Good study habits include finding a quiet location to study, taking breaks, settings goals, and taking practice tests. Here's the full list, and the psychological reasons why they work.
Studying can be hard. The good news is that anybody can develop good study habits to make studying more effective, efficient, and enjoyable.
Want to develop good study habits? Start small—don’t expect to do everything in this list, at least not right away; pick one or two instead. It’s also important to set realistic and achievable goals for yourself.
Want to learn more about learning? Check out our free course Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. You’ll learn the psychology behind procrastination and memory, plus many ways to help you get the most out of your study time.
Finding a good location to study is one of the most important elements of studying well. Look for a quiet place with minimal distractions—someplace where you’ll be able to focus, and won’t be interrupted by loud sounds or people who constantly want your attention.
A school or public library, a coffee shop, or a quiet corner of your house can all be good places to start.
Not necessarily. Some studies show that occasionally changing where you study can help retain information. This is because studying the same material in different locations helps your brain create multiple associations with that material, making it easier for you to remember it . It can be beneficial to find three or four places you like to study and switch locations when you’re feeling stuck or need a change of pace. That said, everybody is different. Find what works best for you.
Picking a good location to study can be the first step in keeping yourself focused on your work. But there are many types of distractions that can reach you no matter where you choose to work. Here are some tips on minimizing these distractions:
Turn off your wifi: If you’re working on a computer and you don’t need your wifi, try turning it off. This can keep you from inadvertently wandering into the distracting parts of the internet.
Be mindful of your phone: It’s no secret that our smartphones can be hugely distracting. Turning off your notifications, keeping your phone out of sight in your bag, or giving it to a friend to keep you from checking it too often can help you stay focused. You might also try a focus app, like Forest or Focus To-Do, that can block distracting apps and set timers for study sessions.
Study with a friend: Sometimes studying with a friend or two, whether or not you’re working on the same material, can help keep you accountable and focused. Make sure you each are on the same page about studying and keeping one another distraction-free, at least until it’s time to take a break.
Listening to music while you study has some benefits; it can boost your mood and calm anxiety or stress. But studies show that reading comprehension tends to fall when the music is too loud, fast-paced, or contains lyrics . Stick with calming, wordless songs while studying, and save the upbeat numbers for breaks.
Taking intentional breaks has been linked to better retention, increased attention, and boosts in energy. Research shows that working for around 50 minutes, then giving yourself a 15- to 20-minute break, can lead to optimum productivity . Here are a few ways you can give yourself a break:
Take a short walk
Listen to a mood-boosting song
Relax with a friend
Zone out and daydream
Have a snack
Take a shower
Clean your desk or room
Not all breaks are created equal. Checking your phone or social media as a study break has actually been linked to a decrease in performance .
Cramming can still help you get a good grade on a test, but studies show that you’re much more likely to forget that information as soon as the test is over. Really holding onto the material you learned (and making exam seasons less stressful) requires consistent and well-spaced study sessions.
Instead of saving your studying for before a test, briefly review material you learned once a week. If you are studying for an exam, space out your studying up to several weeks (or even months, depending on the test) leading up to the exam day. This can help you retain the information long term.
Set study goals for each session of studying you have. These can be time-based or content-based. For example, you might aim to study for two hours, or review three chapters of your textbook—or both.
Don’t be too harsh on yourself if you didn’t get through as much as you had planned; sometimes studying can take longer than expected. Keep taking well-spaced breaks, and schedule another study session.
Rewarding yourself with treats—“bribing” yourself—has been linked to better self-control, and can be helpful in forming good habits . Telling yourself you’ll get a small reward if you finish the section you wanted to get through, or perhaps a larger reward if you have a productive day of studying, can be good motivation to get to your goal.
Small rewards can be a candy bar, a hot drink from your favorite coffee shop, a quick game of your choice, or a short episode of a TV show. Bigger rewards for a long day of studying or getting done with an exam can include getting your favorite meal, spending some time relaxing with friends, or making time for your favorite activity.
There are several benefits to forming a study group. Group members can help one another work through difficult problems, provide encouragement, hold each other accountable to studying goals, provide different perspectives, and make studying more enjoyable. Even explaining difficult concepts to others can help with comprehension and retention.
If you have a group study session, set a goal the group will work towards and take periodic breaks as you would studying by yourself.
