What can I do to become a more successful
Student Learning Centre
University of Otago
This booklet is an introduction to some of the skills and strategies that will help
you successfully complete your studies at Otago.
Based on an original booklet developed by Pauline Brook and Carol Hunter for the Student
Learning Centre at the University of Otago.
Version 1.0 Revised 2015Introduction
The intention of this guide is to help you to be a more effective learner in time
management, note-taking, reading, and preparing for exams. During your first
year at university, in particular, you may be finding out what kind of learner you
are. It might be necessary for you to explore and experiment with different ways
of learning and working with material to see what works for you. In fact, you
may find that you use different learning strategies for different papers to process
academic information so that you understand and remember it.
Everyone has a different way of learning and there’s no one right way for
everyone or for every paper you’re studying. However, the crucial element is
that you’re actively engaged in the process by thinking about information from
various angles rather than solely the way it’s been presented in lectures. This
approach will set you up well for being a critical thinker and for preparing
effectively for assignments, tests and exams.
The more strategies you bring to study, the better will be your understanding,
retention and recall. This Guide introduces a series of techniques to help you to
foster deep learning which requires active engagement with the material,
whereas surface learning is where you have only a superficial understanding of
the information, and have difficulty explaining and applying it to other concepts
or contexts. By engaging in a deep approach not only will your learning be more
effective but there’s a greater likelihood that you’ll enhance your learning
experience and enjoyment at university. Remember that active engagement is
paramount to effective learning.
Underpinning any effective study strategy is time management, a skill that can
be learnt. Students sometimes have a cluster of assignments or tests during
certain periods of the semester so it’s imperative to be organized. Being so
means that you’re more likely to be an effective learner, you’ll enjoy your time
at university more, and your stress levels will be minimised. The sooner you
equip yourself with good time management strategies, the more effective you’ll
be with your study because having a plan focuses your mind. Remember that
friends, leisure and sport are important for a healthy life and that a balance
between work and other activities will help you to stay motivated. Good time
management skills are also an asset in your personal life and in your future
If you find one topic or paper harder than others, then obviously you’ll need to
devote extra time to it. Remember to consider how much learning happens in
class, labs and tutorials versus how much work you’re expected to do by
yourself. It’s also important to know the learning objectives for each of your
papers and the topics within them to guide and structure your study and the
amount of time you spend on it. Every week at university is different in terms of
workload, so you need to take a flexible approach to accommodate changing
priorities or circumstances. A time plan is a guide only, so don’t panic if there
are disruptions to it some weeks.
Identifying goals is particularly important to avoid procrastination and help you
to remain focused and motivated. Be clear about what you want to achieve at
university and work out some short-term, medium-term and long-term goals.
Make sure that these goals are realistic and achievable because doing so means
you’re more likely to attain them. You may be unclear about which profession
you’re aiming for but you obviously want to pass your exams.
Know your priorities for the semester, for the week and for the day. This
knowledge will help you to have a clear idea of what tasks need to be achieved.
However, having too many high priorities could have negative consequences.
Attending lectures, tutorials, and labs and meeting assignment deadlines are top
priorities, but balance these commitments by making time for social and leisure. Making Plans
Making plans for the semester, the week and the day involves knowing exactly
what tasks are coming up and taking the steps required to achieve them. A wall
planner, a weekly planner and a diary are necessary for you to plan
Have a written plan which factors in dates for assignments and tests for the
whole semester. Doing so means there are no nasty surprises regarding
assessments and you can see the “lie of the land” for the semester, including
periods that may be particularly busy because of a cluster of assessments or
• This plan should include dates for assignments, tests, oral presentations,
and lab reports.
• Be specific about the information you include in your time plan—e.g.
HIST 105 Essay 20% — so that you know the weightings and you can
prioritise tasks and plan accordingly.
• Use different coloured pens for different subjects to make tracking your
• Mark in assignment deadlines and work out the time you’ll need to
complete each one.
• Ask yourself what steps you need to take to prepare for them. For
example, if an
• essay is due in three weeks’ time, decide approximately how long you’ll
spend on research, planning, writing, and editing.
• Note these tasks and dates for completing them in your diary or on a wall
planner. Use the value of the assignment (e.g. 15%, 30%) as a guide to
how long you should spend on it.
• Put the plan in a prominent place such as in the front of your folder or
diary or on your bedroom wall. That way there are no excuses for not
knowing what your workload is, and there’s the satisfaction of being able
to tick off tasks as you complete them.
Don’t minimise the importance of noting these details even if, for example, a
lab report is due every fortnight and only worth 5%. Sticking to the plan (within
a day or two) will make the process more manageable, and you’ll do greater
justice to the assessment. Writing assignments is a process which takes time and
reflection, and it can’t be hurried. Also note any employment and social
commitments so that you can clearly see what time you have available to
complete study tasks. Weekly Plan
• Work out your priorities for the week in terms of forthcoming
assignments, tests, labs and tutorials.
• Don’t minimise the importance of including slots for doing assigned
readings for lectures or tutorials as these are important tasks that also vie
for your time.
Break tasks into smaller steps. For example:
• Start research for Assignment 299
• Reserve Library book for Assignment 218
• Set up meeting for MANT group presentation
• Review lecture notes
This breakdown will make the overall task more manageable and less daunting.
Furthermore, you’ll have the satisfaction of achieving the incremental tasks, and
hence you’ll be more inclined to stay motivated. A similar procedure applies to
preparing for a test or exam: what concepts, terms, or theories do you need to
revisit? Do you find some ideas more difficult than others? For approximately
how long do you anticipate studying each section so that you get through all the
material before the test or exam? These are important questions to consider so
that your study is purposeful and tasks are achieved on time.
Decide your priorities for the day and list them in your diary in order of
importance. Planning each day in this way will help you to stay focused on the
tasks you want to achieve.
Remember that not achieving one of these tasks may have consequences for
what you have to know or achieve the next day. For example, you may need to
seek clarification from a lecturer about an essay question so that you can begin
research that day. Again, make your tasks specific. For example:
• Read 2 poems for tomorrow’s English tutorial
• Learn German vocab list, lesson 4
• Brainstorm for HIST Assignment 2
• Read chapter 2 of Reid.
