How to Study:

A Brief Guide

William J. Rapaport

Department of Computer Science and Engineering,
Department of Philosophy,
and Center for Cognitive Science
State University of New York at Buffalo,
Buffalo, NY 14260-2000

Last Update: Wednesday, 14 February 2024

Note: NEW or UPDATED material is highlighted

PDF version (25 January 2018)

If you are reading a printed version of this, you might be interested in the Web version, at

which has numerous links to other helpful Web sites (indicated in some printed versions by underlined phrases).

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  1. Introduction
  2. Manage your time
  3. Take notes in class & rewrite them at home
  4. Study hard subjects first & study in a quiet place
  5. Read actively & slowly, before & after class
  6. Do your homework
  7. Study for exams
  8. Take Exams
  9. Do research & write essays
  10. Do I really have to do all this?
  11. Are there other websites that give study hints?

1. Introduction

It has been claimed that everyone has a different
"learning style".

But everyone surely has a different "studying style".

More importantly, the way that you are studying right now might not be the best for you:
How would you know? Easy: If your grades aren't what you'd like them to be, then you probably need to change how you study!

One important clarification before we begin:

Studying may include doing homework, but it is also a lot more, as you will see.
(So, if you say that you have no homework and that therefore you can't, or you don't have to, study, you're mistaken!)

I am going to give you some suggestions on how to study efficiently. They worked for me when I was in high school, college, and graduate school.
Not only that, but they worked equally well for me in humanities courses (like philosophy and literature) and in science courses (like math and computer science).

But, to the extent that everyone's styles may be different, some of my suggestions may not work for you, at least not without some individual modifications.
Nevertheless, I urge you to try them. Most successful students use them (or some slight variation of them).

Please feel free to send me suggestions for studying that worked for you. I will try to include them in further versions of this guide.

2. Manage Your Time

2.1. School is a full-time job. And managing your time is important.

2.2. Set yourself a grade goal. If you don't meet it, cut down on non-school activities. (If you can't, because you're working for a living, then consider dropping down to part-time schooling.)

2.3. For some tips on managing your time during exams, see below.

2.4. For some tips on managing your time when doing projects, see below.

3. Take Notes in Class & Rewrite Them at Home

Outline and Index:

  1. Take Notes
  2. Take Complete Notes
  3. Use Abbreviations
  4. Neatness Doesn't Count
  5. Ask Questions & Make Comments
  6. Copy Your Notes at Home
  7. Don't Take Notes on a Computer
  8. Don't Rely on the Instructor's Lecture Notes
  9. Further Reading

3.1. Take Notes

Good studying at home begins with good notes taken in class.

Just as different students may have different learning or studying styles, different teachers have different teaching styles (and often these clash with the students' learning styles!):

Consequently, different classroom settings will require different note-taking techniques. But the suggestions here are general enough to work in most situations.

3.2. Take Complete Notes

The key idea of taking good notes in class is to write down as much as possible. There are several reasons to take notes that are as complete as possible:
  1. It will force you to pay attention to what's going on in class.
  2. It will keep you awake (!)
  3. There will be less that you'll have to remember.

Should you concentrate on taking notes or should you concentrate on understanding what you are learning?

3.3. Use Abbreviations

Taking complete notes will require you to write fairly quickly and, as a consequence, to use abbreviations. Here are some that I use (many of which I borrowed from other students and teachers), to give you an idea of how you can abbreviate. If you send text messages on your cell phone, then you know the sort of abbreviations I'm talking about. Use them when you take notes in class!

A related idea is based on a system of shorthand called Speedwriting: There used to be ads in the New York City subway system that read something like this:

The key idea in abbreviating is to use abbreviations that will make sense to you. You can put an abbreviation key in the margin of your notebook for any abbreviations that you make up on the spot.

3.4. Neatness Doesn't Count.

Yet another key idea of note-taking is that you don't have to be neat! You only have to be legible enough to be able to read your notes a few hours (or, at most, a few days) later. The reason for this will become clear later.

3.5. Ask Questions & Make Comments

If you have a question or something comes to mind as you're taking notes, you have two choices:

  • You can contribute to the class discussion by asking your question or making your comment.
  • Or you can jot your question or comment down in your notes.

    I suggest always doing the latter, but also doing the former as often as possible.

