Studying Smart, Not Hard

Choosing to take college classes online can be a great choice, especially if you have other obligations to attend to, such as family, work, and personal duties. Online education has made earning degrees and pursuing higher education a lot more feasible for many today. However, one must know how to study efficiently and be an independent learner in order to succeed. Unlike in a classroom setting, online courses don't have as much teacher-student interaction and guidance. With that said, students have to work harder to really digest the class material and be proactive in reaching out to professors in a timely manner if they are having trouble comprehending a topic.

Knowing how to study alone is a great foundation for success in college -- whether you are taking online or traditional classes. Rather than finishing assignments and studying for exams at the last minute, students who begin early generally develop a more effective study method for themselves. The method will vary from one student to another, but involves creating schedules, knowing resources, gathering tools, and testing out different study strategies before finding one or a couple that work best for each individual. It's important to keep in mind that studying a lot doesn't equate to acing all those exams with flying colors. This is why it's so important for students to learn how they can study smart and make the most of their time while maximizing success.

This guide is designed to explore the best methods for taking notes, preparing for exams, and study strategies that will help online students thrive. By reviewing this comprehensive guide, students will learn how to keep their stress and anxiety levels in check, while exploring different study skills and strategies.

Studying Online: Fundamentals to Success

Before delving into the different study elements students need to thrive when studying online, let's quickly go through the fundamental "must-haves." If you have not yet taken an online course before but are thinking about it or preparing to, below are the crucial things and traits you must have.

A designated, clean workspace

It's important to have an organized space to study and complete your assignments. Working on the couch or in bed can hinder your studying and even encourage you to procrastinate. Set up a space in a quiet area of your home where you can sit comfortably and get work done.

Reliable Wi-Fi

While many coffee shops have free wi-fi, students should have reliable wi-fi at home, too. Studying in coffee shops can have its benefits, but you never know when the wi-fi connection will cut out. If you study best in a quiet environment with no distractions (i.e. people walking around, getting coffee, chatting), then working at home is your best bet. The last thing you want to happen is the wi-fi cutting out mid-way through an important exam!

A "go-getter" mentality

  • As a college student studying online, you won't be able to raise your hand during lectures to ask a question or have something clarified. With that said, it's up to you to make note of everything you need clarification on, or any questions you may have. Online college students may have to set up an on-campus meeting to see a professor or have their questions answered via e-mail.
  • There is no designated class time, nor is there anyone taking attendance and docking points off because you didn't show up on time. The great thing about online classes is that they are really flexible and work with every student's schedule. There is a downside to this though, if you are lazy and not motivated. It's easy to slack off, skip lectures, and turn in assignments late (or miss the due date altogether) when there's no one monitoring and guiding you.
  • A go-getter will have their schedules clearly organized to allow enough time for studying, completing assignments, and taking exams. Additionally, it's crucial to set aside time for healthy eating and physical activity to stay on top of it all!

Strong organization skills

  • Assess how you are currently using your time and how you can be more efficient when it comes to studying.
  • Make sure that you have all the tools you need to perform your best in class(es) and accomplish your goals.
  • Organization skills are a must for students taking classes online. They go a long way -- from keeping your workspace organized, all the way to managing a hefty schedule! By staying organized, you won't miss any important dates and will be able to better "budget" your time for studying and more. If you are taking multiple classes at once, certain project dates or exam dates may coincide, so it's important to have everything organized early on before you get deeper into the semester.
  • Messiness causes distraction and takes away motivation to perform your best.

Time management skills

  • Procrastination can lead to extreme stress and result in poor performance in classes.
  • Set a schedule by creating daily, weekly, or semester outlines of tasks to accomplish. Daily and weekly goals should be more specific. The schedule should also make note of all upcoming deadlines so you can be sure not to miss anything important.
  • Cut out distractions that encourage procrastination. Some of these distractions may include the phone, TV, or loud roommates. Make sure to find a quiet place where you can study in peace.
  • It's your chance to play the role of a manager! Studying online means that you have full control of most things - such as when to study, when to start your assignments, etc. This freedom can be overwhelming at first if you don't know where to begin. However, keeping the mindset that these classes are projects you need to complete will steer you in the right direction for success. You are in charge of your success in every class, so brainstorm and employ everything you can think of to help you thrive!

