How to Focus
Studying in College
Many students often feel as though their high school studying habits no longer work in university or college. As the workload increases, classes become bigger, and assignments, tests and exams become worth more, it is important to develop more effective studying habits to keep up with the seemingly endless number of readings and tests. This is critical in addition to effective note-taking skills to stay focused and motivated to meet your deadlines in a timely manner, and to curb excessive time spent on social media or playing video games. Furthermore, remote learning has now become the norm, and as avenues of learning change and evolve, it is very likely here to stay.
Tips to Stay Focused:
The location and space of your study session is important, and this will depend on where you personally concentrate best. For some, the background noise inside a coffee shop can help improve your concentration, but for others, the quietness of a library without any white noise or distractions may work better. Lighting and overall mood of the environment are also important factors to consider when choosing a location to study, especially if you may be spending several hours there. In addition to personal noise tolerance and preferences, follow these tips for what your study location must have:
- A flat and clear surface with enough space to comfortably hold all of your studying material
- Electrical outlets are important if you will be studying on a laptop or electronic device
- Comfortable seating (or standing) with furniture that promotes ergonomics and good posture. In fact, sitting upright has been shown to increase levels of energy and confidence, and also boost your overall mood. Sitting in a slouched position can send signals to your brain that you feel hopeless and tired, making it more difficult to stay focused for long periods of time
- Good lighting. Many public spaces such as coffee shops will not have personal lamps at the tables. If you can’t bring your own portable lamp, ensure there is good overhead lighting so that you do not tire out your eyes. Bad lighting can also make you sleepy!
2. Locations for Remote Learning or Work
Due to COVID-19, there may be limited access to coffee shops or libraries. In such cases, you can also make your own study or work space at home. There are many servers on Discord (like Study World) that promote studying or working remotely. Within these servers are rooms that you can join, including voice or music channels where you can choose to study independently or virtually with other people. There are also opportunities to connect with tutors or have study sessions with a group of people. When studying, clear any clutter and make sure the tools you use often are organized and nearby.
If you have unavoidable distractions around you like roommates or construction in the neighborhood, you may find it helpful to listen to classical music or your favorite genre of music with noise-cancelling headphones to help improve your concentration and stay focused! On the other hand, if you find it too quiet at home and miss the noise of people chattering in an office or coffee shop, you can even search music playlists on Spotify or YouTube for coffee shop sounds, sounds of a busy street or office, or even nature sounds to mimic that comforting background noise.
Each person has unique preferences on ways in which they focus best! Take some time to study yourself and figure out what works best for you to maximize your concentration and your working and studying efficiency.
3. Create a Study Plan
Creating a detailed study plan and implementing it into your daily routine helps you focus and improve your memory. It can also be helpful to have a pre-study routine with tasks such as clearing your desk or table, grabbing your study materials, putting on some music, and creating a to-do list. Taking the time to set your workspace and go through this each time will physically prepare you to transition into a state of focus. Although staying focused is important, don’t forget to take a break!
If you find that your current routine is becoming more and more difficult to follow, try to change it up every week. Start your mornings with some exercise or go outside for fresh air to let out energy and get your blood pumping. Make your study sessions more enjoyable by adding activities you like such as lighting a candle, journaling, dancing, stretching, or listening to a podcast. Whatever the activity is, the key is to do the activity each time you need to study in order to prepare your brain to recognize that it’s study time.
4. Divide and conquer
One of the biggest reasons associated with stress is due to poor planning and time management, which often leads to cramming the night before a test or exam. Research shows that dividing your study time into multiple short study sessions can help improve memory and information retention. It is easier to focus for 30 minutes at a time rather than for 10 consecutive hours the night before an exam.
The Pomodoro technique in particular is great as this technique separates tasks into 25 minute sessions punctuated by some time off. After several 25 minute sessions, you can take a longer break before continuing on or starting another task. You can easily customize your study session depending on your subject of study and personal studying preferences.
5. Eliminate or block distractions
Distractions from websites, apps, video games and your phone can reduce your productivity significantly, especially if one notification leads to another and then another, and then suddenly, you get lost browsing endlessly through your social media apps. In fact, once you’ve been distracted or interrupted, it can take more than 20 minutes to regain your focus and concentration. Taking breaks is healthy, but your phone and social media can be distracting in the meantime. Muting your phone or keeping it out of view when it’s not yet time for a break can help improve and lengthen your study time and reduce the number of times your concentration is interrupted. However, your phone can also be useful for setting alarms, helping to indicate when it’s time to study, focus and concentrate, and when it’s time for a short snack or bathroom break!
