Things I DIDN’T Learn in College: Part 3 – How I Learned to Study

by Ron Haynes

TextbooksUnless you’re a human knowledge sponge, learning to study can be an unnatural process. Where else in your life do you listen to someone speak to you about a subject you’re not interested in for the purpose of passing a test? If you’re interested in the subject or if you’re motivated by your boss to study for a certain subject, things take a different course.

When I was in college I stumbled upon a study technique that consistently produced A’s in my classes. It did require a lot of work, but when I fully developed and followed these ideas, I aced my classes. I’m not talking easy 101 type classes either, I was excelling in 300 and 400 level courses in undergraduate school and 500 to 700 level courses in graduate school. Your mileage may vary, but here’s how I did it:

1. Read the chapter outline for the lecture. Do not read the whole text, only read the subject headings and familiarize yourself with the illustrations, concepts, and general ideas. Allow several hours to go by and then re-read the chapter, making careful notes of key terms and concepts and any questions that arise in your mind.

2. Go to the class and take notes on a plain legal pad. Do not worry about making these notes look pretty, just write down every key idea, copy the instructor’s illustrations that he or she draws, and make notes of any and every reference to the text that the instructor makes. Listen for a synopsis and pay close attention to what the professor indicates as important. They generally have a habit of dropping hints along these lines. Key phrases include “Remember that . . .” and “Most importantly . . .” Use your own shorthand, abbreviations, and symbols such as med for medicine, gov for government, % for percent, comm for communication. The list can be as long as you want it.

3. Find a quiet spot (library, dorm room, study areas, or apartment) and re-read the chapter that was covered during the lecture.

4. When you return to your dorm room or apartment, sit down with your legal pad, any handouts or other information distributed in the class, your textbook, and a new spiral bound notebook. Make sure you have at least 90 minutes of uninterrupted time, a glass of a non-alcoholic beverage, any other tools (calculator, ruler, etc) and a very good pen. Then imagine that you are a textbook author and re-copy your notes into the spiral notebook. Write as neatly as possible and recopy any illustrations or images from your textbook or handouts. In this spiral notebook also re-work any problems that are in the textbook. At this point you now have a personalized textbook that covers the information from your class. Use complete sentences and abandon the abbreviations.

5 . Read and re-read everything in your new personalized textbook several times. If you don’t understand something, try to re-phrase it into an different question.

6. Do any and all homework in your new personalized textbook. If this homework must be turned in, make copies for yourself to keep in the personalized notebook.

7. Participate in any and every study group. Use this opportunity to make sure you didn’t miss something in class. Pose questions that you think the instructor might ask. Be sure and bring your notes to these study groups. Chances are you can sell copies! (jk)

8. Go and talk to your professor during his or her office hours. Ask for clarification for items you just aren’t sure you understand. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Professors generally love to help struggling students. These people have made a life out of studying their field of interest and they are usually very happy to explain their knowledge and experience to you.

When I incorporated these steps, I discovered that I was studying 2-1/2 hours for every hour I was in class. That’s a lot of work if you’re taking a 15 hour course load, a total of 52.5 hours (including class time). When I decided that I would view my college coursework as a regular job, I excelled, making straight A’s and the President’s list. When I slacked off and decided it was too much work, my performance suffered. Funny how this concept easily transfers to real life.

Looking at my college coursework as a job meant that I was in class at 8:00 AM and would use every hour up until 5:30 as my “work time.” I would take a 30 minute lunch, but I didn’t waste any time during the whole day by playing video games, chatting with friends, “hanging out”, or goofing off. Because I structured everything this way, my evenings were free. I was able to watch TV, play video games, go out with friends, or do research for any papers that I had to write.

When test time came around, I found that I was naturally prepared and could approach the test with a great deal of confidence.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a very labor intensive, very difficult set of steps to follow for every course, and every course may not require this much structure. I was in Business Finance and it sure helped me. Later, when I was getting my MBA, it proved extremely valuable.

I used this method when in undergraduate school as well as when I was working 60+ hours per week taking a double load in graduate school. It can be done. I know because I did it.

About the author

Ron Haynes has written 1001 articles on The Wisdom Journal.

The founder and editor of The Wisdom Journal in 2007, Ron has worked in banking, distribution, retail, and upper management for companies ranging in size from small startups to multi-billion dollar corporations. He graduated Suma Cum Laude from a top MBA program and currently is a Human Resources and Management consultant, helping companies know how employees will behave in varying situations and what motivates them to action, assisting firms in identifying top talent, and coaching managers and employees on how to better communicate and make the workplace MUCH more enjoyable. If you'd like help in these areas, contact Ron using the contact form at the top of this page or at 870-761-7881.

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Lynnae @ Being

I sure could have used this post way back when! I learned the hard way that just because you get A’s in high school without trying doesn’t mean it’s going to be the same in college.

Jeff@My Super-Charged Life

Ron – I believe in going and talking to professors. Once they know who you as a person, it is amazing how much more help you can get. I had professors that spent a lot of extra time with me explaning things I didn’t understand. This definitely paid off in terms of my grades.