If you don’t achieve one of the listed priorities, note it at the top of your list of
priorities for the following day. Note-taking
Taking Notes in Lectures
There are many different lecturing styles and these vary not only between
people, but also between departments and class size. Nevertheless, your role is
that of active participant as you decide which information is important to record.
Whatever note-taking style or method you adopt, your notes have to be easy to
work with because they’re a resource for assignments and exams.
Taking notes in lectures helps you to concentrate and forces you to process
information. This active approach requires multi-senses because you have to
listen, write and think about what information to take note of. Lectures are an
opportunity for a topic to “come alive” as the lecturer explains ideas, theories
and processes, highlights important points and integrates the assigned reading
Therefore, it’s very important to attend lectures! If you skip lectures and just
rely on notes from Blackboard, your knowledge of the topic will possibly be
superficial and fragmented. Blackboard material or other lecture handouts may
be the “bare bones” of the material, which is then “fleshed out” during lectures
for you to gain a greater understanding of it and then be able to integrate it with
and apply it to other information. If an outline is provided before the lecture,
make sure you read it and take it to your lecture.
Time spent developing good note-taking strategies is time well spent. The
sooner you work with your notes after lectures and the more you work with
them and integrate them with other material, the better your understanding,
retention and recall will be. Furthermore, you’ll feel encouraged as your
confidence in your knowledge of the topic increases.
Here are some of the concerns students raise about what they find difficult when
taking notes in lectures:
• “How will I know what’s important to note? Sometimes it seems that
• “How can I listen and take notes at the same time?”
• “How can I keep up when some lecturers talk quickly?”
These questions are addressed below:
The three-pronged approach to note-taking during lectures
Becoming good at a task is a process that requires practice and the same applies
to note-taking. Furthermore, as you revisit your notes on an ongoing basis and
apply them to other material you’ll be able to monitor your progress in
understanding them and determine which areas of information require more
attention than others. To be an active learner it’s important that you think about lectures before, during and after they occur. If you adopt this interactive and
integrated approach, you’ll be in a better position than if you merely turn up to a
lecture without having considered the reason for today’s lecture and haven’t
read any of the assigned material. This three-pronged approach will also help
you to keep on top of your workload and stay motivated. You’ll minimise an
unnecessary build-up of work, and you’ll be better equipped to revisit course
material as tests and exams approach.
Before the lecture
In lectures, some ideas will be more important than others and by taking cues
from the course objectives, the structure of the lecture, and how the lecturer
presents information you’ll latch onto what’s important.
• Firstly, look at the course objectives or the objectives for the module
you’re studying, and understand what’s expected of you for this part of the
course. Doing so will alert you to what points to focus on during the
• Revisit your notes from the previous lecture to prepare for the new ideas
and concepts introduced in the next lecture.
• What are the themes or ideas running through the lectures? How does
today’s lecture fit into the rest of the course?
• Read any assigned readings or handouts before your lecture. This
preparation means that you’ll be familiar with the language and any new
• Are there any points from the reading that you’d like clarified? If so, note
• Does the reading raise any questions for you? If so, note them.
• What are the themes or ideas running through the lectures?
During the lecture
The lecture should be your first review of the material to be covered, not your
first exposure! Get into revision rhythm from day one of lectures and you’ll reap
• Sometimes the lecturer gives the class a brief reminder of what material
was covered in the last lecture and then goes on to outline the content of
today’s lecture. This approach helps you to put the new information in
context and to see the connection between ideas.
• Some lecturers conduct their lecture like an essay with an introduction,
main body and conclusion, so this structure will help you to follow the
trail of ideas. Note the sub points which expand on a main idea, as well as
any examples which illustrate these points.
• The first few minutes (introduction) may provide some particularly
important information regarding what points will be covered. The introduction may also provide a clear idea of the main headings that you
can use in your notes but don’t rely on this to be the case.
• The last few minutes (conclusion) may provide a summary of the points
covered. This is a good time to check whether these points feature in your
notes. However, sometimes lecturers run out of time so don’t expect every
lecture to have a conclusion.
• The lecturer may help you to discern what’s important by prefacing
information with “This is important”, for example, or “Don’t worry about
this aspect too much; what I want you to focus on is the next piece of
information.” Also note the use of signposting words such as firstly, in
particular, especially or most importantly which categorise or emphasise
the information. These words help you to know what’s important and to
see the relationship between ideas. Also, if a lecturer says a concept or
term is important, it is! If you’re told to concentrate on a particular aspect
of a theory or a concept, then do! Be aware of such messages as they will
help you to stay focused and to prioritise material.
• Some lecturers state the objectives of a lecture and they may also provide
you with a set of questions which you should be able to answer at the end
of the lecture. These questions will provide you with some focus for the
• There may be rules, principles or subordinate topics which go together to
form the main ideas. Therefore, look for supporting information in the
form of definitions, explanations, examples and/or proof of the topics.
• The lecture is an opportunity to challenge and draw together information
• Be a hardworking listener and don’t write down word for word what the
lecturer says. If possible, try to think about the points before writing them
down, as this will help you to make sense of the material later on.
• Lecturers may also refer to knowledge that must be known first in order to
understand other knowledge. This approach is useful because it makes
links between ideas and helps you to put information in context.
• Many lecturers have a number of main points with sub points and sub sub
points. This ordering provides structure and helps you to understand how
the different points relate to each other. To help you to frame the lecture
you could use lettering or numbering to show the sequence or priority of
the information. You could also categorise the ideas as 1) 2) 3) or A, B, C,
• If the lecturer writes a date, term, equation, or an author’s or theorist’s
name on the board, then you should take a note of it and the context in
which it’s given.
• Don’t double up on information. If your textbook has the content covered,
there’s no point in rewriting it.
• Leave a couple of lines between pieces of information, rather than having a dense body of script. Such a layout will make your notes easier to read
and will facilitate working with them.
• Make sure you date your lecture notes and handouts.
• As the lecturer refers to information already on handouts, don’t rewrite it.
Instead, supplement it with the new details or examples provided.
• Capitalise or underline key words so that they stand out when you revisit
• If you don’t understand something, put a question mark in the margin and
seek clarification after the lecture, that day, or the next.
