by Ronald C. Blue
Permission granted to duplicate for non-profit educational or research purposes.
Countless times students have asked me what is the best way to study. While the recommendations that I am about to make to you are no guarantee of success, I believe they will optimize your chances of success.

Perspectives on the problem:

Research shows that the average student will study for a test. The average person will study four hours for a daily quiz, four hours for a weekly quiz, four hours for a major test, four hours for a midterm, and four hours for a comprehensive final. The outcome of this four hours of study will vary from an A for a daily quiz to an F for the comprehensive final. This means that in high school grades are strongly determined by intelligence since everyone studies the same amount of time.

College is different. Most of the students are highly intelligent and some are highly motivated.

In almost all college courses if you have a poor vocabulary and do not really like to read, you are in serious trouble. If you can succeed with your weird teachers, then you can succeed with your even weirder bosses. Your study habits formed in high school may vector you toward failure because you have never experienced what it takes to perform at the college level. That is why the freshman year is the hardest year you will ever experience in college.

It takes about one year to learn how to learn at a college level. Most people never learned to learn at a college level. They then encourage their children to get the education they never got. They rarely read and talk about intellectual ideas, thereby predisposing their children for low academic achievement.

You should break the pattern. There is no gain in life without some pain.

Based on my extensive observation of student performances on college tests, I recommend the following study time per test: (For Tests every 3 to 4 weeks in a 15-week class)

22 hours for an A 6 hours per week
16 hours for a B 4 hours per week
14 hours for a C 3.5 hours per week
10 hours for a D 2.5 hours per week
0 hours for an F 0 hours per week

An hour of study is defined as studying for 45 minutes and a break of 15 minutes. Ten hours of continuous study without a break is defined as one hour of study.

The brain does not process and store information the way students prefer studying. Occasionally, some succeed by studying at the last minute, but they are exceptions to the rule. Some people’s brain and life experiences reduces the time required to learn particular types of material. In other types of material they have to spend more time to master the material.

Research suggests that the slowest 10 percent of the students may need 5 to 6 times as much time to learn the same material as the fastest 10 percent. Each person is highly likely to have strengths and weaknesses. Overcoming your weakness increases your strength.

In other words, you can succeed if you pay the price necessary for success.

The price of success:

The price is too high, you say? Or I would like to succeed but don’t have the time? It isn’t fair, you say?

Life is not fair. Reality is not your parents. There is no free lunch. Anything of value requires great effort. If you pay the price, the price required of you in the future will be less. In the past a college degree has meant about $100,000 to $250,000 more in a lifetime than when there is no degree. Each college test is worth about $36 per hour of study or $800 over the course of your life.

If you were offered $1,000,000 if you had an A in a college course, could you accomplish the goal? Probably. You do not have to be a genius to graduate from college. You have to work hard, be persistent, and pay attention to details. These traits – plus the capacity to learn – are ultimately why a college degree is valuable.

How to get started:

Believe you can succeed. Be willing to pay the price. The price is always what you don’t want to pay. Make success in college your number one goal. You cannot have multiple goals. Everything comes in its own season. There is a time to learn; a time to play; and a time to work.

Failure begins in an excuse, a short cut. There is no royal road to learning or achieving excellence.

Do the following without wavering.

  • Survey:

    Before you start your learning task, read over the major headings and summaries of the chapters in the textbook. This gives you a feeling for the whole picture and to what material you should pay attention while reading the chapters. Research shows that students who do this make higher grades, and this simple step is the most powerful thing you can do.

  • Reading, underlining, and taking notes:

    As you read the material, you must take written notes and underline. Use only the left half of the page. Transfer to the right side of the paper comments your teacher made about the material during lecture. You must always be ahead of your teacher in your reading.

    Research shows that the more different ways you present information to the brain the easier it is to learn. In other words hear it, see it, say it, write it, practice it, highlight it, quiz it, etc.

    Underlining is a skill that must be developed. The tools of underlining should vary based on your preference. Use highlighters or colored pens. At first you should underline approximately 85 percent of material. Later on as your skill increases, you should reduce the amount of material underlined.

    Use two different colored highlighters or Flair pens for underlining important material as you read. Use one color (e.g., red) for extremely important material or to offset important material, and another color (e.g., blue) for moderately important material. You can switch from highlighters to pens when reading the material the second time. The process of reading and deciding if the material is important enough to be underlined increases memory for that material. It is the decision and thinking that creates the memory.

    It is best to over predict your instructors at first. It is easier to cut back on the material to be learned than to increase the amount to be learned. Use stars to arrange the material in hierarchies of importance. Three stars ( * * * ) would be more important than two stars ( * * ).

  • The 3″x5″ card system.

    Using the colors of red and blue, now make 3″x5″ cards putting the vocabulary of the course, long lists of items, experiments, and lecture on the cards. Key words should be written in red. If you have to be different, go with 1″x3″ instead of 4″x6″. One theory, concept, or vocabulary word per card.

    The biggest problem with textbooks and lecture notes is that we cannot separate the material that we know from the material that we do not know. Because of this, we waste hours studying what we already know, rather than concentrating our valuable time on what we do not know. The red tells your mind that this is extremely important material.
    Writing the material stores the information in the brain in a way that is not normally used. On the back of the cards is definition about the material on the front. After numbering the cards so you can put them back in order later on, you should start studying the cards until you feel you know the material.

    Now and then turn the cards over and try and answer your fill in the blanks orally. If you get the questions right, place the material into a “I know this material” stack. Now continue working on the material that you don’t know until you can answer the questions on all the cards.

  • Review:

    Now reread the material that you underlined in the book. Note that you do not read the material you did not underline. This is why over prediction is important.

    As you reread the chapter, bracket and star the material you believe is extremely important. Sometimes use a yellow highlighter for critical information.

    Now reread the material you have bracketed or stored and high speed review the material on the 3″x5″ cards.

  • Audio option:

    The more different ways that the material to be learned can be experienced the easier it is to remember the material. If you have time, read the material that you have underlined to a tape recorder. Then play back and listen to the material. Some people are so good at learning by listening that this is the only way they have to study.

  • Overlearning:

    The more you overlearn the material the easier it is to take a test with confidence and in a relaxed manner. In addition, the more you overlearn something, the longer you will remember it.

  • Special problems:

    Some people have reading difficulties. Current research suggests that blue or gray sunglasses may help dyslexic people process and learn to read. (Another possibility is laying a piece of green, blue, or red transparency film over the page to be read. Try them and see which works best. These may be purchased at office supply stores. – S. Shapiro) Self typing of the material is another way shown to have positive benefits for dyslexics. [A student of mine suggests that using a blue or green highlighter can aid a dyslexic’s reading. For those who might have certain attention problems, blocking out parentheses and brackets with white-out or black ink may be of some help. – M. Ofsowitz] The key concept is that learning requires work. Good nutrition and regular sleep helps learning.

Ron Blue, in memorium
Lehigh Carbon Community College
Schnecksville, PA
Copyright 1995