What I really wish I knew in college was that I would do -so- much better with structure and a schedule and writing things done than without those things. Of course, even if I knew, I may not have done anything about it. The folly of youth!

Frugal Dad

One thing I realized towards the tail end of matriculation was to not write down every single word the professor said. Being able to pick out the important elements, and ignore the fluff, is an important skill that continues to help me today.


Ron: I spent 11 years in school after high school, and I used some of your techniques. Like you, I found that rewriting notes after a class helped. In that rewriting, I found out what I understood and what I didn’t. Lots of times, too, I could add drawings to my notes–things that helped me understand concepts in ways beyond words.


@ Ryan »
Yes, the folly. Reminds me of the saying “Youth is wasted on the young.”


@Frugal Dad »
Yes, being able to boil down an issue to its primary components is a highly desirable skill. I just wish I could do it every time!


@ Mike »
It surely helped me. Even in some online classes I recently took, I would take notes. Granted, I could pause the DVD and rewind, but I still took notes AND recopied them.


Lynnae @ Being »

You’re exactly right on that one. I performed very well in high school and found that college was a different matter entirely. The key to THIS study method is that it requires a TON of hard work. If you’re willing to put in the time, you’ll get the grades though.


Jeff@My Super-Charged Life »
That is a tried and true method, Jeff, and it WORKS! When professors could see that I was interested enough to actually take the time to come see them, I found them to be thrilled to talk about their favorite subject — the class and it’s information.


That’s very nice tips to study…Anyway, it’s too bad that just now I’ve get the tips as I already finished my college several years ago. I remember that I used to try to discipline my self read the lecture leason a day before the class. But ussualy it only works for a week :)…

Andy Wood

One of the things I realized after getting my master’s degree is that, while I was SICK of school, I still had a great desire to learn. I appreciate the fact that the techniques you mentioned:

1. Can speak to self-directed study, not just an assigned (sometimes undesired) subject.

2. Have a writing component. The same could be said for speaking. Having to communicate on a subject using words, verbs, and descriptions for “the rest of us” requires that the one studying actually understand it.

I wonder if the same ideas could address how to “study” for that all-important presentation to a two-year-old on how to use a toilet, or a pre-adolescent on how life, love, and sex relate to each other! :)


Andy Wood »
Being “bent” in the direction of learning is truly a God sent blessing. Thanks for stopping by.

Shama Hyder

Hi Ron,

Although these tips are nice, most students just don’t have this kind of time.

I took 18 hours at a time in college and could never pull off this system. Instead, I used laptop for notes (very easy to organize and study with later). Here are 3 things that helped me make all A’s.

1) Get to know professors- Just like you said.
2) Picked a major I loved- Corporate Communication was my cup of tea and I looked forward to opening my textbooks.
3) Balanced it out. I always took a mix of courses. A) Courses I knew I could do well in w/o studying too hard, B) Courses with medium level difficulty, C) Courses that challenged me.

Nice post!


Shama Hyder »
Every class has its own requirements. I also took 18 hours during several semesters and was able to pull this system off while holding down three part time jobs! If you don’t put a priority on living a leisurely college lifestyle, 18 hours plus 36 hours of study only equals 54 hours. That’s considerably less than the hours I work today. Then I used this system while getting my MBA (taking one course OVER the maximum load) and still working as a District Manager overseeing 16 stores in 6 states, remodeling the company’s flagship store ($500,000 project), being a husband, being a father to three kids, a Sunday School teacher, etc, etc, etc. I haven’t found any students that were really unable to implement this system because of time. It all depends on priorities.

The fact that you developed your own system is great! And when you pick a major you love, you naturally study it and do well. You are proof of that. And your idea to balance classes is genius. Most students don’t take the time to investigate the classes they’re planning to take. That’s a big mistake.

Alec Moffat PhD

College, under grad, grad, post grad; came too easily to me. I am a learning freak! I went to college for several reasons, #1 was to have a good time. #2 was to maintain a 4.0/4.0 #3 was to finish ASAP, which meant summer school.
I mentioned being a learnig freak. I had/have a super rare disease, and one of the possible side effects is quite nearly a photo mind, if I focused. At exam time I was able (often) to visualize pages of text. Example: I could remember page #, page layout, and illustrations.
Unfair?? Hey I couldn’t help it. Retired at 41
very comfortably. A couple of side effects, weren’t all that pleasent!


Alec Moffat PhD »
Hello there Dr. Moffat! Too bad you can’t teach a photographic memory.


wow i am glad i stumbled on this page. i am off the university soo thats a really big help thanks and the networking page thank you


Great article… any tips for people who are working and are studying through correspondence? :)


Virtaaj »
Good morning Virtaaj. These same tips work even with distance studies, though the approach is different. If you have DVD’s of the lectures, take notes just like you were in a traditional classroom. If the “lecture” is written, print it and highlight the key ideas, re-writing them as you go along.

Re-writing my own “textbook” was the key for me. I used my eyes in the lectures and in taking notes, I would read aloud my notes later and used my ears, and my hands were busy writing which utilized another of the senses.