  • One reason that you should always put your question or comment in your notes is so that you won't forget it. You can then always bring it up later, either in class or one-on-one with the teacher or a fellow student.
  • Another reason, of course, is that if you do bring it up in class, it should thereby become part of the day's class notes!

    One technique that I use to be able to distinguish my own questions or comments from the rest of the notes is to put them in the margin and/or to surround them with big, bold square brackets [like this.]

    By the way, if you have a question, especially if you need clarification of something that the teacher said or wrote (possibly because it was inaudible or illegible), ask it!

  • Do not be embarrassed about asking it!
  • I can guarantee you that there will be at least one other student in the class (and often many more) who will be extremely grateful to you for having asked the very same question that they were too embarrassed to ask.
  • And they will come to view you as wise and brave for having asked it. (So will the teacher!)

    3.6. Copy Your Notes at Home

    Recall that this section was titled "Take Notes in Class & Rewrite Them at Home".

    The title was not "Take Notes in Class & Study Them at Home".

    Of course you should study your class notes at home; but just (re-)reading them is too passive.

    One of the themes of this guide is that

    It is all too easy when just reading passively to have your mind wander or even to fall asleep:

    Moreover, notes are often incomplete or sketchy; just reading such notes won't help. And a few days or months after you take them, they may very well be illegible or incomprehensible. Finally, if you don't do something active with your notes, you run the risks of having unorganized notes or of misplacing them.

    What I suggest is that you study your notes by re-writing them:

    The main idea behind re-writing your "raw" class notes (besides making them more legible and organized) is that the very act of copying them is one of the best ways of studying them! Further study of your class notes can then be done from these "cooked" ones that are neater, more legible, more organized, and more complete. I will suggest ways to do this later.

    Use this opportunity to fill in gaps from your memory while they are still fresh in mind. You may find that you have questions, perhaps something you missed or don't understand, or even a "substantive" question. If so, good! Make a note of your question and ask it in class next time!

    Use this opportunity to (re-)organize your notes in a more logical or coherent fashion. You could write your permanent notes in an outline form if that seems suitable: You don't have to follow any "official" or formal outlining style (e.g., using the I.A.1.(a)(i) format or the (sometimes silly) rule that there must always be at least two subsections, never just one) — after all, these are your notes. Personally, I like to number main ideas (and separate them with a line), using an "indented bullet" style for details:

    1.  Main idea 1
        - detail 1
        - detail 2
          - further detail 2.1
        - detail 3
          - further detail 3.1
          - further detail 3.2

    2.  Main idea 2

    3.  Main idea 3


    3.7. Don't Take Notes on a Computer

    By the way, I do not recommend taking notes on a laptop computer during class.

  • Certainly you should not do this unless you are a very good typist and have "compiled" your word-processing or text-editing program into your fingertips.
  • (In any case, typing can be very noisy and disturbing to your fellow students!)

    Also, typing class notes into a computer file can be inconsistent with my recommendation to re-write your class notes.

  • Rewriting on a computer might have some advantages in terms of keeping track of your notes or, especially, searching them.
  • And, of course, you can edit your computer file later, but editing is not the same as copying, and I am recommending copying as a means to studying (for one thing, it forces you to (re-)read all your notes).
  • Of course, you can copy your raw notes into a neater computer file; this may be a matter of taste, but I find that I have a firmer grasp of what I write if I handwrite it than if I type it.
  • (As Usama Fayyad has said: computers are "great at bookkeeping but not yet great at recording impromptu ideas, thoughts, feelings. For that, paper is still far superior. You can hold it, fold it, put it in your pocket, look at it again later when it's convenient" (as quoted in Swerdlow 1999: 130).)
  • Moreover, the main use of your notes should be for summarizing them to make a study guide for exams.
  • In that case, handwritten notes would serve as well as online ones, especially if you're tempted to create the summary merely by cutting and pasting your computer file rather than by rewriting.

    Worse, you may be tempted to use the computer that you're ostensibly taking notes on to surf the Internet, look at email, or chat with friends. Don't! (For an interesting debate on this topic, see Adams 2006.)

    For that matter, turn off your computer in class. And your iPod. And your cell phone. And your pager. And anything else that might distract you. For reasons why, see:

    3.8. Don't Rely on the Instructor's Lecture Notes

    Some instructors provide their own set of lecture notes, often on the Web or in PowerPoint (or some other format).

  • These can be useful, but you should not rely on them.
  • If all you do with them is print them out, maybe read them once, and save them, they are useless, because you are using them passively.