Listening and writing at the same time
• To be an effective learner you need to be an active participant in lectures
by listening and noting important ideas. This is the first stage in the note-
taking process. The sheer volume of information that is often disseminated
in lectures means that it is sometimes hard to multi-task. However, there
are some strategies you can use to make the process easier:
• You may find that it is more beneficial to listen only for some of the time
and note the important points following the lecture.
• Don’t write in full sentences because that’s wasting time and it’s
unnecessary. Just write the words you need to capture the idea, explain it
and give an example of it where appropriate. After all, your notes don’t
have to read as an essay!
• You can develop your own shorthand and symbols to speed up your note-
taking. Abbreviate some words to save time. For example, “development”
could be written as dvpt; “important” as impt; “increases” as => and
“decreases” as <=
The Cornell system of note-taking
Many students find the Cornell system a useful note-taking format because it
helps them to keep track of ideas. It also provides an effective tool to prepare for
tests and exams. The system is explained as follows.
• On the left hand side of your lecture pad draw an 8-10 cm vertical column.
Leave this column blank during your lecture.
• On the right hand side note the main details of the lecture and any relevant
examples. Make sure you leave enough space between your notes so that
they are easier to add to and revisit.
• After the lecture, ask yourself questions that help you to make sense of
your notes, establish links between ideas and see the “big picture”. In the
left hand column summarise the key facts and ideas. Fill in any gaps and
clarify any points about which you’re confused.
• After the lecture add examples or further explanations of material on the
right hand side and key words and page numbers from course readings on
the left hand side. This side of the page acts as the cue column because it
is a prompt for targeting important information or raising further questions you need to explore. Recall the facts and ideas meaningfully in your own
words aloud or in written form. Then, uncover your notes to check that
what you’ve said or written is correct.
• At the bottom of each page of your notes, have a horizontal summary
space to condense the information into two to three sentences. This space
provides a handy study reference. Adapt the above suggestions to suit
your own style. For example, if you find it preferable to reserve the left
hand side column for notes and the right hand side column for key facts
and ideas, that’s fine.
The benefits of developing your notes using this framework are manifold:
• You have to review your notes in order to fill in the cue column. Failure to
do so acts as a prompt for you to take action!
• It’s easier to identify the difference between the main ideas and lesser
• It lends itself well to regularly revising your notes as preparation for tests
After the lecture
To be an effective learner it’s very important that you review your notes as soon
as possible. By actively doing so frequently, you’ll increase your understanding
of them. If you have a gap in your timetable straight after a lecture, what better
time to revisit the material! It’s amazing what can be achieved in a 20-30 minute
slot, and it’s often these short bursts of study that work well. If, however, you’re
unable to revisit your lectures straight away, do so as soon as possible. You’ll be
very pleased you did to retain important information and to better understand
One strategy for working with your notes is to discuss ideas, concepts, theories
and terms with other students. Indeed, many students say that the ideal way to
understand material and to remain motivated is to work with someone else. This
collaborative approach also helps you to make sense of new ideas and concepts.
You can test your understanding when you attempt to explain it to someone
else, and you may gain new perspective which may not happen if you study
alone. Also, bouncing ideas off someone else helps you to make connections
and raises questions that you may not arrive at by yourself. However, if there
are still gaps in your understanding, it’s important to seek clarification from a
tutor or lecturer. Speak to them after class or visit them during their office hour
which will be indicated in your course information or posted on their office
doors. Do this sooner than later because poor understanding of a concept may
very well mean that you have trouble understanding future concepts or other
It’s not always a useful technique to rewrite your lecture notes because your
handwriting is messy or you scored out a few words. Rewriting notes can be a
mechanical and non-interactive task where it’s easy to think about something
else rather than your notes. If you did this for every lecture a lot of time would
be spent which could be used more productively, that is, by making sure that
you understand the information such as testing yourself about it or creating
concept maps or cue cards. Your learning will benefit from this approach more
so than from merely having a neat set of notes.
• Do you understand what you’ve written? Separate what you understand
from what you don’t understand so that you’re clear about what
information needs to be learnt.
• How does the lecture relate to the topic or the course overall?
• Can you identify the structure of the lecture with its main topics and
• What do you consider the key points?
• Can you identify key terms, define them and provide examples?
• Think critically about the ideas—i.e. analyse, assess, question and reflect
on them. One technique to test yourself is to look away from the
information and explain the concepts and give examples of them. Ask yourself key question words such as who, what, why, and how. Go back to
your notes and check if you’re right.
• You might find it helpful to colour code or number aligned pieces of
information from your lectures (if time doesn’t allow during lectures) and
readings so that you can see the relationship between ideas. This strategy
will help you to keep track of the main points and associated details and
be able to identify them quickly.
• You may wish to organise some cue cards based on key terms or concepts.
To do so, put the name of the term or concept on a piece of paper or
cardboard about the size of your hand, and on the back give a brief
definition in short phrases or single words. A date or a theorist’s name
may also be appropriate, depending on the subject you’re studying. Cue
cards are easily portable, they’re a good way to keep track of information,
and they act as useful prompts for tests and exams.
• Another useful way to remember information is by creating a mnemonic.
For example, take the first letter of the points you have to remember and
create a word out of them. To be an effective learner requires Time
management, Active participation, Motivation and Efficiency. In other
• You could condense information into a table, or a cause and effect
diagram, or a time line (for events or sequences which occur
chronologically), depending on the kind of information you’re studying.
For example, a time line works well for some History papers.
• Practise different ways of representing the concepts or theories,
remembering that different strategies work for different papers and that
there’s no one right way for all students or for all papers.
• Remember: your notes need to make sense to you now as well as in two to
• months’ time.
Strategies to revise lecture
• Cue cards
• Master summary of notes
• Study group
• Concept maps
• Post-it notes Lists
Taking notes from readings
To make a coherent and full set of notes you’ll be drawing from material
covered in lectures, tutorials, handouts, and course readings. This integration is
an active process whereby you prioritise information, make further connections
between ideas as you decide how they relate to create meaning, and supplement
the framework of any lectures. Building up such a resource provides you with
information that will be invaluable as you prepare for tests and exams. It’s a
much better idea to put in time creating a useful set of notes from the beginning
of semester than hastily reading assigned texts and trying to understand your
notes prior to a test or exam.