Tests and practice tests have been long seen as useful tools to help students learn and retain information. Besides revealing gaps in knowledge and reducing exam anxiety, being tested makes us retrieve information from memory—a powerful, study-backed way of holding onto information we’ve learned .
Don’t have a practice exam? There are several ways you can “test” yourself and gain the same benefits. Try the following methods:
Write your own questions
Search for practice questions online
Have a friend quiz you
Expressing an idea in your own words increases your understanding of a subject and helps your brain hang on to information. After you read a section of text, summarize important points by paraphrasing.
You might find yourself stuck on a problem or unable to understand the explanation in a textbook. Somebody who is able to walk through the issue with you might provide the fresh explanation you need. Approach your teacher or professor, teaching assistant, friend, or study group member for new ways to understand what you’re stuck on. Feel like you can benefit from being coached through a subject? Consider looking for a tutor.
And don’t forget the myriad online tools that might be at your disposal, like the Khan Academy. A quick search through Google or YouTube can also surface helpful articles or videos on subjects you’re trying to grasp.
At the end of the day, your brain is an organ in your body—take care of it by taking care of yourself. Get regular exercise, eat well, don’t overdrink, get good sleep, and take care of your mental wellbeing.
Sleep: Studies have linked sleep deprivation to decreased cognitive function, including reduced attention spans and doing worse on tests . Everybody’s sleep needs are different, but people typically need between seven and eight-and-a-half hours of sleep a night. Plus, getting more sleep can make you happier and benefit your social life.
Food: Try to incorporate more fruits, vegetables, plant sources of proteins, nuts, and unsaturated oils like olive oil into your diet, all of which have been linked to better cognitive performance .
Trying to learn more about healthy eating? Check out Stanford’s free course on food and health.
Exercise: Exercise brings oxygen to the part of your brain responsible for thought, encourages the development of new nerve cells, and boosts brain cell connections . This makes for brains that are more neuroplastic and efficient—plus it brings a host of other health benefits, like lower blood pressure, reduced mental stress, and weight control.
Mental wellness: Mental health is important because it helps us deal with stress, improves our relationships with others, allows us to live more meaningfully, and be more productive in our work. Exercising, eating well, and getting good sleep can each boost our mental health. But there are other ways of fortifying mental strength, such as connecting with others, practicing gratitude, meditating, and developing a sense of meaning in life .
Need a place to start? Take a look at Yale University’s free course on The Science of Well-Being.
Forming good habits can be difficult, but starting with small, achievable steps can set you up to have consistent study habits for the rest of your life.
Looking to get a degree? Knowing what’s out there is a good first step. Take a look at bachelor’s and master’s degrees on Coursera.
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2. University of Wollongong Australia. "Is it OK to listen to music while studying?, https://www.uow.edu.au/media/2019/is-it-ok-to-listen-to-music-while-studying.php." Accessed October 11, 2021.
3. TIME Magazine. "The Exact Perfect Amount of Time to Take a Break, According to Data, https://time.com/3518053/perfect-break/." Accessed October 11, 2021.
4. Bustle. "A New Study Says Scrolling Through Social Media Doesn’t Actually Give You A Mental Break, https://www.bustle.com/p/taking-a-break-by-looking-at-social-media-doesnt-help-your-mind-reset-a-new-study-says-18682642." Accessed October 11, 2021.
5. PsychCentral. "The Pscyhology of Rewarding Yourself with Treats, https://psychcentral.com/blog/psychology-rewarding-yourself-with-treats." Accessed October 11, 2021.
6. KQED. "A Better Way to Study Through Self-Testing and Distributed Practice, https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/49750/a-better-way-to-study-through-self-testing-and-distributed-practice." Accessed October 11, 2021.
7. Forbes. "New Studies Show What Sleep Loss Does To The Brain And Cognition, https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2019/11/29/new-studies-show-what-sleep-loss-does-to-the-brain-and-cognition/." Accessed October 11, 2021.
8. Harvard Health Publishing. "12 ways to keep your brain young, https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/12-ways-to-keep-your-brain-young." Accessed October 11, 2021.
9. MedlinePlus. "How to Improve Mental Health, https://medlineplus.gov/howtoimprovementalhealth.html." Accessed October 11, 2021.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.