    3.9. Further Reading

    4. Study Hard Subjects First & Study in a Quiet Place

    Study hard subjects first.

    Study in a quiet place, with as few distractions as possible.

    When should you study or do your homework?

    5. Read Actively & Slowly, before & after Class

    Outline & Index:

    1. Read actively, not passively
    2. Read slowly
    3. Highlight the text in the margin
    4. Make notes in the margin
    5. Keep a notebook
    6. Read literature quickly and passively the first time
    7. Read before and after class

    5.1. Read Actively, Not Passively

    Whatever you have to read  —  whether it's a text book, a work of fiction, a poem, an essay, an article from a journal or magazine, or even a class handout  —  read it slowly and actively:

    5.2. Read Slowly.

    "…an undeniable truth: that in the pursuit of knowledge, slower can be better."
          —Gleick, James (2011), The Information (New York: Pantheon): 404.

    The first step in reading actively is to read s-l-o-w-l-y. Here is an algorithm (i.e., a procedure) for how to read any text, in any subject, slowly and actively:

    Since there is no next sentence (because the Boolean test in the WHILE is false), you've understood the text!

    For those of you who may not be familiar with how to read structured computer programs such as this one, here's how it goes:

    This algorithm has three major advantages:

    1. It forces you to actively think about each sentence you read before you go on to read the next one.

    2. It slows you down, so that you don't read past the point at which you don't understand. This is especially important in mathematical and scientific subjects.

    3. It can help you get help from your teacher, because you can show your teacher exactly where you got lost.
      • It is always much better to show your teacher exactly what it is that you don't understand than it is to just say that you don't understand the material.

    4. Note that it also provides you an opportunity to interact with your instructors and fellow students!

    How do you know whether you understand what you've read? Easy: After each sentence, ask yourself "Why?" (Pressley & El-Dinary 1992).

    For more information on slow reading, see:

    1. Pressley, Michael, & El-Dinary, Pamela Beard (1992), "Memory Strategy Instruction that promotes Good Information Processing", in Douglas J. Herrmann, Herbert Weingartner, Alan Searleman, & Cathy McEvoy (eds.), Memory Improvement: Implications for Memory Theory (New York: Springer-Verlag): 79-100.

    2. Hartman, Geoffrey H. (1996), "The Fate of Reading Once More", PMLA (Proceedings of the Modern Language Association) 111(3) (May): 383-389; see especially p. 386.

    3. Waters, Lindsay (2007), "Time for Reading", Chronicle of Higher Education 53(23) (9 February): B6-B8.

    4. Bauerlein, Mark (2008), "Online Literacy Is a Lesser Kind: Slow Reading Counterbalances Web Skimming", Chronicle of Higher Education 54(31) (19 September): B10-B11.

    5. Blessing, Kimberly A. (2013), "I Re-Read, therefore I Understand", Philosophy Now No. 94 (January/February): 17.

      • "René Descartes' advice on reading philosophy"

        1. "Read through the entire work quickly, as you would a novel.…"
        2. "Read through a second time, paying greater attention…"
        3. "Read through a third time, keeping the questions and problems noted in Step 2 in mind.…"
        4. "If some difficulties still remain, re-read those parts a fourth time.…"

    6. And for information on why speed reading doesn't work, see:

    5.3. Highlight the Text in the Margin

    There are some other tricks for active reading. One, of course, is to highlight important or interesting passages. There are several ways to do this:

    5.4. Make Notes in the Margin

    You should also make notes in the margin of the text (if there's room, and if the text belongs to you).

    But now suppose that a few months (or a few years) later, you want to find that interesting passage that related to, say, consciousness; how will you find it?

    5.5. Keep a Notebook

    Highlighting has the disadvantage that it can lead you to highlight everything, and margins have the disadvantage that they are often too small for making comments.

    These notes can then be used later if you write a term paper or research paper that discusses the material in the text.

    5.6. Read Literature Quickly and Passively the First Time.

    Earlier, I said that there was an exception to this method of slow and active reading:

    What about film or video versions?

    5.7. Read Before and After Class

    Ideally, you should read a text at least twice:

    6. Do Your Homework

    It should go without saying that you should do your homework and do it on time.

    Science and math courses (and some others, such as foreign-language courses) often require you to do homework exercises or problem sets.