When taking notes, use your own words, bullet points, short phrases,
abbreviations, and bold lines to emphasise information. Obviously the process
of note-taking is a learning curve, and you won’t necessarily end up with the
best set of notes the first time round. That’s OK because the more experience
you have with note-taking, the better you become as you see what does and
doesn’t work. Don’t be restricted by what others do.
Try new structures and approaches, and be an active learner. Continue to review
your notes once you’ve collated your material and work on consolidating them.
For example, you could write a summary of the topic from your detailed notes
and staple it to the front of these notes. Alternatively, you could represent this
information in visual form via a concept map. Either resource will be very
useful when you prepare for tests and exams. Organise your notes into topics,
rather than lecture-by-lecture, as this approach will better help you to make
links and see developments between ideas and thus see the “big picture”. This
process is part of actively working with your information so that:
1. 1.You understand it.
2. 2.You remember the most important parts.
3. 3.You can apply it to new situations.
By synthesising or bringing together the various strands of information via
questions and applications to other ideas, you’re helping to enhance your
understanding. If note-taking is taking up too much of your time at the expense
of other study commitments, you may need to review your approach. Talk to
other students about their strategies, or talk to one of the learning advisers at the
Student Learning Centre.
• Set yourself up to read well. Where do you read best?
• What is the best time for you to read?
• Will there be any interruptions? If so, develop strategies to handle them.
• Remember you’re reading to learn, so read with a mission. In other words,
have a clear reason for reading the text. Refer to the section on effective
reading strategies for further information.
• Remember that your current reading doesn’t exist in a void but is part of an integrated body of knowledge.
As you approach the reading, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Why am I reading this?
2. What do the title and subheadings suggest?
3. What do I want to get from this reading?
4. Is the aim to support my lecture notes or extend or elaborate existing
5. How does this reading fit in with the objectives for my current module or
set of lectures?
6. How does this reading fit in with this week’s lecture(s)?
7. Take notes that reflect the purpose of your reading.
Focus on the central ideas or key points of the reading, and when taking notes
don’t simply copy material word for word. Instead, use your own words as
much as possible as this will help you to think about the information, make
sense of it and keep you focused. By doing so, you may find that you end up
with four lines of the author’s ten lines because you’ve extracted the essence of
the idea. Consider the following when taking notes from your readings to guide
your understanding and plot the ideas:
a) topic areas
b) chronological sequence (sequence of dates and associated events)
c) sub points
In your notes be sure to differentiate between direct quotes and your own words
by putting “quote” or “me” in the margin. Record the author, name of the
publication and the page number(s) of all your sources because it can be very
frustrating and time consuming trying to find this information later on.
Concept maps, which can include diagrams, tables, mind maps and flow charts,
are another way of representing and working with information in an interactive
and flexible way. This learning tool is useful for helping you to see connections
between ideas, for summarising lecture notes and for retaining and recalling
material for tests and exams. If you’re a visual learner, you may find that
concept maps are a useful way to capture a lot of information. They help you to
categorise ideas and this hierarchy can be shaped into a triangle or a pyramid,
for example, or in the form of a mind map as explained later on. However, not
everyone finds it useful to make notes in this way, or you may find that concept
maps work well for some subjects but not so well for others. As with all forms
of note-taking, creating a concept map requires practice and experimentation.
You may not necessarily be happy with the first one you create, but you’ll learn how to refine it when you create the next one.
Apart from using concept maps to integrate notes, they can also be used in other
• to brainstorm ideas;
• to take notes during a lecture (however, this can be difficult if you’re
unsure of the structure of the lecture);
• to take notes while reading;
• to revise before exams;
• to counteract writer’s block or “blanks” during exams or other situations.
Example of a concept map
• Add symbols, pictures, and colour to make it more meaningful to you.
• Don’t crowd your mind map with too much information. Use key words
or phrases rather than full sentences. The key words will act as a
springboard for other words and enable you to weave additional content
• A series of lectures can be encapsulated in a mind map and stapled to your
notes as a summary. Alternatively, some students prefer to put a diagram
in a more prominent place such as on their wall or wardrobe door,
especially for a core part of a course. Reading Strategies
When students are asked about their frustrations regarding reading academic
material, the following concerns are inevitably mentioned:
• Volume of reading—“How will I get through all the readings?”
• Time management—“How will I find the time to do the readings?”
• Concentration—“Sometimes I read five pages but I have no idea what I’ve
• “How do I know what’s important?”
• “How will I retain all the information?”
Reading at university level may necessitate a change in your usual concept of
reading. It’s not just a matter of stringing words together and making your way
through yet another ten pages of material. Rather, it’s a question of becoming an
effective and efficient reader which means reading with a purpose or being clear
about what ideas you’re looking for in the reading. You’ll read differently for
assignments and exams so be clear about why you’re reading a text. Knowing
how to read effectively involves understanding the structure of texts, how this
structure can direct your reading, the purpose of your reading and reflecting on
it. For most students this is a process which requires experimentation and
practice, and the more actively you read, the greater the benefits. These are
some of the issues that will be dealt with in this section. Firstly, however, it is
important to know that:
1. How you approach the reading depends on the nature of the text.
2. The overriding aim of effective reading is to plot the author’s message by
3. The essence of reading is thinking, and reading is a form of research. Tips
on how to do this will be discussed later on.
Managing Reading Workload
Many subjects at university often require a lot of reading so it’s important to
adopt some good time management strategies to ensure you align the required
readings with your lectures and tutorials. By doing so, you’ll reinforce the
information and be better able to follow subsequent lectures. Sometimes there’s
so much to read and so little time. Therefore, factor in time(s) on your wall
planner or in your diary when you intend to do the readings for your respective
subjects. When are the gaps in your day or week when you could do your
readings? Do you have several slots during which you can read particularly
dense information in sections? Is it best for you to read material which requires
a high level of concentration in manageable chunks in the morning or at night,
in other words when you are most alert? Another important aspect to consider is the priority of your readings. In the
scheme of university life, some readings are more important than others, and
you give priority to essential readings. Some readings are deemed essential,
while others are called secondary or suggested readings, and some courses have
both required and recommended readings.
