, doubts or even criticisms.

Exactly how you take notes is a matter of preference, but common ways of taking notes are highlighting and writing comments in the margins of the text, or taking notes on paper or on a computer, in point form or following a model such as Cornell.

For this part of the reading process, keep in mind that you will probably not need to read every part of the text with the same care and attention. Think about which parts of the text are most important and pay special attention to those.

If you are reading in a second or foreign language, note down important new words in a word list. These might be general words that are useful for reading and writing academic texts, or they might be words that are specifically related to your discipline or topic. If you keep word list in a spreadsheet, you can easily export the list to apps for studying vocabulary later on.

Reviewing

Reviewing can take different forms, but one of the best ways to review what you have read is to write a summary of the text. For longer texts, you might write summaries for different parts of the text.

Summary writing has the following benefits:

  • it helps you check your understanding of the text
  • it forces you to identify the most important information in the text
  • it gives you short texts you can revise with
  • it gives you practice writing about the ideas in the text
  • it generates text that you might even be able to incorporate into a written assignment later on

A good way to write a summary is to use your notes as a resource. Think again about the purpose of your reading and then write a paragraph that outlines the most important and relevant points from your notes. After you have written your summary, check it against the original source to make sure that you have expressed the ideas accurately.

Revising

Even if you have read actively and produced notes and summaries, it is easy to forget what you have read unless you revise actively. This revision might involve reading over your notes and summaries to remember the content, or it might involve testing your knowledge of different topics by using seminar questions or old exams.

Revision works best if you do it regularly, so aim to do short revision sessions through the week rather than a limited number of longer sessions close to exam times or deadlines.

One of the easiest ways to revise regularly is to create routines around revision. You can, for example, do quick revision sessions at the end of every day to go over what you studied during the day. Or you could begin every day by quickly revising what you studied the previous day. You can create the same routines around the beginning and end of every week. If you are able to give yourself repeated exposure to the ideas and information you are revising, you have a much better chance of committing them to your long-term memory.

Most of us are spending more time working at home than we are used to and it can be a real challenge. Here are some tips on how to use your time at home effectively:

  1. Try to create a fixed routine. Planning and organizing your time is always important, but now it is more important than ever. Try to make your days as regular as possible. Get up at the same time you would usually. Dress and get yourself ready as if you were going to the university. Take regular breaks, and, most importantly, take a real lunch break. Finish your study at the same time every day and try to make a clear distinction between your working time and personal time.
  2. Create a space in your home just for work. If you are not able to create a completely separate workspace, try to at least find a corner of a room that can function as your temporary study. It could be the end of your kitchen table, for example. When you have established your workspace, try to keep the rest of your home free from work-related objects. When the day is over, put away your computer, books and notes so that they are completely out of sight. You could keep your work materials in a bag or put them on a chair that you slide under the table. When working from home it is more important than ever to separate your working hours from your spare time.
  3. Take regular breaks. It is easier to sit for long periods with bad posture when you are working from home. Make sure you take a break every hour and move around in your breaks.
  4. Attend your online lectures and seminars, just as you would for regular campus-based study. Attending lectures and seminars makes it much easier to stay up-to-date with your course content. You also have the opportunity to check that you are on the right track, ask questions and socialize. This might be especially important if you have had to leave Sweden and are now studying from your home country. 
  5. Make it easier for yourself to concentrate. We are all going through a difficult time and you may find that it is more difficult than usual to concentrate. When you study, switch off anything that can distract you. Keep the phone on silent or switch it off. On your computer, close programs you do not need. Test out the pomodoro technique, a technique that involves working intensely for short periods of time and spacing out working sessions with short breaks.
  6. Stay connected. We are lucky enough to be living in a time when it is possible to keep in touch with others online. Take advantage of it. Chat with classmates. Arrange for coffee breaks on Zoom. Call a friend. Social distancing should not mean social isolation.
  7. Set guidelines for working at home. If you live with other people who are working or studying at home, it can be good to establish rules for working together. Who should work where? Can you both work at the same time or do you need to take turns so that you do not disturb each other? Do you need other rules to ensure that you can all work in peace?
  8. Be kind to yourself, and don't forget to exercise. A 45-minute walk is enough, preferably in the middle of the day. Midday walks help you to stay fit and get some time outdoors. Given the uncertain times we are living through, it is perfectly natural to feel anxious and worried. However, worrying is an energy thief, so try not to spend what little energy you have on things that are unnecessary. Concentrate on the here and now and the tasks you have at hand. If you find that it significantly increases your anxiety, try to avoid watching the news. Instead, try to distract yourself. Read a book. Watch a movie. Speak to a friend. 

To receive more specific advice on how you can improve your study skills, speak with one of our consultants. Study skills consultations are free for all students at Stockholm University and the Swedish Defence University. They can be booked via our consultations page:

Consultations

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