    7. Study for Exams


    1. Don't study for exams!
    2. Manage your time
    3. How not to study
    4. Make a study outline
    5. Write sample essays & do sample problems
    6. Make "flash cards"
    7. Stop studying when you feel confident

    7.1. Don't Study for Exams!


    That's right: You shouldn't study only for exams. And you shouldn't study for the sake of exams.

    You should "study for learning and understanding":

    But in case you do want to study for that exam, here are some suggestions:

    7.2. Manage Your Time

    The first rule is: Don't cram!

    Earlier, I discussed managing your time. When you have exams, time management becomes even more crucial.

    Begin studying about 1 week before the exam.

    For final exams, try to spend as much time as possible studying.

    7.3. How Not to Study

    Believe it or not, re-reading your textbook has "little or no benefit" when you are studying for a test. (Callender & McDaniel 2009; see also John Dunlosky,
    "Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning", American Educator 37(3) (Fall 2013): 12–21.)

    Most students don't realize this, because they have an "illusion of competence" (that is, you think you know the material better than you really do) when they re-read notes and textbooks (Karpicke et al. 2009; Belluck 2011), especially when re-reading passively instead of actively.

    One method of studying that is better than passive re-reading is the "read-recite-review" ("3R") method: "Read the text, set the text aside and recite out loud all that [you can] remember, and then read the text a second time" (McDaniel et al. 2009).

    More importantly, you learn better and remember more from repeated testing (from both in-class quizzes and from self-testing at home) than from repeated reading (Karpicke et al. 2009). (So when your instructor gives you lots of quizzes or tells you to memorize basic facts, don't complain! That's the best way to learn and to remember what you learn.)

    The next few sections give you some suggestions on how to do this.

    7.4. Make a Study Outline

    Use your recopied class notes, together with your highlighted text and notebook, to make an outline of the material.

    7.5. Write Sample Essays & Do Sample Problems

    For subjects in which you will be expected to write essays, either "psych out" the teacher and make up some plausible essay questions, or get copies of old exams that have real essay questions on them.

    For subjects in which you will have to solve problems or write proofs, solve lots of sample problems from your text or from other texts.

    7.6. Make "Flash Cards"

    For any subject, you can make a set of "flash cards".

    Then memorize the questions and answers—but do not simply recite them by heart.

    Recent psychological evidence suggests that people learn better by making mistakes than by getting everything correct. So don't worry about getting some answers wrong! (See Roediger III, Henry L.; & Finn, Bridgid (2010), "The Pluses of Getting It Wrong", Scientific American Mind 21(1) (March/April): 39–41.

    Why write, and not merely recite?

    Moreover, there is evidence that the kind of "self-testing" that you can do with this technique is one of the best ways to study: "taking practice tests (versus merely rereading the material to be learned) can substantially boost student learning", according to John Dunlosky, "Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning", American Educator 37(3) (Fall 2013): 12–21.

    7.7. Stop Studying When You Feel Confident

    How do you know when you've studied enough?

    8. Take Exams

    First, read the entire exam all the way through.

    For an essay question, do a "mind dump":

    For an exam with problems to solve or proofs to write, do the easy ones first.

    When you are all done, review your answers carefully.

    And, when all of your exams are over, take heed… :-)

    9. Do Research & Write Essays.


    1. Choose topic carefully
    2. Do research
    3. Make an outline
    4. Write, using your outline
    5. Edit
    6. Manage your time
    7. Some Interesting Online Articles on Writing

    From For Better or For Worse:

    9.1. Choose Topic Carefully

    Choose your topic wisely.
  • Avoid the two extremes of a topic that is so broad or well-known that there are too many sources of information and a topic that is so narrow or little-known that there is a paucity of information.
  • If you are having trouble choosing a topic, talk to your teacher.

    9.2. Do Research

    Once you have a topic and have found appropriate resource materials,
    read them slowly and actively, and be sure to keep a notebook.
  • I won't repeat the details of those suggestions here, with one exception: Be sure to carefully record your sources and the page numbers of any quotations, so that you can include them in your final report.

    9.3. Make an Outline

    This stage may require several iterations.
  • You should make an outline and sort your notes into categories that correspond to the main sections of your outline.
  • But which of these should you do first? It doesn't matter.

    How do you make an outline? The suggestions that follow work for almost anything you have to write.