Although your electronic devices have the potential to be distracting, they can also be helpful if properly utilized. For example, there are numerous apps, both paid and free, that are available and meant specifically to help students with their ability to organize, plan and prioritize. If you’re looking for the right tools to help you achieve your optimal studying ability, read on down below!
6. Find the Right Tools
In order to take your studying to the next level, you will need to have the right tools to make all the difference! Whether you need help organizing, prioritizing or focusing – there are an endless number of tools online and for all of your devices that can help you maximize your concentration while studying.
This is a task management app and a to-do list that allows you to make your goals more simple by turning your tasks and projects into actions. One of the app’s features is the ability to apply intelligent scheduling to your to-do list. For example, if you have a project due every 2 weeks on Friday, you can schedule a recurring task or reminder with Todoist. You can also break down assignments or studying for an exam or test into tasks that are smaller and more manageable. In addition, you are also able to share and work on lists with others (classmates, study groups) and visualize your progress and productivity.
This is an online academic planner for students. It allows you to sort, organize, and plan your homework and assignments. You can access your planner across all of your devices.
An online tool for task and project management. Based on the Kaban system, Trello breaks down large assignments visually into manageable tasks. You can organize your tasks into lists and categories, assign due dates and team members, and visualize your progress.
An online website that uses music to improve your focus and concentration. Their AI is backed by research and uses auditory rhythms that have been proven to help you focus, meditate and even sleep.
Pause or Limit extensions
These are helpful to use when you’re trying to avoid certain websites. The extensions are free! Pause prevents endless internet scrolling or going down Wikipedia rabbit holes. Limit lets you to set daily limits for distracting websites.
Freedom Focus Sounds
They offer sounds from coffee shops around the world! They also have added soundscapes from a variety of environments, such as the forest or the office to help you set the mood for studying, even during a stay-at-home order.
An app that helps you build good habits by ensuring you spend time working on things that you want to improve on every day. Each day you finish the task, your streak is extended. You can easily track statistics and progress to keep you motivated.
An app for goal and habit tracking. You can also hire world class coaches and be able to connect with a community that is also trying to motivate themselves and achieve their goals.
A free productivity app that turns real life into a game. There are in-game rewards and punishments and a social community to support you. Habitica helps you reach your goals and visualize your end goal.
7. Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Equally as important as spending time studying is to spend time sleeping! According to the National Sleep Foundation, it is recommended that adults get 7-9 hours of sleep per night to achieve optimal functioning of the mind and body. As such, it is important to implement sleep-related habits into your daily routine. Some examples include:
- Setting an alarm to remind you that it’s time to prepare to sleep
- Following a pre-bed routine to relax your brain and make it easier to fall asleep
- Minimizing distractions by disconnecting from your phone and social media apps
- Minimizing intake of caffeine leading up to bedtime
- Using a sleep diary to keep track of the time you spend sleeping per night
Sleep has numerous health benefits, but in order to reap those benefits, it is important to achieve the daily recommended number of hours of uninterrupted sleep. Getting a good night’s rest can help improve clarity of the mind as well as your energy to prepare you to tackle the day’s tasks.
8. Take Advantage of Online Programs
In today’s day and age, many study tools and the tools that we use for work are often online and only accessible via electronic device. Although eliminating distractions are important in staying concentrated, your devices can also be helpful in conducting research for your course, or communicating quickly with group members to complete a group task or school assignment. Online programs such as Zoom or Google Hangouts can be helpful in facilitating productive discussions with your peers or even in creating an environment that promotes focus and concentration.
As such, utilizing these tools to communicate with classmates and to have discussions with peers who are taking similar courses can be helpful during a study session. One of the best ways to utilize these programs without distractions is by allocating a certain time to hop onto Zoom or any other preferred communication platform. Many of these programs will allow you to pre-plan a meeting time and invite others to join. By limiting the time and the number of attendees, distractions can be eliminated while boosting overall study performance and efficiency of the online session. Being in an environment surrounded by studious peers can also encourage your brain to stay focused.
9. Plan a Group Study Session
When you study with a consistent group who are all equally as committed to achieving a good grade, it can be equally as rewarding as studying independently. This can also provide the opportunity to compare notes to your university or college peers and to learn through discussion rather than memorization. If it is not possible to meet in-person due to COVID-19 restrictions, the programs such as Zoom or Google Hangouts mentioned above may be useful in gathering the group.