I really appreciate your advice, but how did you study for foreign laugange like spanish? This my hardest class to study for. I bearly made it out of spanish I but spanish II is a pain!


Patrick »
Hey Patrick, GREAT question. A couple of ways to study for a foreign language that actually work are:
1. Always study and read your lessons aloud. This causes your eyes, ears, brain, and tongue to all work at the same time on the same thing. Embarrassing? Possibly, so find somewhere that you won’t be disturbed.
2. Find a buddy, preferably a native speaker, but if you cannot do that, at least find a buddy who has taken the class or is moderately proficient. If you’re truly wanting to learn the language, put yourself into situations where you HAVE to speak it. Offer to volunteer at ministries to Latinos through a local church as an English tutor. You’ll pick up more than you know and probably get to understand people from another culture a lot more as a bonus.
3. If you’re studying Spanish to have conversations with people, try Googling the 100 most commonly “spoken” words in Spanish. Create flash cards to help study. The important thing to remember about foreign languages in conversation is context. Think about English for a minute. How many different meanings can you think of for the word CAN? It can mean able to, or a metal container, or to fire someone, or the bathroom, or any one of a number of things. The same can be true for other languages, so you have to pay careful attention to context.
4. If you’re studying just to past a required course, the key is to learn what’s important to the teacher. If it’s vocabulary, again re-write (many times) your vocab words. If it’s rules of grammar, yep, write and re-write them many times, using examples in your notes.
5. Have some patience. If you’re in it for the long haul, don’t be too hard on yourself in the shot term.

You can do it. I took 2 years of Spanish in high school, then went to Guatemala for a summer when I was 17. I thought I would be spending the summer with a missionary who spoke perfect English. Nope! He put me with a family that spoke ZERO English. After about 4 weeks, a funny transformation happened: I started to “think” in Spanish. That was scary. There were times that I couldn’t remember the English word for something, but knew the Spanish word. That’s when you know a foreign language is taking hold!

I’ve fallen out of practice since then (it was 25 years ago), but one of my goals is to get really proficient at it once again.

Good luck in YOUR studies and let me know how it goes.

Reno Porfirio

This is a nice post in a nice series, Ron. I thank StumbleUpon for leading me here.

I’ve followed a set of practices very similar to yours as I completed my two undergrad degrees, my two Master’s degree’s, my MBA, and (if it weren’t for a very lucrative job which I now hold) I would have done the same for my Ph.D.

Having started my college courses while I was still a freshman in high school, I had the benefit of never letting some really bad study habits take hold. I saw a number of my fellow high school students adopt practices that they were never able to overcome in college.

The points about outlining, reading, and participating in lecture are, of course, the foundation of any good advice any teacher will give you about studying.

But I believe the gem of your post comes in this nub: “When I viewed my coursework as a job, I excelled.” It’s obvious to those of us now in the workforce that college is indeed a job, but probably not so obvious (or perhaps just unpalatable) to those who are in a degree program.

One’s commitment to excellence in one’s studies begins and ends with the commitment of time to the tasks at hand. All three of my children have been raised with the same perspective, and I see their adoption of this principle already beginning to take fruit–my oldest son is yet to graduate from junior high school, but is already taking college mathematics courses.

Both of my B.S. and both of my M.S. degrees were in technical disciplines (Physics, Mathematics, Economics, Computer Science), and my MBA was in Finance. I’m confident that my studying techniques helped me to do as well as I did in these programs (cum laude honors with each degree.)

One of your commenters (Shama Hyder) made the point that, as a Communications major, she didn’t have the kind of time required to follow your program. I don’t wish to give any offense, but I can say with confidence that were I in a Communications degree program, I would still have approached my studying with the same structure, but perhaps not the same intensity. Not every fight is a prizefight, some of them are just sparring sessions.

I don’t mean for my comment to sound self-serving, as it’s too easy when making seven figures to justify to ourselves that we are the only architects of our present good fortune. I comment only to add to the chorus of those writing here who say that what you’ve outlined is a surefire method for success in studies.

Thank you,


Thank you for your kind words of encouragement. This method does work. It requires a great deal of effort, determination, and time, but it does work. The question I have for most students is, “What are you wasting your time doing?” Both high schools and colleges have shifted their focus away from education to socialization. I believe there are so many distractions in the form of programs and social functions, that students are overwhelmed with nothing but “time fillers.” Educators, in response, have dumbed down the curriculum so that the problem isn’t as obvious. After all, a school can’t have 75% of its students fail, can it?

So what we’re left with is an education system that’s inadequate to produce the minds needed to propel our society forward. Those students, like yourself, who buckle down, make the social sacrifices to excel, and value education rise to the top of the socio-economic ladder. Sadly, the ones who don’t only struggle and complain that they “didn’t have the time” or “needed to spend time with friends.” They end up working for $50,000 per year or less. Then people wonder why the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen. It’s because poor people focus their energies on things that don’t produce value (such as education).

Thank you for your insightful comments. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them.

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