  • First, write down a handful of main themes that you want to discuss (these will be the categories that you sorted your notes into); describe each using only a few keywords.
  • Decide in what order you want to write about them, and then—on a blank piece of paper—put each at the head of a column, something like this:

    These will be the main sections of your paper. In addition, you should always have an introductory section and a conclusion or summary section.

  • Next, in each column, write down the main ideas that you want to include, again ordering them and using just a few keywords.

    9.4. Write, Using Your Outline

    Once you've got your outline, start writing, using your outline and notes as a guide.

  • Don't spend too much time editing what you write at this stage. Just write.
  • (I should note that some people prefer "free writing" , in which you don't spend any time preparing an outline before you write. If that works for you, go for it.)

    By the way, it's always helpful for keeping track of where you are in your outline, both to you as writer and to your reader, to give each section and subsection a name, as I have done in this document.

    9.5. Edit

    After you've written your first draft, re-read what you wrote, using the method of slow and active reading, and revise (or "edit") what you wrote.
  • Then ask a friend to read it and give you feedback.
  • Then revise again, and prepare the final version.

    9.6. Manage Your Time

    And don't procrastinate!

    For some tips on how to procrastinate about procrastinating, see:

    On the other hand, for an argument in favor of procrastinationg, see:

    9.7. Some Interesting Online Articles on Writing:

    1. Vonnegut, Kurt (1982), "How to Write with Style"


      • Find a subject you care about.
      • Do not ramble.
      • Keep it simple.
      • Have the guts to cut.
      • Sound like yourself.
      • Say what you mean to say.
      • Pity the readers.

    2. Gray, Tara (2005), "Publish and Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar", Tomorrow's Professor Mailing List #661

    3. Andrews, Mark, "Some Elements of an Essay"

    10. Do I Really Have to Do All This?

    Right about now, you're probably asking yourself whether you really have to do all of this. It seems like an awful lot of work.

    Well, of course, you don't have to do all of it at once. Try various of these suggestions to see what works for you. Try some variations that may better fit your learning style or personal circumstances. But, in the long run, there's no quick and easy road to studying. It is hard work and should take a lot of time.

    So, do you really have to do all of this? Yes (or things very much like them)—if you want to really learn the material (and get good grades).

    Finally, for what it's worth, here are some comments from students and others who have tried some of these methods:

    Goldbaum, Ellen (2009, December 17), "UB Professor's Online Study Guide Makes a Great Gift That Keeps On Giving", University at Buffalo NewsCenter.

    11. Are There Other Websites that Give Study Hints?

    Yes; here are some that looked good to me; many of them have further links for you to follow:


    Adams, Dennis (2006), "Wireless Laptops in the Classroom (and the Sesame Street Syndrome)", Communications of the ACM 49(9; September): 25-27.

    Belluck, Pam (2011), "Take a Test to Really Learn, Research Suggests", New York Times (21 January): A14.

    Callender, Aimee A.; & McDaniel, Mark A. (2009), "The Limited Benefits of Rereading Educational Texts", Contemporary Educational Psychology 34: 30–41.

    Claxton, Charles S., & Murrell, Patricia H. (1987), Implications for Improving Educational Practices, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4 (Washington, DC: Association for the Study of Higher Education).

    Glenn, David (2010, January 8), "Customized Teaching Fails a Test", Chronicle of Higher Education: A1, A7–A8.

    Holland, John L. (1966), The Psychology of Vocational Choice (Waltham, MA: Ginn & Co.)

    Karpicke, Jeffrey D.; Butler, Andrew C.; & Roediger III, Henry L. (2009), "Metacognitive Strategie in Student learning: Do Students practise Retrieval When They Study on Their Own?", Memory 17(4): 471–479.

    Kolb, David A. (1984), Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall).

    McDaniel, Mark A.; Howard, Daniel C.; & Einstein, Gilles O. (2009), "The Read-Recite-Review Study Strategy: Effective and Portable", Psychological Science 20(4): 516–522.

    Pashler, Harold; McDaniel, Mark; Rohrer, Doug; & Bjork, Robert (2009), "Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence", Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9(3): 105–119.

    Sternberg, Robert J. (1999), Thinking Styles (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press)

    Swerdlow, Joel L. (1999, August), "The Power of Writing", National Geographic 196(2): 110-133, 136.

    Willingham, Daniel T. (2018), "Does Tailoring Instruction to 'Learning Styles' Help Students Learn?", American Educator 42(2) (Summer): 28–32, 43.

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