On this page you can find general college learning and study techniques. We give you ideas on how to improve your understanding of information in less time, as well as links to other pages with more specific information. These techniques can be applied to most any college course. But first, this important concept:

studying ≠ learning

Knowing how to study is important but knowing how to learn is what makes studying effective. So what is the difference and why should you care? Because time is your most valuable resource and it is possible to learn more in less time and then have more time for other important things.

One of the most helpful books we have read recently is the book The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life - Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process , which we highly recommended to help you focus and be able to learn, not just study.

Section 1 - How Learning Is Different Than Studying

READ THIS FIRST - The Number One, Most Important Learning/Study Concept Every College Student Needs

This is the most important study technique of all time. Are you ready? Here it is: Learn to teach yourself. Do not rely on teachers, other students or anyone else. Take control of your learning. If you do, then you will come to realize how enjoyable learning is just for the sake of learning. I can guarantee you that at least once (and probably more than once) in your college career you will get a teacher that is difficult to learn from. There could be several reasons. At best, they might think differently than you do and you just can't grasp what they are trying to explain. At worst, they may just be bad teachers. Schools are filled with good and bad teachers. I'm sorry to tell you but that's reality.

Additionally, the school system structure is inherently flawed. Having someone stand in the front of a room filled with students and lecturing and then expecting you to go out and work problems is not a good way to learn. But we are stuck with it. So what IS the best way to learn? I believe the best student-teacher ratio is one-to-one, one teacher for one student. But this is not realistic in our school system (unless you are/were fortunate enough to be home schooled).

So how, as a student, do you work within an imperfect system with an imperfect teacher? You learn to teach yourself. You learn to use the resources you do have to get the most out of them. Go to every single office hour that your teacher holds and get one-on-one help with things you don't understand (after you have worked hard on your own). Get a study group together where there is at least one person who knows the material better than you and at least one person who does not know the material as well as you. Teaching someone else the material you are learning helps you understand it better and you will have someone who can answer your questions. But most importantly, learn to teach yourself.

Teachers are human too. They are not completely to blame for keeping you reliant on them. Everyone wants to be needed. It's part of being human. Most teachers don't know how to help you to be independent and no longer need them. And as a teacher, I have a lot to learn about how to do this. But, I can tell you from personal experience, when I see a student figure out something on their own after I have given them the tools, there is almost no better feeling in the world. And that's why I became a teacher. A teacher is not a crutch to get you through the course. A teacher is a resource that is meant to be phased out over time as you learn to teach yourself.

If you truly want to do well in school, learn to be a good student. Take charge of your learning. Spend time between semesters or when you have some extra time during the semester honing your student skills. One of the best books to get you started is How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less by Cal Newport. Cal has a blog called StudyHacks that is really good too.

During the semester, try to tweak some of your techniques. For example, if you are having difficulty remembering an equation, take the equation apart and try to understand what each part means. Once something becomes meaningful, you won't forget it. Cal Newport's book has some other ideas on what to tweak to get more out of your study time.

Here are several other good resources that have good reviews on Amazon.

Learning to teach yourself is an ongoing process but you can start right now. For starters, notice every time you are frustrated when someone is not available to help you. That tells you that you may be relying on someone else rather than teaching yourself. Learn to use frustration to motivate you, not as a reason to quit. Develop persistence and a never-give-up attitude. Use additional study materials outside of class. Develop a love of learning. No one can do this for you. You are the only one that can do it.

Here is a quote from a free online course we discuss in more detail below.
Take Responsibility For Your Own Learning
'Approaching material with the goal of learning it on your own can give you a unique path to mastery. Often, no matter how good your teacher or textbook are, it’s only when you ‘sneak off’ and look at other books or videos that you begin to see what you learn through a single teacher or book is a partial version of the full three dimensional reality of the subject which has links to still other fascinating topics that are of your choosing.' Barbara Oakley; Learning How Learn (free Coursera course) (video: 4-3 Change Your Thoughts)

Bottom Line: Take Responsibility For Your Own Learning and Learn To Teach Yourself

Differences Between Studying and Learning

Let's look at some of the differences between learning and studying.


mostly done on a regular basis in your early life, up through college and then sporadically through the rest of your life


something you do for your entire life


usually associated with an intense period of conscious concentration


constantly ongoing subconsciously


repeating something a few times


involves doing something repeatedly until it becomes ingrained


understanding it in your head


knowing it as a part of you

If you have ever had one of those 'AHA!' moments, you have experienced understanding. If you have ever had a deep feeling of satisfaction when you have applied your knowledge to a new problem that you have never seen before after lots of work and persistence, you have demonstrated that you learned something. So how do you know when you move from studying to learning?