The good news is that you don’t usually have to read everything at university;
it’s a question of taking cues from lecturers and from how the readings are
classified. If a lecturer says a particular reading is important, then it is! If the
reading is classified as essential, then it is!
In an ideal world you’d be able to do all the readings but a key survival strategy
is the ability to be selective. Life being life, sometimes you might get behind
with your readings. If this happens, it’s best to keep up with the current
readings. Otherwise, you’ll be perpetually behind. Furthermore, the current
readings will have ramifications for understanding this week’s lectures which
build on next week’s. Catch up on the readings you’ve missed when your
Maintaining concentration while reading
Sometimes students say they can read several pages of an assigned reading
without being able to recall any of the ideas. In fact, people can carry on reading
whether or not it’s productive. To avoid this situation it’s important to be an
active reader rather than mechanically reading or rereading material without
being engaged in the process.
Strategies to effectively read include:
• breaking up your readings into sections so that the process and volume are
• making your way through the reading step-by-step or section-by-section;
• taking short breaks, taking notes or creating concept maps from the
Also, consider where you read best: do you need to be by yourself or
surrounded by others? Where are there no or few distractions? Make sure that
you have good lighting and that you’re comfortable, and if you need a change of
scenery, work in different libraries or locations around campus. Tips on plotting
the reading’s message, which are discussed further in the next section, will also
help with concentration.
Plotting the message
Effective reading is all about working out what a text means, or “getting under
the skin” of the text to extract its essence. There’s a reason you’ve been
assigned the reading. Therefore, before embarking on it, ask yourself the following questions:
• Why am I reading the article or chapter?
• How does it fit into this week’s lectures and look forward to next week’s
• What assumptions arise from the title and subheadings?
• What do I want to find out?
• What terms or ideas do I want to have clarified?
• Why do I need the information—for a lecture or an exam?
By answering these questions, you’re already establishing meaning and looking
for connections. Some lecturers provide a set of questions to be answered
following the reading, so looking at these before starting the article or chapter
will help you to focus and to know what to look for in the text. In other words,
they give you a framework on which to hang the ideas. Be sure to check that
you can answer these questions at the end of the reading! If you struggle to fully
answer some questions, then it’s important to revisit the information concerned
and decide to what extent you need to fill in the gaps.
The features which apply to effective reading, that is, reading for understanding,
also apply to effective writing, so by paying attention to the former there’s a
greater likelihood that you’ll improve the latter.
How text is organised
Meaning is found in the structure of the text so it’s important to be able to
identify this structure and see how the ideas are built up. Thinking carefully
about how a text is organised fosters an appreciation of structure and linking
ideas in an argument, and this recognition will help you to consider how you’re
ordering your ideas in your own writing. Structure helps to provide meaning at
the macro and micro level of the text, and ideas are built up from the sentence
level to a paragraph and then to the text as a whole. The development of the
argument is built up via the development of sentences and paragraphs, and the
argument is expanded through the evidence or examples provided.
Good writing is all about making meaning clear, establishing relationships
between ideas and providing appropriate evidence or examples to support the
points being made. Therefore, in a reading it’s important to see how the ideas
are ordered, how they connect or flow one to the other and how they build on
one another to form a road map of ideas. It can be potentially daunting to be
faced with a lengthy article, particularly one which is dense, but considering
how its parts make up the whole will make the reading process easier and more
To further help you to plot the author’s message, pay attention to signposting
words or words which give you an idea of how the next piece of information is
going to be dealt with. For example, however denotes that some contrast to the
previous idea is being introduced, while furthermore denotes that the previous
idea is being elaborated. When you read such words, you can anticipate the
angle of the next part of the author’s message.
Some students find it helpful to initially read the introduction and the conclusion
because the introduction briefly tells the reader what the article or chapter is
about and the order of points which are to be addressed, and the conclusion
summarises the key points or findings. By adopting this technique you have a
head start because you have a potted version of the whole, as opposed to
mechanically reading paragraph by paragraph without being truly engaged.
An even better approach though is to take this strategy further and read the
opening sentence of each paragraph. Why? Good academic writing deals with
one central idea at a time and the topic sentence of each paragraph tells you
what the paragraph is about, and it allows you to plot the author’s message. The
structure of the text holds the text together so look for the anchors or topics of
each paragraph. This framework should leap out at you and allow you to sketch
out a plan of what you’ve read. If you’re in doubt about the main point of each
paragraph or the overall thrust or point of the reading, skip to the conclusion
where the finding or thesis statement is located. Until you can identify the
overall structure, you can miss the point of the reading.
This approach to plotting the message will capture the key ideas of an article or
chapter but then you need to go back and read about the specifics. That is, you
need to read each paragraph in its entirety to “flesh out” the information gleaned
from the topic sentence. You could look upon the topic sentence as a coat
hanger on which the rest of the paragraph hangs. In other words, the evidence,
which follows the topic sentence, supports the argument, and that evidence
helps to forge a connection or relationship with the argument. Making
connections is what effective reading is all about, and the more you practise
this, the better you’ll become at the process.
Understand what you are reading
To be an effective reader you need to interpret the material to understand it and
explain it, whether to yourself or to someone else. Therefore, by asking yourself
what the author is saying in each paragraph, you’re saving a lot of time and
effort, and at the same time you’re gaining direct information about the text’s
overall message. Also, ask yourself what conclusions can be drawn about the
various messages. Interpreting the text in these interactive ways inevitably
requires analysis and critical thinking about what you’ve read, which means deciding what the key points are, how they fit together to create meaning,
weighing them up against other information or viewpoints, and assessing their
strengths and weaknesses. Identify important ideas or principles and work out
which ones are more important than others. By adopting this approach you
should be able to summarise the key points.
As you’re unpacking the information in this way, you could put the key ideas
into circles or place arrows between them. You may even like to create a
diagram of the information you’ve gleaned from the text. Also, keep track of
key words, dates, names and phrases as you chart the message, and note your
response to the ideas and arguments, and any questions that arise. This approach
helps you to be in control of the material, to feel less daunted by its volume and
content, and to be more motivated to keep reading.
