Learn how to learn at university – strategies for better grades

When learning is frustrating. Picture by pixabay.comWhen learning is frustrating.
Picture by pixabay.comLearn how to learn? We have been doing that at school for years. Read through your notes a few times, highlight a few bits and pieces and you already know everything you need to. Yeah right. The reality at university is a bit different. By the time you reach the last third of the semester at the latest your course notes will have exploded in quantity.

Only a few students will admit it, but studying at university means you have to learn a lot. And I mean a lot. If you think you might be able to just coast through the exams you will be brought back to earth with a bump when you sit your first university exam.
There are several reasons why tried and trusted revision strategies no longer work at university. First of all, there is the simple fact that the volume of material you have to learn for exams has increased exponentially. Another aspect to remember is that expectations at university are much higher than they were at school. That might sound obvious, but it happens time and again that students are shocked by what is expected of them. This often causes students to suddenly doubt themselves and their abilities and question whether that are really cut out for university. But such self-doubts are usually wholly unfounded.

If you aren’t successful

In reality bad exam results say little about your ability to study. The problem often lies elsewhere – namely in the preparation phase before the exam or it has to do with learning and revision. Revision techniques are barely touched upon at school. Pupils are generally expected to find out for themselves how they can best prepare for class tests and exams. This usually works quite well, even up to A-level examinations. Hand-outs are given out with tips about how best to revise but the teacher rarely comments on these, based on the principle: “I’ve given you what you need, now it is up to you to make the best of it”.
But when it comes to studying at university, even the most reliable revision strategies don’t work anymore. Time management in particular often causes problems – trying to cram everything into your head by learning for two or three nights before the exam tends to result in failure – unless you are really brainy. This is particularly problematic at the end of the semester when five, six, seven or even eight exams have to be taken one after the other, and every single one is more demanding than anything you had to do at school.

Learning how to learn at university

Using your brain will save you time.  Picture by pixabay.com
Using your brain will save you time.
Picture by pixabay.com

Almost all universities offer courses in order to provide you with various learning and revision strategies that will help you get through your degree course. I have already written a blog entry about the relevant key skills courses on offer. To the best of my knowledge, Stuttgart University doesn’t offer any courses or events that only focus on learning methods. Nevertheless, there are a number of strategies that can help you to optimize how you learn.

Generally speaking: anyone who tries to revise without a set plan wastes a lot of time. In Don’t Get Bogged Down – 5 Tips For Improving Your Self Organization Skills, I gave advice about how to get to grips with the chaos around you to make space for learning – both internally and externally. When you have cleared out and organized your desk it is time to take the next step and actually learn something.
To help you avoid getting a nasty shock the next time exam grades are issued, I would like to use this blog entry to introduce you to a number of strategies that will help you to prepare properly for your next exam. Choose the one that suits you best and forget about the rest. I want to make one thing clear right from the start: What works for one person does not necessarily work for everyone.

5 strategies to help you learn

  • Index cards
  • Audio recordings
  • Excerpts
  • Mind maps
  • Cheat seats

1.) Index cards most of you will be familiar with these from foreign language lessons, when you had to learn new vocabulary every week but also had to keep the old cards for reference. There are various different kinds of index cards, but the most important difference is whether they are real or virtual. Classic index cards are written on card and stored in a box. The other kind is virtual cards; these can be optimized by using the relevant software which tests you at specific time intervals and makes you aware of any gaps in your knowledge. These little cards can of course be used for much more than simply cramming vocabulary into your head. They can be used to learn definitions and technical terms etc. This is particularly useful if the exams require detailed knowledge of a specific subject area.

2.) Audio recordings are not for everyone, but if you find it easier to remember things when you hear them then it might be worth recording your notes and listening to them on the bus or in the train or when you do sport – or at any other time when you are forced to wait and have nothing to do. It will quickly become obvious whether this method is right for you or not. One advantage of this is that you can make use of those times where you have nothing to do so it can be particularly useful for those who commute.

3.) Taking excerpts from material is one of the more time-consuming methods but it does create a solid base for learning. The goal is not to concentrate on small details, but to find common themes – based on the argumentation structures, methods etc. The excerpts should also lead to further learning goals. In order to do this correctly, you have to go through the material really carefully. Subsequent learning phases might then be the use of index cards where the subject is briefly noted and then to go over these regularly. Or you might come up with your own exam question and devise a few alternative answers. This approach can be very useful for multiple choice exams.

The right strategy can help you learn more effectively. Picture by pixabay.com
The right strategy can help you learn more effectively.
Picture by pixabay.com

4.) Mind maps are rather controversial and how useful they are does depend on the topic.  They can be very helpful if you need to visualize an extremely complicated text or a model described in writing that you can then present as one or more graphic representations. Furthermore, mind maps can also be used to repeat or consolidate study documents. For example, you can take definitions or technical terms and write down what you connect with these terms – not as a free association exercise of course, more in the sense of a way to revise what you have already learnt. This can help you notice any gaps in your knowledge and to close them. A further advantage of this method is that you are not forced to think hierarchically (although this is sometimes necessary, for example when certain processes build on one another); you can simply record numerous ideas. Whether you want to create a graphic overview of a complex topic or use a mind map to directly learn, repeat and revise the material is entirely up to you.

5.) Before this sparks an outcry: I do not mean that you should cheat in your exams. This is meant as a way to polish and hone your revision material. Why? If you manage to reduce a few hundred (sometimes even a few thousand) pages to just a few cheat sheets (you do of course have to concentrate on the most important points), this clearly shows just how much preparatory work you have already done. That’s why it is only sensible to do this at the end of the learning process. If you have any further tips and/or strategies at hand that could help your fellow students then please let me know!

With all that in mind: Get started on learning and I hope it works out!


Liebt Literatur und Psychologie. Hat einen Master in Germanistik und studiert Psychologie im Zweitstudium, um beide Leidenschaften zu vereinen. "Das Leben ist wert, gelebt zu werden, sagt die Kunst, die schönste Verführerin; das Leben ist wert, erkannt zu werden, sagt die Wissenschaft." (F. W. Nietzsche)

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