Free Online Course: Learning How To Learn

There is a great free online course through Coursera that we highly recommend called Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. Here are several good quotes from the course.
'The retrieval process itself enhances deep learning.’ Barbara Oakley [from the 2-4 Illusions of competence video]

'Recalling material when you are outside your usual place of study can also help you strengthen your grasp of the material.’ Barbara Oakley [same video]

Take Responsibility For Your Own Learning
'Approaching material with the goal of learning it on your own can give you a unique path to mastery. Often, no matter how good your teacher or textbook are, it’s only when you ‘sneak off’ and look at other books or videos that you begin to see what you learn through a single teacher or book is a partial version of the full three dimensional reality of the subject which has links to still other fascinating topics that are of your choosing.' Barbara Oakley [from the 4-3 Change Your Thoughts video]

One thing we really like about this course is that, not only do they explain why it is important to learn how to learn, but they give practical, realistic techniques on how to do it.
Check out the online class yourself. If there is not a current session, put the course in your watchlist and you will be notified when a section opens up.

Section 2 - Specific Learning Techniques

Okay, so you are now in college. You got through high school, maybe even successfully. You think you know everything there is to know about studying and learning. But I can tell you there is more. You can improve your study techniques, learn more easily in less time with less effort and do better in school than you have up until now. You can also learn to teach yourself and be more independent. You will need to put in a little more effort up front but it will pay off big time later.

The first thing you need to do is to understand and believe that you can learn how to study better. You need to decide that you WANT to. If you think you know everything about studying or you don't want to learn more, you won't, so just stop reading now and go back to what you are doing. HOWEVER, if you really want to improve your study skills and you know that you can, then read on.

video: How to Get a Perfect on ANY Test - YesReneau

video: The Greatest Brain Exercise Ever - Kyle Cease

Okay, so . . . I am not a fan of positive thinking. It doesn't work for me and I don't really think it works for most people. However, I do believe that what we think affects our performance.

Here is something that I believe works. It is not positive thinking but it does change the way we can think to improve our learning. This is a short video (only about 7mins long), so take a few minutes and watch it. Then try it.

videos: Think101x, The Science of Everyday Thinking

Okay, so now after the previous topic, you should be ready for some specifics on what to do and how to learn more effectively. Let's start with a set of videos from a course I took recently on edx called Think101x, The Science of Everyday Thinking. We recommend you that you look into the course yourself for lots of good material. We have set up a youtube playlist with the videos associated with study and learning techniques. Do not skip these videos. These techniques could change your life.

article: 7 Most Common Learner Mistakes - Scott H. Young

One of our favorite bloggers, Scott H. Young, has an article about the 7 most common mistakes learners make. Three of them, especially, can affect how well you learn math.
1. Memorizing What Needs To Be Understood
2. Not Enough Practice
7. Not Being Interested in What You Learn

For starters, it helps to be aware of mistakes or things you do that either hinder or do not help learning. This article not only points out a few of them but also gives some good suggestions on how to correct the mistakes. A few comments are in order.

1. Memorizing What Needs To Be Understood
This is a good one because many people are not aware that memorizing and learning are two different things. Memorizing will get the concept and equations into your head only temporarily. Learning will get the concept deep and the equations will flow naturally out of what you know. It feels like the material is actually in your bones, not just in your head. Learning makes things harder to forget than when memorizing.

2. Not Enough Practice
We often comment here at 17University about needing lots of practice. We are firm believers in getting practice. Practice is how the concepts move from your head into your bones and become rooted there. Scott mentions some misconceptions of studying like this.
'Going to class isn’t practice. Highlighting a textbook isn’t practice. Rereading notes isn’t practice. These activities may be useful, to a point, but your learning generally suffers when you spend most of your time on them instead of practicing.'
These activities are where students spend most of their time and they become unproductive after a certain point.

7. Not Being Interested in What You Learn
Many people think that being interested in something is innate, i.e. we are born to like some subjects and not others. This is a fallacy. People do tend to have preferences of some subjects over others but actually being interested in things is a choice. And it is not an all or nothing issue, i.e. being interested in things is on a continuum or range and we can choose to be in the range. Even within a subject, there will some material that we are more interested in. The point is, we can make that choice.
Also, think about why you don't like something. Is it because it is hard? Sometimes, in the process of learning, we come across a topic that we find especially difficult and, if we are not prepared, we can end up not liking it only because it is difficult. Mastering something difficult can be extremely rewarding but the frustration during the learning process can make it seem difficult. Use that frustration to help spur you on.

There are few other common mistakes that Scott discusses and he makes some good points in them. However, we do not completely agree with everything in the article by Scott. Scott separates perfectionism into short-term and long-term, labeling one bad and the other good. However, the goal of perfectionism can only produce frustration and defeat since it can never be attained. For many people, this is not a good balance. So we believe that all perfectionism is detrimental.

In the final analysis, Scott's article is a good read and he makes some great points. As always though, read everything with a critical eye and make sure it follows what you know and have experienced before agreeing or adopting any kind of study habit changes.