This process also helps you to understand what the text is about. Ideas “stick”
when you think about them and when you can understand and use the
vocabulary that is specific to the paper(s) you’re studying. Otherwise, you can
feel alienated from the information and start to think about something else.
However, you’ll likely need to read some sections of a difficult text more than
If you’re having trouble with this vocabulary, you need to practise spelling it
and saying it. Keep a notebook with a glossary of your subject’s specialised
terms and establish this technical language before proceeding with the next
reading. Noting and revisiting these terms will help you to reinforce and keep
track of them. You could also keep a list of non-specialist language used to
increase your vocabulary.
Another facet of the interactive approach to reading is to test yourself or have
someone else test you on the concepts and examples. Many students find it
helpful to explain or discuss the text with other students because it helps to
solidify concepts and it boosts confidence by showing you what you know, and
it picks up areas where you need to do more work. Working with others can be a
motivating factor because when everyone is doing the same reading there’s a
sense of unity and you gain energy and encouragement from the others in the
group. Consequently, the whole reading process is more “doable” and you don’t
feel so overwhelmed. Furthermore, by talking and writing about the ideas in
whatever form and listening to how others have interpreted the concepts, the
better you’ll understand it. Also, the more you apply the ideas to what you
already know, reflect on connections between the text and other material you’ve
read, and then incorporate it with new knowledge, the more likely you’ll
remember it. Reading for Assignments
When you’re researching material for an assignment and deciding which
information is relevant, a similar approach as discussed above can be adopted.
Ask yourself what you’re looking for in the text. If it’s a date, a key word or a
theorist’s name you could run your finger down the middle of the page and
glance from side to side to find such facts.
Just like approaching key assigned readings for a lecture or tutorial, you need to
be strategic. Don’t photocopy multiple articles only to subsequently discover
that only a few are pertinent to your assignment. Before photocopying the
material you need to decide whether it’s relevant or not to your topic. To arrive
at this decision, you could read the abstract or the introduction and the
conclusion, which will give you direction. If you decide it’s relevant, make a
note of the title, author, date, and publisher, so that you have all the relevant
details to accurately reference the source in your assignment.
Work from your lecture notes outwards when preparing an assignment. From
there, the list of books, chapters or articles in your assigned reading list for your
paper will be a good starting point for research, and those authors may mention
or quote other authors whose work you wish to investigate. Next, you’ll no
doubt undertake some independent library research which involves considering
the 3 Rs: is the work relevant, reputable and recent?
• Relevant: Answering the assignment question is your priority, so keep the
question beside you while you’re deciding whether a source is worth
reading or not. If your lecturer has mentioned the author several times, or
the author’s name appears on your assigned reading list, then obviously
s/he is relevant and reputable.
• Reputable: Be wary of using information from internet sites where no
author or article title is given. Even if the author and title are cited, still be
wary of any bias.
• Recent: Has the publication which you’re thinking of using for your
assignment been superseded by more recent publications on the same
Taking notes from your readings is a different process which was dealt with in
the chapter, Taking notes from readings.
Study for exams is effective if you’re motivated, have a positive outlook and a
plan. By breaking your tasks into incremental steps, you’ll be able to cover the
areas required and you’ll feel more positive about the whole process. For some
students the word “exam” induces anxiety, so try to look upon it as an
opportunity for you to show what you know. Believe it or not, some students
quite look forward to some exams because they’ve particularly enjoyed the
paper and are keen to write about what they’ve learnt.
If you’ve been following the note-taking and effective reading strategies
suggested in the previous chapters, you’ll be better equipped for exams. No
revision plan is perfect, and the nature of academic work is such that you could
go on and on studying. You can only do your best and have a positive attitude
about the process. Remember, it’s not just your efforts in the two or three weeks
before exams which count (important as they are) but also how you’ve been
working with course material during semester. Study revision starts from day
one at university so by attending lectures, tutorials, oral classes or labs
throughout the semester, you accumulate a lot of knowledge.
Obviously the few weeks leading up to exams require a special concerted effort,
but don’t lose sight of the wealth of information you have at your disposal. You
already know a lot! When in doubt about aspects of a topic, begin with what you
know and work towards what you’re not so sure of. That way, you have some
established knowledge on which to “peg” what you have yet to learn. This
relational understanding will help you greatly in preparing for your exams.
Also, be mindful not to extend the thought that you may not know much about a
particular aspect of your paper to feeling that you don’t know anything about
the entire paper! The aspects which you’re unsure of are only a part of the
whole, so remind yourself about what you do know and seek clarification where
Remember it’s quality that counts and it’s often the short bursts of study which
work well and keep you focused. Please DO NOT labour over your notes for
hours at a time. Breaks are important so that you remain fresh and motivated,
and effective study is all to do with how you’re spending your time, rather than
the amount of time you’re studying. The few weeks of study before exams are
ideally when you further consolidate course material and fine-tune your
knowledge and understanding.
The weeks before the exams are also a time to think about exam technique.
Obviously, what you’re studying and how you’re studying will have ramifications on the day of the exam, so in that respect, exam preparation and
exam technique dovetail. Consider how you intend to approach the exam in
terms of allocation of time per question, and in which order you envisage
answering the questions. Some students opt to first answer questions with which
they feel most comfortable, while others prefer to systematically make their way
through the paper.
Exam preparation is also a time for a personal reminder of your strengths and
weaknesses and feedback from assignments and tests. Tutors’ and lecturers’
comments are useful to bear in mind as you approach the exam. For example,
have you been told to provide more detail and analysis in your essays or to
directly address the question? Have you been told that you provide too much
detail in short answer questions? These points can easily be rectified. If you
need help in these areas or others you can contact a learning adviser at the
Student Learning Centre.
Compiling a time plan for revision
Underpinning exam preparation is good time management. Rather than just
having a rough idea of the modules, themes and terms you need to know, make
a timetable which incorporates all the material you need to cover. Allocate your
time carefully and realistically, and note any other commitments that you have
over the exam period so that you have a clear idea of the time available. Other
points to consider for your timetable:
• Make a note of your exam dates and consider these when making a study
plan. For example, do your exams occur in the first few days of the exam
period? Do you have two exams on one day?