According to the University of Utah, group study sessions should be no shorter than 1 hour and no longer than 3 hours. Meetings less than 1 hour will feel rushed and anything more than 3 will cause group members to lose their concentration and productivity.
Formatting the study session is also recommended to stay free of distractions, and so that all members know ahead of time what to expect and what to prepare. Formatting the study session can include pre-planning studying activities, assigning a discussion leader, or splitting the meeting time into various study topics or textbook chapters. Providing structure can help the group stay focused and help create an environment of concentration.
Remember – taking a break is equally as important in group study sessions as they are when you are studying by yourself. Scheduling short breaks during 1-hour intervals, for example, will allow an opportunity for a snack or bathroom break, minimizing the chances of interruptions in the middle of the study session.
10. Listen to Classical Music
Music can improve your mood and make you better at studying by calming your mind and body. However, not every type of music is the right type of music for studying! The right kind of music for studying includes decreasing the level of distraction that certain types of music can be and finding the golden genre that keeps you in the right mood for studying.
Research shows that background music with vocals and lyrics in particular is heavily distracting as it interferes with your working memory, using more of our concentration to listen to the lyrics rather than studying. As a result, listening to slower classical music at a moderate volume is the most recommended. However, the most important part is that whatever music you are listening to puts you in a good mood! Being in a good mood, and staying there, ultimately reduces stress, which helps clear your mind and improves your focus, concentration and memory.
11. Learn Effective Note-Taking
Effective note-taking takes only the most important information concisely and minimizes the overall amount of information that needs to be studied. Reading even a chapter of a textbook can take up a lot of time, and the number of readings often assigned in university courses can be stressful. However, simply reading does not mean you are studying. In order to properly study the material, it is necessary to engage actively with it, by creating meaning from the text and applying it to examples.
The following are study tips that can help you take notes effectively to reduce your overall burden when it comes time to begin preparing for your college or university exams:
- Focus on main points and concepts and use these as topic headers
- Create visually structured notes (e.g. diagrams) that will make sense to you later
- Use abbreviations and symbols to shorten longer concepts and points
- Use bullet points and avoid full sentences
- Stick with a consistent format so that your notes are cohesive
- Review your notes regularly and seek help for concepts that you don’t understand
- Practice teaching yourself aloud as if you would when teaching someone who doesn’t know about the topic
Many students struggle with studying effectively. However, building up good and consistent study habits and studying regularly for a planned period of time can ultimately be what allows you to make the grade, rather than break it. If you find that you are putting in the effort but are still struggling to understanding the material, don’t hesitate to seek help from your peers or attend your professor’s office hours for additional help. There are no better resources than your academic institution or your peers, especially if they are learning the same material. Discussion rather than memorization is always the best way to learn!
12. Start Exercising Regularly
According to research, aerobic exercise that gets you sweating and your heart pumping helps increase the size of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Exercise is not only good for your overall physical and mental health, but can have a positive impact on your focus and concentration during your study time.
Integrating an exercise routine for even a short period of time during your day can help you stay awake for longer, improve your mood, and reduce your levels of anxiety and stress. Furthermore, exercising regularly can improve both the quality and quantity of your sleep when you finally retire to bed at night after a long day. Compared to people who do not exercise, the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex (which control thinking and memory) of those who exercise regularly have been found to be comparatively greater in volume.
In order for exercise to have an impact on your memory, it is recommended that you complete moderate physical activity for at least 150 minutes per week. When first starting out, you can commit to a few minutes of exercise every day, slowly increasing it in order to reap the benefits of using physical activity as a tool to increase the success of your studying. Walking is the most common exercise. However, if you are looking for higher intensity exercise, here are some alternative tips to help you break into a light sweat:
- Try swimming, tennis, badminton or dancing
- Engage in housework, such as mopping the floor or raking the leaves in the yard
- Join a workout class to help keep your focus
- Track your progress to hold yourself accountable
- If your finances allow, hire a personal trainer
- Use an app to schedule your daily exercise and track your daily fitness goals
- Take the time to do research or experiment to see what exercises work best for you
No matter what physical activities you end up engaging in, it is important to do it regularly and to stay committed. You may also find that physical activity is a good and healthy alternative to other activities such as video games, which can be distracting and easy to get lost in. When you commit to exercising regularly, especially with a friend or a group, you may find it more compelling to go through with it. As you exercise more and more, it may even develop into a healthy life-long habit.