Learning strategies

Effective study strategies

Attitudes to learning

Most people, when asked, can recount an experience that undermined their confidence in their own learning. Negative comments when we are young can have a very long-term effect upon our view of ourselves as bright, capable learners. However, self-confidence has a major impact upon our ability to perform well.

What kind of message were you given about your abilities to study when you were at school or college?

Are these messages helpful to you now?

What attitudes would be most useful to you succeeding at your studies now?

Optimum conditions for learning

We can improve the conditions for learning by being aware of some of the ways the brain works. Although we do not need to know a great deal about the brain, understanding some basics can help us to make the most of our minds. Some of the optimal conditions for learning are common sense and good for our general health.

General tips

Spending long hours studying is not necessarily productive. It is possible to gain better marks by studying more effectively rather than for longer. Most of this resource looks at ways of studying in more effective ways. To study effectively, you can:

Identify what is really needed

Study assignment titles carefully. Work out exactly what is required for assignments. This saves time in re-writing assignments later. Time spent in preparation is well spent.

Work strategically

Set yourself clear goals and work towards these.

Make the material meaningful

Look for 'the meaning' or how things work, rather than focusing on remembering information. Work with the material, looking at how it fits together and applies to different circumstances. If you develop your understanding of the subject, it will help you to take in future material more easily. This makes reading easier. It also improves your memory for the subject.

Look for links

Be active in searching out links between different aspects of the programme. Look also for links between what you are learning and the wider world. This helps to develop understanding and memory.

Work with others

Work with other students so that you share ideas and gain mutual support. You may be able to share some research tasks and clarify your lecture notes. Studying with others makes study more interesting, as you gain a different set of perspectives.

Set yourself SMART-F targets

Look for reasonable short-cuts that do not compromise your studies. For example:

  • avoid unnecessary tasks such as writing notes out neatly

  • use abbreviations in your notes

  • write assignments onto a computer if possible rather than writing them out by hand and then typing them up

  • focus your notes around themes and questions rather than making long notes that you do not really need.

Use the word limit to focus your energies

Most assignments have a word limit. Use this as a guide to how much you need to read and how many examples you can include. Plan out in advance how you will divide up the words available to you. Often, you need to be very concise about each topic. This means you may not be able to include very much of what you have read if you have undertaken a great deal of reading or made very extensive notes.

Take care of yourself

Take rests when you are tired. Study takes longer and the brain is less effective when you are tired or stressed. Plan your time so that you get breaks. A change of scene stimulates the brain and helps creative thinking.

For more advice, see Time Management and Organisational Skills, further information please see Chapter 5 of The Study Skills Handbook by Stella Cottrell.

How to get good marks

There is no magical formula for getting good marks. Each lecturer will look for different things, depending on the subject and the nature of the assignment. However, there are steps you can take to increase your chances of good marks.

Read assignment titles very carefully

These usually contain a question that the assignment must address. You will only get marks for answering that question. Other information just uses up your limited word allowance.

Find out the conventions

Each subject works to a set of conventions or 'rules'. These will apply to such matters as the methodology to use, what counts as 'evidence' and the style of writing to use. Spend time finding out what these are. Guidance may be given in the programme handbook or web pages. Otherwise, look at the language and style used in books you are recommended. You will have a clearer idea of what is expected if you look at material from a different subject and see the contrast. Some subjects prefer creative or subjective approaches; others prefer objective and logical thinking; some require both.

Structure your writing

Make sure that you follow the basic conventions for writing reports, essays or case studies. Ensure that readers can follow a clear line of reasoning and can see how every example and piece of information contributes to that line of reasoning.

For more advice, see writing skills and essay writing.

Give evidence and a few good examples

Avoid opinions and feelings unless these are backed up with evidence available from sources open to others (books, journals, internet, etc.). Choose good examples that illustrate the point rather than loading the reader with too much detail or too many examples.

Reference your work

Make references to source materials (books, journals, paintings, web-pages, etc) within your own work. Write a list of all references at the end of the work, following the conventions required by your programme.

For more advice, see referencing and plagiarism and the free audio download on plagiarism.


Proof your work for typing errors. Read it aloud to check that it makes sense. Listen carefully as you read it aloud. Check that the computer hasn't accidentally swallowed half of a sentence or some paragraphs you though were there.

Using feedback

Feedback is your main form of support from tutors. It is your best guide about what to do to improve your marks and your work more generally.

In the short term

  • Read all feedback carefully. Avoid the temptation to throw it away if your mark was bad or if you have finished the topic.
  • Put the feedback away for a day or two and then go through it again.
  • Make sense of what is said. Work out why your tutors gave you the feedback they did. If you really don’t understand it, make an appointment to discuss it.
  • Make a list of all the good points. It is easy to miss this. People tend to focus in on the areas for improvement and negative comments and overlook the positive feedback.
  • Identify one or two main areas for improvement. Select items that will have the most impact on your marks, or which you feel strongest about.
  • Make a clear plan for how you will make use of feedback.