• How much is the exam worth versus the internal assessment component?
If your paper is 60% internally assessed and the exam carries a 40%
weighting, you’ll spend less time studying for that paper than for a paper
which has a 20% internal assessment component and an exam worth 80%.
• Make your time plan as specific as possible. For example, instead of
HUBS 191, note Anatomy of the Tongue, for example, as the focus of the
study slot. By breaking your modules and themes into specific topics, you
know exactly what material to cover and there’s a greater likelihood of a
sense of achievement at the end of that study session.
• If you’re finding a paper harder than others, you’ll need to spend more
time preparing for that exam.
• Allocate time according to your priorities. Is one of your papers more for
interest, while the others constitute your main reason for being at
• Remember that your timetable is not set in concrete and that it needs to be flexible to accommodate changing priorities. For example, you may
discover that you need to spend more time on a module than initially
Deep learning vs passive learning
Whatever study approach you adopt it’s important that you’re an active and
engaged learner, as opposed to a passive and superficial learner. Deep learning
means that you engage with the material at a deep level, as opposed to passively
skimming the surface. For example, you may have a rough idea of a concept but
have trouble giving an example of it, or applying it to another concept. All
exam questions require understanding and reasoning, even though the kind of
response they call for may vary.
Tips for being an active learner
For the information to “stick” you must understand it, be able to explain it and
apply it logically to the next idea in that module or theme. You need to be able
to see how ideas “fit” together and build on each other. As you work with and
further consolidate concepts, it’s important to use as many of your senses as
possible. Furthermore, you’re making your learning come alive, and this process
is more enjoyable than merely reading through your notes which is too passive
an approach to have any real and lasting value.
• Work out what ideas are important by revisiting the learning objectives for
a module or course. The content of your lectures has levels of importance
and establishing a hierarchy or order of importance of information will
help you to focus your study. There should be no great mystery regarding
what you need to study for exams because the learning objectives and cues
from the lecturer are what you hang onto.
• Ask yourself questions. What does this concept mean? Can I give an
example of it? How does it apply to what I’ve already learnt about this
• Clarify the meaning of important or difficult areas of the paper and
relationships between ideas and concepts. There are bound to be areas you
find difficult so be sure to follow up these points with a tutor or lecturer.
• Add more detail to information where you think it’s appropriate. For
example, if a lecturer has emphasised some ideas over others but you have
scant detail about them in your notes, it’s important to expand on your
existing information by referring to assigned readings and handouts.
• If you were the examiner, what questions would you ask? From what
other angle could a question be asked on this topic? • Try different techniques to work with the information. For example, give
yourself a mini lecture, explain a theory to a friend, create a concept map,
or write a summary of key points.
• Attempt some questions from old exam papers in the amount of time
you’d have per question in the real exam. The benefits of this task are
two-fold: a)you’re reinforcing the information and seeing what you know
and what you don’t know so well; b)you’re rehearsing the timeframe for
the real exam.
• At the end of this task, continue actively learning, rather than filing your
answer in your folder without any further attention. How well do you
think you answered the questions? What were your strengths/weaknesses?
If there are any gaps in your knowledge, this is the key time to fill them
Strategies for handling different types of questions
Whatever type of question you face, it’s always a priority to answer it
appropriately so make sure you are clear about what is being asked of you.
Multiple-choice questions can require a range of responses such as:
• recognizing the answer to a problem;
• recognizing the correct reason for a relationship;
• establishing causal links;
• demonstrating an understanding of principles or rules.
A common trap with multiple-choice questions is to misread questions, so read
• Look for and underline any distinguishing words or phrases.
• Don’t labour over questions of which you’re unsure. Move on to those
you can answer more comfortably and return to those you’re unsure of
when you’ve completed the remaining questions.
• Change answers only if you have a strong feeling that your first response
Short answer questions
Look for and underline key instruction words or phrases that tell you how to
answer the question. These questions are most often used to test knowledge and
understanding of definitions, formulae, principles and explanations. Your
answers should be succinct, so first look for and underline key instruction words
in the question to help you to know how to answer. For a list of such words see
p.10 of Planning and Writing University Assignments in the Otago Study Guide
series and available online at : http://slc.otago.ac.nz/find-online-resources/
• Define: Give clear, precise meanings.
• State: Write down the main points.
• Explain: Clarify the meaning of a statement or concept.
• Show: Demonstrate by examples.
• Gauge how much information is required by the number of marks
assigned to each question, and allocate time accordingly. For example, if a
question is worth 2 marks you won’t provide as much detail as for a
question worth 5 marks.
Exam essay questions test understanding of themes, ideas and concepts, and the
ability to interpret, and analyse information. Therefore, it’s essential that you
have a sound understanding of important concepts or theories in your course and
that you think carefully about applying them to various ways that a question
could be asked. For example, in a Sociology paper where the Treaty of Waitangi
has been focused on in relation to social workers in a service agency, you could
also consider the role and implications of the Treaty from their client’s point of
view. It’s not advisable to have a set of pre-determined essays memorised
before you sit the exam because this approach will not equip you with the
flexibility to be able to answer a specific question.
Your preparation can also be assisted by discussions with fellow students and
planning an answer to past exam essay questions. Both these approaches will
help to reinforce important facts from your course. At the end of that exercise,
ask yourself how you performed. Have you answered the question? Is your
argument relevant and convincing? Do your points move from one to the other
in a logical way? Have you provided strong examples?
Read essay questions carefully. See examples above in the section on short
answer questions regarding instruction words. • Begin with the essay question with which you feel most comfortable and
which deals with the material you know best.
• Plan your response in the supplementary booklet(s) if these are available.
Some papers, however, require you to do any planning/notes in the official
answer booklet. The time you spend planning is time well spent. For
example, if you have 40 minutes in which to write an essay spend about
10 minutes planning. Note the key points and examples you intend to
include in bullet point form or via a concept map. As you plan, reread the
question to make sure you’re on track.
• Standards are obviously important, but the marker won’t necessarily be as
picky when marking an exam essay as an internal assessment essay.
