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The Study Habits That Hold You Back

... and the ones that work.

Graduate student in library, reading a book.
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There are about 3 million graduate students in the United States who are making the sacrifices required to pursue a graduate degree in the hope of higher education, and higher pay. While the cost of pursuing a graduate degree varies widely, depending on the course of study and the university, a 2018 study from Washington D.C.-based think tank Brookings Institution estimated today’s graduate student has $65,000 in degree-related debt when it comes time to start repaying student loans.

Graduates are putting family time and careers on hold, and investing time and money in their studies. That means they’ll most certainly want to make the most of the opportunity—and that requires excellent study skills.

Below, we’ve outlined the study habits that can sink you, and the ones that can put you well on your way to success:

Bad Study Habit #1: You procrastinate.

Procrastination can be common among grad students, but not due to laziness, exhaustion or distraction. According to Tim Pychyl, author of two books on procrastination, it is a coping strategy when the task ahead seems too insurmountable, or the task is a deadline (for instance, a graduate thesis) far off in the future.

Good Study Habit #1: Take small steps toward your goal.

Pychyl said people who procrastinate think doing so will make them feel better, but the exact opposite actually occurs. He recommends focusing not on big tasks but instead on small ones: Break down the big project into small, actionable steps that are easier to accomplish, such as reviewing the outline of your thesis. By doing so, you’ll find something small you can get done, and that achievement can motivate you to move on to another task.

Bad Study Habit #2: You get distracted.

Before you sit down to study, read for class, or work on your project, you decide to take five minutes to check your phone. Or maybe you want to catch the first few minutes of the game on television. What happens? You get sucked in. An old friend texted you, and now you’re chatting. The game is a good one, so you decide to sit back with a snack and watch a bit more than intended. Before you know it, your study window has passed, and you run the risk of falling behind.

Good Study Habit #2: Reward yourself for good behavior.

As a graduate student, life can’t be all work and no play. You deserve a reward for avoiding all of those distractions and bearing down on course work. You aren’t expected to avoid all media, so it’s perfectly acceptable to use it in moderation. Miss your best friend back home? Make an appointment to spend 30 minutes catching up on FaceTime. Your best friend will stick to that time limit and encourage you to get back to work. Or go outside and take a walk to the neighborhood coffee shop. Just be sure to schedule these rewards after you’ve completed the task you’ve set for yourself. Sitting at your desk all day isn’t good for you, after all.

Bad Study Habit #3: You study in a place that isn’t conducive to good work.

You’ve set aside time for studying and made a to-do list. You’re ready to go. But where are you going to study? At your dining room table, with the kids running around? Reading in your bed, where you can fall asleep? The common room in your dorm (that’s nice and quiet until a group comes in and hooks up their video console to the television)?

Good Study Habit #3: Make a study-spot strategy.

Unless you live by yourself and your neighbors don’t make a peep, or unless you have a home office with a locking doorknob to shut out the world, studying at home isn’t a perfect solution. If you have kids and you have hours of work to do, swap babysitting services with a friend and offer to return the favor down the road. Reserve a study room at the library. Or, invest in noise-canceling headphones to allow you to study at a picnic table in the park on a nice day.

Bad Study Habit #4: You forgo sleep for studying.

Cramming all night before a test has become a common practice for both undergraduate and graduate students, who want to fill their brains with as much knowledge as possible before taking the exam. But does it work? Not really. According to the University of California at San Diego, students who cram don’t retain the information for the long term.

Good Study Habit #4: Study and sleep.

UC San Diego recommends the “spacing effect” (spreading two study sessions over time), or the “testing effect,” (practicing the material to retain it in your memory) over cramming for optimum test results. If you do that, you’ll be ready for the test and won’t need to cram. Instead, you can sleep the night before. A Baylor University study showed that students who averaged eight hours of sleep during the five nights of final exams week performed better on tests than those students who didn’t.

Bad Study Habit #5: You study without a game plan.

We plan a lot of things in life. A grocery list. A meal schedule. Even a weekly wardrobe. Why should studying be any different? The time you spend preparing for projects, tests and papers is much better spent if it’s structured. Trying to study without a plan usually leads to wasted hours and unfinished projects. As the adage goes: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”

Good Study Habit #5: Make a study plan.

Your study plan can begin the day you receive your course syllabus by plotting due dates on your calendar and updating it frequently. Create a realistic timetable to accomplish the tasks you’ll have to do along the way, such as “read” or “create outline.” Figure out the resources you’ll need to use as you move on. Will you need to create a study group? Schedule office hours with your professor for a thesis review?

As you proceed through the semester, you’ll learn your strengths and weaknesses. You might find you need less time than you allocated to study for a test because of your high comfort level with the material. In that case, wipe that off the schedule and use the extra time where it’s needed. Every plan should be flexible to make best use of unanticipated free time.

Remember, a plan is only as good as its execution. Create your plan and stick to it.

Graduate studies require a juggling act among school, family and job commitments. That’s why it’s so important to develop good study habits. Make every minute of every day count.

Happy studying!

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CUNA 2023 Diamond Award Winner

Financial Education

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