In the longer term

  • Keep your feedback in one folder.
  • When you have several pieces of feedback, read through them and jot down a list of the main points that are made on each.
  • Look out for recurring themes. These are things which are either gaining or losing you marks regularly.
  • Make sure you recognise your strengths so that you do not lose these.
  • Identify one or two areas for improvement. If you do not know how to address these on your own or with a study skills book, speak to your tutor or to student support staff.

For further information please see Chapters 5 and 8 of The Study Skills Handbook by Stella Cottrell.

Learning from lectures

The purpose of lectures

Lectures are an opportunity to find out how one lecturer makes sense of the wealth of information and research that has been undertaken on a topic. A good lecturer will use the lecture to give you an overview of the main themes, develop your understanding of the issues, guide you on how to find out more about the subject and the reading you need to undertake. You may also gain details of relevant current issues, explanations of complex material or questions to answer that develop your own thinking and research. The aim is not usually to give you a definitive and comprehensive set of 'facts' on the subject. You are expected to supplement the lecture with reading and interpretations of your own.

Lectures that develop understanding

The finer details of the subject should be available in lecture hand-outs, web-pages or in the recommended reading. This should mean that you do not have to spend the time in the lecture making detailed notes. If you have lecturers like this, your best strategy is:

Information-rich lectures

Some lecturers will use the lecture to bombard you with information and expect you to take this in at speed. If so, most people will find it difficult to listen and take detailed notes, and it is unlikely that anybody will have a complete set of lecture notes. If you have lecturers like this, your best strategy is:

Top tips for learning from lectures

Before the lecture
  • prepare for lectures - find out what is in the books on the subject so that you are aware of what you do not need to note in the lecture
  • form an opinion about the subject of the lecture
  • set yourself questions and leave spaces to have these answered during the lecture.
During the lecture
  • listen to 'make sense' rather than to make notes
  • listen for 'signposts' about what is coming next or for summaries of key points
  • listen for answers to questions you set in advance
  • write yourself questions so you can trace answers and information after the lecture
  • make brief notes of essential points.
After the lecture
  • read your notes and fill in any gaps
  • discuss the lecture with other people
  • consider how the lecture changed or developed your opinions of the subject
  • label and file your notes.

Getting support

Levels of support

The amount of support available from teaching staff will vary a great deal. Usually this is much less than people are used to from school or college. There may be more help available where programme numbers are small or where the work is based mostly in a studio or laboratory. However, in general, you are expected to take the lead in:

  • identifying what you need
  • looking for ways of solving problems
  • finding out what information and support is available
  • making use of available support.

Using support from lecturers and teaching staff

Lecturers provide information and guidance in Handbooks, in their feedback on your assignments and in handouts. They expect you to consult this before coming to ask for additional help.

Lecturers may not work full time at the university. Some of these lecturers will not be available to give extra help, as they may work at other jobs when they are not teaching you.

Other lecturers will have only a small amount of time to offer to any one student. They will not be able to go through your work with you in the detail you may have received at college. In order to make best use of the short time they can offer you:

  • work through the difficulty as far as you can rather than expecting help at different stages
  • identify possible solutions and try these before seeing the tutor
  • write a list of key questions to ask
  • put these in order, with the most important first, in case you run out of time and do not get through the list
  • take your proposed solutions with you so that it is clear to the lecturer what you are trying to do
  • stick to the point when you see the tutor
  • be on time: if you are late, you will have less time with the tutor
  • tutors cannot usually run over the time allocated to you.

Support services

Universities offer a range of support services. Find out what is available and make use of these if you need them. It is better to ask for help early on if you are experiencing difficulty. It is more difficult to find a good solution if you let a difficulty run on without seeking help. Most services are confidential. The Student Union usually has support or welfare officers that can offer advice.

Set up your own support networks

It is expected that students will develop their own support networks. There are innumerable ways of doing this. For example, you could set up:

  • Support groups - these may focus on study, or bring together students from particular backgrounds such as mature students, students with disabilities, students from different ethnic backgrounds, international students, students living in a particular region on distance learning programmes, etc.
  • Discussion groups to debate themes and issues that arise in relation to the subject.
  • Reading groups to discuss themes that arise from subject texts.
  • Action sets to offer mutual guidance on short term action plans.
  • Lecture groups - these go through lecture notes to discuss themes and identify gaps in notes.

This content has been written by Stella Cottrell, author of The Study Skills Handbook.