What college freshmen tell me: “I didn’t have to study in high school because I could listen in class and do well on tests.” Yes, it is true. There are many students who get to college knowing that they rarely had to study to make A’s and B’s and many more who think they know what it takes to study in college even if they didn’t practice these habits in high school. It is no wonder, then, that one of the biggest adjustments that high school students face in college is learning how to study effectively. And too often they don’t realize it until after they bomb their first test.

Rereading lecture notes and skimming chapters often works in high school, but does not in college. Why? Because these techniques result in passive studying and low retention of information. High school students are tested regularly and often and that information is frequently covered in a multitude of ways. In college, the information may not even be covered in a lecture, but students will still need to learn it.

The mistake that many new college students make is that they rely too heavily on the professor to provide all the content when they are responsible for taking on the majority of the learning. I am here to tell you that no matter what grades they are earning in high school, there are some study strategies they can start using now. And you can guide them in the process no matter what kind of student you were. 


WHAT: One of the best uses of your teen’s time is to create flashcards. Vocabulary, major concepts, and timelines can be made into flashcards. If your student is studying the British monarchs, they can write the name of each on one side of the card and important facts about the monarch on the back.

WHY: Studies have shown that students who study with flashcards have better recall because they are repeating the information over time, which aids in memory development.

HOW: You will need a pen or pencil, 3×5 or larger index cards, and rubber bands. Use the cards to record information that needs to be learned. Organize the cards by chapter or topic and secure each set of cards with the rubber band. For those who prefer technology, Quizlet is a popular site for creating (and sharing with others) flashcards. Practice recalling the information on the opposite side of each card and then check for accuracy. As your student learns the material, set aside any cards that can be easily recalled and focus on the material that is more challenging.


WHAT: Mindmaps, concept maps, or clusters are methods for organizing information and are particularly helpful to students who are visually oriented. Examples of mindmaps can be found here.

WHY: Making connections with content that needs to be learned is a great way to improve recall. A student who can see that the Enlightenment Period spawned advances in science, technology, and government, may be more likely to recall those connections for a test.

HOW: You will need paper and a pen or pencil. Start in the middle of the page and write a the name of the topic or chapter title and circle what you wrote. From there, branch out and include subtopics. Repeat until the map contains the information that needs to be studied. Of course, make additional mindmaps as needed. For those who prefer to use technology, an online app that allows you to create mindmaps and outlines on your phone.

Practice tests

WHAT: Practice tests present information as it will most likely appear on a real test. Practice tests should contain a variety of test question types unless your student knows that the test will only be, for example, multiple choice. Practice tests do not need to mirror the length and scope of the real test to be effective.

WHY: Another great strategy for strengthening recall of information because it forces a student to make choices about what they think is the most important, and testable, material as well as allows them to practice recall in a test-like environment. Creating the test, studying, and then taking the test provides the student with the ideal conditions of spacing out studying over time.

HOW: If the instructor has practice tests available, then use them first. If not, you will need paper and pen or pencil or a computer with word-processing software. Be sure to include a variety of question types such as multiple choice, true/false, short answer, and brief discussion. If the real test will include an essay, create a few potential essay topics.

If your student does not use any of these active studying strategies now, start with the one that is most familiar or easiest for your student to do. As they get more comfortable and confident–and willing to spend the time it takes to use these strategies faithfully–introduce more strategies until they have several to choose from.

Share these active study strategies with your student now and guide them while they are in high school to begin these habits; they will be better served when they get to college.

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