Nevertheless, you need to show a clear understanding and application of
ideas to appropriately and fully answer the question. Remember that if you
have poor grammar and punctuation your message may be lost. Don’t
leave it to the marker to make the connections between the ideas; you
must make them yourself with appropriate explanations, linking words
and phrases. Refer to pp. 3-5 of Guidelines for Writing and Editing in the
Otago Study Guide series and available online at:
• No reference list is required in an exam essay.
• If you run out of time (although that’s less likely if you go into the exam
with a time plan and stick to it) use bullet points to indicate how you
would have completed your answer.
• Some departments embargo their exam papers but generally, copies of
past exam papers are available for viewing and printing from the Library
The student voice
Students have a collective wealth of knowledge about preparing for exams. Here
are some of their tips collated from various exam preparation workshops in
response to the following questions:
What strategies/techniques have helped you in the past when you have studied
for exams? Or what have other people told you is effective?
• “Plan how I’m going to revise before I begin.”
• “ Use concept or mind maps with lots of colour. They may be more
effective than pages of written notes”
• “ Rewrite notes from lectures/textbook into a condensed form and in your
own words so you understand them.”
• “Don’t study for long periods. Forty minutes and then a break.”
• “Do old exams for that course. They’ll show you what you know and
don’t know.” • “Read what is expected of you in the course objectives.”
• “Study with others, and work on areas of confusion with them.”
• “Write a list of motivational goals and consider the benefits of studying
A friend of yours gets bored reading the same old lecture notes and textbooks.
Your friend is also concerned about retaining information. What different note-
making approaches can you recommend to your friend?
• “ Use mind maps, cue cards for definitions and posters. Create a flow
diagram of the information.”
• “Answer questions in the textbook to apply the information.”
• “Discuss the key learning objectives, concepts and theories with
• “Listen to lectures again on podcast.”
• “Be an active learner—ask yourself lots of questions.”
• “Write notes on post-its and stick them around your room so you read
them as often
• as possible.”
A friend talks to you about lacking in motivation during the study period
leading up to exams. What could you recommend?
• “Study in a group and motivate each other. Study in different places.”
• “Look at the big picture i.e. what are your long-term goals?”
• “Have some kind of reward for every few hours of study achieved.”
• “It’s only three weeks of your life. You’ll be very grateful you put in the
effort for many years after.”
• “Set goals for each day. Small steps are sometimes better in the long run.”
• “Study somewhere with no distractions.”
• “Even if it’s a compulsory paper you’re taking, think of it as a stepping
stone to get to where you want to be —there may be choices next
• “Mix up different ways of studying.”
• “Think about the consequences of not studying enough.”
• “Plan something fun to look forward to after exams.”
• “Adopt a positive attitude—think about how much you want to achieve,
the steps to get there and how good it will feel when your hard work pays
off.” What are some good strategies to keep body, mind and spirit healthy
for the period leading up to the exams?”
• “Don’t study 24/7. Take small breaks.”
• “Avoid late nights and have good time management to avoid stress.”
• “Keep your body healthy as well as your brain—balance.”
• “Keep up exercise and have time with family and friends.”
• “ Reward yourself when study has gone well.” • “ Think positively—the exam period is short so give it your best shot.”
• “Go to bed and get up at about the same time each day.”
• “Consider what the best time of day is for you to do the most effective
learning, especially for difficult subjects.”
• “Drink plenty of water.”
• “Know your commitments and your limits.”
• “Don’t be too hard on yourself. Just do your best.”
What do you have to think about when planning your time so that you get all
your revising done?
• “How much time is there between now and the exam?”
• “Be realistic about how much time you allow for each task.”
• “Make a plan with the times, day and study for that course.”
• “Don’t spend all your time on one subject, even if it’s your worst.”
• “Study timetables have worked for me, as long as they are kept to.”
• “Do I have to cut back on extra-curricular activities in order to achieve my
• “Consider your strengths/weaknesses in your papers. “Which subject
needs more attention than others?”
• “ Vary the subjects for study so that you don’t get bored.”
• “Make a priority list of things to do.”
Sitting the Exam
It’s important to think about the order in which you might answer the exam
questions, particularly if there’s a mix of multiple-choice answer questions, long
answer questions, short answer questions and essays. Which questions might
you feel most comfortable answering first? Should you do the question(s) you
find most difficult first? Or will you systematically answer all questions in
chronological order? There’s no one right way to approach the exam but
consider these matters BEFORE the exam.
It’s also important to work out how long to spend per section or question
BEFORE going to your exam so that you’ll complete the paper. For example, in
a three-hour exam which has four essays, you would spend 45 minutes per
essay. Be sure you know whether the exam is two hours or three hours so that
you can work out a time plan, and remind yourself that you intend to move on to
the next question at the end of the time you’ve allotted for it. You can return to
the incomplete one(s) if you have time at the end.
Attempt to answer every question and don’t choose a particularly difficult essay
question thinking that it will gain you a higher mark. This is not the case, so opt for a question in which you’re interested. In the exam booklet you might also
like to consider writing on alternate lines so if you want to add some
information it’ll be easier to do so. You may also want to write only on the right
hand side of the answer booklet and on alternate lines so that if you need to add
several lines, or a paragraph, they can be slotted in on the left hand side of the
booklet. Make sure you indicate the inclusion of this extra information to the
marker with an arrow or asterisk.
Try to have a positive outlook and not hook into other people’s negativity about
what they haven’t studied. Another part of having a positive attitude is having
Plan B. For example, if your results preclude you from being accepted into a
course, think about some alternative options rather than adopting an all or
nothing attitude. The efforts you’ve put into your current course don’t need to
be devalued or wasted if you adopt this flexible and realistic approach regarding
other possible interests and careers. Furthermore, having Plan B will put you
under less pressure and help you to remain motivated.
• Check out the exam venue well in advance of the day.
• Double-check the date and time of the exam.
• Take several pens, pencils (for multi-choice questions) and an eraser,
calculator and ruler if required/permitted.
• Don’t forget your ID card.
The Student Learning Centre runs workshops on time management, note-taking,
reading, and preparing for exams, and can offer one-to-one appointments with a
learning adviser. Come into the centre to book an appointment or send us an
email at email@example.com
Check out our resources online at http://slc.otago.ac.nz/find-online-resources/