Applications for Developing Study Skills

Tiny Scanner

Not the type to buy textbooks? Take advantage of your library's copy and scan the assigned reading easily from your phone! This application basically turns your device into a document scanner and you can scan just about anything into a quality PDF file. You can then send the PDF file to yourself via e-mail, AirPrint it, or download it to your cloud. Best part? It's totally free for iOS and Android users! If you completed an assignment by writing, you can easily scan and e-mail it to your professor as well.

Google Drive

Similar to Evernote, Google Drive is free for download on both iOS and Android devices and has a similar function in that it syncs across all your devices. Another perk about this one is that if you are working on group projects on a Google Doc for example, you are able to see other people's contributions in real time. This is extremely handy if you're taking a class online but have to interact with other classmates on any given assignment. You can also access and use Google Drive at no charge on the web/on your computer.


Another great application for group projects, Asana allows you to jot down things that need to be done and assign specific tasks to another student, all online! It's completely free on iOS and Android devices, and even on your computer!


This is a popular tool for students to stay organized, take and sync notes between all of their devices. You can jot just about anything down – from to-do lists, outlines, and creating lecture notes! It is free for download on both iOS and Android devices.


Another free application for both iOS and Android devices, Quizlet allows students to create their own flashcards or use already existing ones to study for their classes. This one is great if you're preparing for a multiple-choice exam or need to memorize information.


Have trouble focusing on one specific task at hand? This application will be your best friend! Available for download on both iOS and Android phones, this one will help you focus on one task at a time. Just set an alarm and create a running list of tasks, and a reasonable time frame to complete them. This way, you can stay on track and focus on one thing at a time. This will really help to avoid procrastination and unnecessary cramming/stress in the long run. The great thing about this application is that students can really adjust the settings and notifications to suit their needs.

iStudiez Lite

This application is optimized for iOS devices only and is free for download. It's a great scheduling application that helps students stay on top of their projects and classes. There are four buttons, including Today, Calendar, Assignments, and Planner. Students can easily add classes for the day and assignments on their due dates to keep everything organized in one place.

Taking Notes

Taking notes is a great way of actively learning, but how you do it can definitely make a difference in how you digest the information and excel in your classes. Below, we'll cover the crucial steps of note taking and effective methods so you'll have everything you need to know:

  • Listen actively.

    Instead of frantically writing down what the professor says word for word, sit back and actually listen to the lecture. Try to comprehend what he has to say, and relate it to your own experiences so that you can better understand the concepts.

  • Relate new material to knowledge you are already familiar with.

    The best way to fully grasp any material is to somehow find something in your life that you can relate it to. This will help you put your notes in your own words.

  • Be alert for important cues from the professor.

    If you pay attention, you'll notice that most professors will have certain cues on what's the most important from a class. For example, he or she may spend more time talking about a certain topic, or use a different vocal tone/emphasis so that students know to take note of it. Other things to be alert for are gestures and pauses. These could be indicators for students to write the information down!

  • Jot down main ideas rather than writing everything down.

    Spend some time listening to the lecture, and the rest of it jotting down the important concepts. Jot down relatable examples that are pertinent to the topic to help you better understand when you revisit it come study time.

  • Review and revise your notes.

    Taking notes doesn't end when a class does. In order for note-taking to be effective for academic excellence, students must review the material, highlight, and even rewrite notes -- all to help you better understand and remember it all. It's best to review within 24-48 hours of class so that the lecture is still relatively fresh in your mind. You may want to weed out redundant information and condense material to keep your notes to-the-point and easy to study before an exam.

  • Ask questions early on.

    After reviewing and revising, make note of the concepts you're still fuzzy on and be sure to visit your professor's office hours to get clarification. The sooner you do this, the better, so that you don't end up with a pile of information you don't understand.

Studying for Exams


There may be plenty of class material you will have to remember. This could be new vocabulary, math formulas, you name it! With that said, it's good to familiarize yourself with the different methods for effectively remembering class material. Below are just some great ways to retain information in college.


Flashcards are a great way to memorize concepts, definitions, and facts. Their portability also makes it a popular way for students to practice and study throughout the day wherever they are. For an extra challenge, shuffle the cards instead of remembering them in order. This will help you understand the actual material, rather than "what comes next."

