In the US, the school year typically starts in August or September, so it’s unlikely that you’re thinking about any major tests or exams yet. Most study advice I’ve found assumes that people don’t study until they feel like they have to – that is, until the test date is breathing down your neck. This might be the best strategy for you, and if that’s you, then all the more power to you. I don’t believe this is the best way for many, however. Usually, I try to study throughout the semester, from the day the material is learned to the day I don’t need to know it at all anymore.
Whether you study incrementally every day or cram as much as you can in the night before, studying is one of the most difficult parts of being a student. Motivation, self discipline, time, and effort all go into it. Try not to be too hard on yourself if you struggle with these; I know I do. And I’m sure there are a lot of people in the same boat.
Below the cut, take a look at some difficulties and potential troubleshooting tips.
(Disclaimer: this post is not being sponsored by anyone and I have not been paid by any of the apps mentioned to endorse them.)
“I don’t actually know how to study”
This is a pretty common problem, especially among younger millennials and people who have been out of school for a long time before coming back. Frankly, studying is a hard skill to learn. Be patient with yourself!
- Are there any services your school offers that might be able to help you learn, and if so, are they accessible to you? Being too embarrassed to go totally counts as not being accessible, by the way. But is there any way that these services can be made more accessible to you?
- When for whatever reason you’ve missed out on learning some basic skill everyone else seems to know, the internet is a wonderful place to turn. If you’re at the point where you’re not even sure what a flashcard is, much less how to use one, resources like Wikihow and YouTube are full of helpful content that will explain it to you without condescension or judgement.
“I just don’t have as much time/energy as I would like”
I’m not going to condescend to you about this – even if you do technically have time in your day or energy in your body, it’s important to save some of that for self care and responsibilities outside of school and work. But you might be able to better delegate some of your time through the day.
- Can you change your study strategies to be less resource-consuming? For instance, using spaced repetition flashcards for 10 minutes every day instead of spending an hour or two going through an entire stack. (Anki is a fantastic app for this)
- Is there anything consuming your time or energy that doesn’t have to be? This can be anything from an exercise program you weren’t sure about to a less than friendly friend to that one social media account that keeps posting depressing political memes. Try to find some of the sink holes in your life and see if you can do some damage control on them.
- Even for things that cannot be eliminated, is there anything you can do to make them easier on yourself? For instance, can you ask someone else to help you with childcare or chores when things are difficult? Can you reduce time spent on chores using things like paper plates or pre-prepared foods? Remember that even if you feel embarrassed doing these things, there’s nothing morally wrong with asking for help or taking care of yourself, as long as you don’t take advantage of others in the process.
- Do you absolutely, positively have to be studying every single thing in every single class? This is a trick to use sparingly and wisely, but if you’re butting up against the limits of your own ability, trimming the fat from your study plans can help you focus on more critical curriculum. If you’re going to do this, please consider consulting your instructor or a previous student in the course on what is safer to drop!
If you well and truly cannot coax find the extra resources to study for whatever reason, then I advise you to try to be understanding with yourself if your grades suffer as a result. Whether or not you’ve done the best you can, you’re only human.
“I don’t have the motivation/self discipline”
Motivation is a fickle mistress, and self discipline is hard to build. There are no shortcuts, but there are things you can do to increase your resilience a bit.
- Is there someone who can hold you accountable for your study habits? Consider finding a study buddy, or perhaps asking a friend to check in on your study habits now and then. If you can’t find another human to hold you accountable, you can try some app like Beeminder to raise the temperature a bit.
- Can you make it fun for yourself? Things like study games may seem childish, but they can bring a subject to life. Consider if there’s a way to incorporate things like music, sports, or even video games into your study. You might be surprised what’s out there!
- Consider using an app like Habitica to “gamify” your study habits – you might find it easier to study if it helps you level up!
- See the above tips for people who don’t have much time. Often a lack of motivation is caused by feeling overwhelmed, so reducing the amount of time spent studying can be a boon, even if a time constraint isn’t your actual problem.
- Are you taking the best care of your health right now? Even little things like regularly forgetting to eat or being dehydrated can affect your ability to focus and feel accomplished. This is especially important if you have ADHD, Depression, or other conditions that affect dopamine production. Health first, school second.
- Consider using some sort of app to block distractions. I’m particularly partial to Cold Turkey.
“I don’t know what to study”
- Most classes have some way of emphasizing the most important content – do you have any materials from class, like homework or notes, to refer to?
- If for some reason you’ve fallen behind and now can’t grasp what is and isn’t critical, is there someone you can talk to about what you’ve missed? Usually an instructor or TA can help a lot, but a tutor or trusted classmate can help too.
- If the class is genuinely poorly structured or otherwise is difficult for you to grasp, is there another resource you can use to go over things similar to the curriculum? Sadly, it’s sometimes necessary to teach yourself the course using the textbook.
“I don’t actually care”
If you well and truly do not care about your grades, there’s nothing I can really do to make you care. Period. If you want to care, you’re probably going to have to figure out why you don’t care and try to fix that.
- If you don’t care because of Depression or another condition that causes apathy, take a look at the motivation/self discipline tips. Illness and disorders suck, but rare is the person who is incapable of growth. Remember to do your best to prioritize taking care of your health; sometimes a mental health day can save your grade and your brain in the long run.
- Is there someone who cares about your grades more than you, such as your parents or potential employers? Why do they care, and what are the consequences of them caring? Is there any way you can appease them that isn’t school? (If your instincts/experiences are telling you the consequences are scary or heavy, please do not ignore that, especially if this is about your parents.)
- If you’re just truly apathetic, consider how much you actually need school. Why are you there? Do you truly have to be? Is there an alternative? If you absolutely must be in school for some reason, is it actually worth the effort?
- If you’re in high school, consider that last question very very carefully. High school grades aren’t the end of the world like some might make you believe they are, but getting worse grades than you are capable of in your present situation might close doors for you.
- If you’re in college and someone else is paying for it, consider talking to them honestly about your apathy. Try to emphasize that you’re still grateful for their help, and try to anticipate what their response might be and counter it.
Regardless of your problem or the steps you take to solve it, I hope that you find what you need and that you take care of yourself.