How To Learn From ANY Teacher, Even a Terrible Teacher

If you have a bad or difficult teacher this semester, I'm sorry to say that your situation happens to every single person that has ever been in school and it seems to be more common with math teachers than with any other subject. I am sorry that you have to deal with this. This situation is not fair and should never happen. But the reality is that it does. But you have control here and you can decide what to do. Here are your options.
1. You can run. You can drop the class, change sections or just quit.
2. You can let it get to you, complain all semester and then blame the teacher when you get a poor grade.
3. You can deal with it and get the best grade possible under the circumstances.

If you choose options 1 or 2 above, most people wouldn't blame you. Lots of people have done one or both and have gone on to succeed in life (although not as successful as they could have been). You are not a bad person if you choose one of them. However, choosing 1 or 2 will not help you in the long run and you will lose an opportunity to learn about dealing with difficult people. There will be a day when you have to deal with a difficult co-worker or, even worse, a difficult boss. And you have the same choices now that you will have to make then. Also, right now only your grade is the issue, not your career. So doesn't it make sense to choose option 3? If so, read on. I will give you some ideas on how to work through this.

Okay, so if you are still reading, you have chosen (or are at least thinking about choosing) option 3. Let me start out by telling you that it will be challenging and you won't always like what you have to do. But I can tell you that it will be worth it. So keep reading.

First, what you need to do is change the way you think. Once you do that, you will be able to do some specific things that will get you through the class. Every action you have ever done has started in your mind. Your thoughts are extremely powerful and they affect everything you do. Are you ready? Okay, let's get started.

General Guidelines
1. Realize that your teacher is human and makes mistakes. They were young once. They have a life, a family and, for them, teaching is job. Some teachers teach because they are good at it. Some teachers teach only because they don't know how to do anything else. Maybe their parents are teachers and didn't give them any other choice when they were young. Maybe they are natural musicians but they were not allowed to pursue that. Maybe they are new and have a lot to learn or maybe they are old and are just coasting to retirement. Whatever the reason, they ended up as your teacher after making many decisions along the way, maybe not always the best decisions. But your first job is to give them a break. Try to see them as a fallable human who is doing their best, even if it doesn't look like they are trying.
Now, understand that this is one of the hardest thing you will do and you will probably have to do it repeatedly every day you are in this class. But this is the key to everything that comes next. Do not skip this one and expect the other things to work because they won't. So, it's time to suck it up and just do it.

2. Okay, now that you have a little bit of perspective on the teacher, you can let go of the expectations you have of them and shift your attention to learning math. This is an important shift that is absolutely necessary if you are to succeed. You need to think about what you say to yourself about math. Do you say it is hard, evil and/or difficult or impossible? Do you tell yourself that you will never succeed, that you are not good at math, that you will never get it? If you are saying those negative things to yourself, they will become your reality and you will not succeed. That's the bottom line. You need to stop saying those things and start saying things like you can learn math, you are able to succeed, you have all the tools you need to master this class . . . things like that. I am not talking about positive thinking. I am talking about changing your reality by starting with what you think. What you think, will become reality. Do you want to fail? Then think about failing. Do you want to get good grades? Then start thinking about it.

3. Take charge of your own learning. It is way too easy to expect someone else to teach you and, honestly, it just won't happen, especially if you have a bad teacher. But even with a good teacher, you can learn much more than they will teach you by taking charge of your learning. So what does this look like? Taking charge means that you take responsibility for learning including reading the material before class, asking questions of the teacher and, if that doesn't work, finding someone else to answer your questions or, even better, figuring it out on your own. Reading additional material and researching outside of class so that you will truly understand the material. Turning in assignments complete and on time. Finding out what the teacher expects and following their rules and guidelines. Working within the system but not in a way to be limited by it. Doing more than expected inside and outside of class. Learn to be a good student.

4. Work with other students in the class. Get a study group together with one person in the group that knows the material less than you and another person that knows the material better than you, if possible. You will get a tremendous boost in learning if you have to teach another person. And you will also have someone to ask questions of. Don't make the group too big, max 4-5, less if you can't work together, more if you need it.

Specific Techniques
1. Go to the college books page and get several books. First, get a book on how to be a better overall student. There are different techniques to study math, english and history. Learn the differences and implement the techniques. Second, get another book on calculus. The best I've found is How To Ace Calculus and it's sequel. Next, if you have a bad textbook, get a used copy of a good one, like the ones on the college books page. The best I've found is Larson Calculus. Since you don't need it for a course, you can get a previous edition, sometimes for as little as $10. Use them and study them.

2. Read the learning techniques page giving study techniques and implement them, especially the section on how to teach yourself (in the section entitled The Number One Study Concept Every Student Needs).

3. Do not skip anything that you don't understand while you are learning the material. Be diligent and persistent. The number one personality trait that will help you the most is persistence. Develop it and use. Don't give up on anything. Also, if you skip something, there is a very good chance that that concept will be on the exam. Good teachers ask for the hard stuff on exams. Poor teachers just ask you to regurgitate the easy stuff.

There are three keys to doing well in your class, (1) to change your thinking, (2) taking responsibility for your own learning and (3) persistence. Develop those three areas and you will learn how to do well in any class with a bad (or even good) teacher.