Mind Maps

Make connections to the material to help improve your memory.


Repetition is key to remembering material. There are three different ways to practice this:

  • Rewrite - Rewrite all the material for as many times as you need, for as long as you need. Many learners retain information a lot better when they take the time to write stuff down rather than typing. Even if it means copying notes over from one page over to the blank one, this can help a student memorize class material.
  • Listen - If you are an auditory learner, then it may be smart to record a lecture and listen to it over and over again. Sometimes, it can be hard to know what's important to know and what's not as important in a lecture, so listening to the lecture repeatedly can help you identify these key points. Listen to the lecture while driving, eating dinner, or even sleeping to absorb the information.
  • Read Aloud - Reading out loud also helps improve memory retention. With that said, students should do this with their notes 2-3 times a day for practice.

Enlighten Someone

Sometimes, the best way to test to see whether you actually understand something is to try and teach it to someone! This will allow you to practice and put concepts in your own words. How well someone understands the material you're "teaching" will also give you feedback on what you may need to polish up on or ask questions about to gain a better understanding about.

Take Practice Tests

Some professors will be gracious enough to provide practice tests for students to use during their studies. If your class has such offerings, be sure to take full advantage of it! These are especially great for multiple choice exams because more likely than not, your professor may ask the same questions on the real exam but reworded. If you already know the correct answers to each question, you'll likely ace the real thing!

If your professor does not provide practice tests, you can still make your own. Using the notes you've polished up, you can devise "practice questions" and then come back in a few hours to see how many of these questions you can answer. For the ones you aren't sure of, you can revisit your notes and see how you can better understand it. For more complex concepts, memorization alone won't do it, so it's worthwhile to take the time and actually comprehend the material. By relating it to your own life somehow or something that sticks to your brain well, you'll be able to take the information with you into the exam room.

Exam Study Checklist

Have a big test coming up and don't know where to begin or what you need to do? Refer to this handy checklist to make sure that you are doing everything you can to prepare!

  • Start studying early.
  • Eat well, stay hydrated, and get enough sleep.
  • Study in a distraction-free area. Turn your phone to silent mode and store away.
  • Find out what the exam will be like. What will the structure be? How long will it be? How much time will you have to finish it?
  • Identify the take-away points from the class using your notes, quizzes, and assignments.
  • Create your own comprehensive review guide that includes a quick summary of each important concept.
  • Study with other classmates and attend review sessions if your professor or TA offers it.
  • Practice repetition -- rewrite and read aloud the review guide you've created to help you memorize.
  • Complete practice exams if they are available, and if not, then create your own.
  • Ask questions on topics you aren't 100% sure about.

Tackling Test Day

Test day is here and it's time to shine! Here are just some things to keep in mind:

  • Check your e-mail to see if your professor has written last minute instructions for the exam or any information you may need to know.
  • Read instructions on the exam carefully to avoid silly mistakes. Be alert for all details.
  • Plan how you will use your time to complete the exam. Ideally, you'll want to finish early and allow 10-15 minutes to review.
  • If your test is in the form of an essay, be sure to organize your thoughts before you write.
  • Maintain a positive attitude, and don't let difficult questions get you stuck.
  • Don't ignore those first instincts.
  • Stay calm and just do your best!

Insights from the Pros

To give you better perspectives on study tips and the importance of time management, we have put together some useful tidbits of insight from experienced professionals in the education industry.

Additional Resources

Everyone has different ways to study and succeed, and a bit of trial and error will need to take place at the beginning before you find what works for you. In the meantime, feel free to browse the following resources to learn more about taking tests in college, how to control test anxiety, test-taking strategies, and more!

Tips to Control Test Anxiety [pdf]

This article is from the Upward Mobility Program, with information on what you can do to curb test anxiety.

Test-Taking Strategies

Discover the different methods you can employ to ace your exams, courtesy of Brigham Young University's Counseling and Career Center.

Memorizaton Techniques

Learn how you can better understand and memorize class material for an upcoming exam.

How to Study in College

This is a well-rounded, comprehensive website detailing everything you need to know about studying in college. It goes into detail on what good study habits are like, where and when to study, and how to take notes in class.

Studying Tips for College Students

This website has a great graphic that has interesting statistics and useful information pertinent to all college students.