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Make a plan — and stick to it

Many students know they should space out study periods, quiz themselves and practice other good skills. Yet many don’t actually do those things. Often, they fail to plan ahead.

Back when Rawson was a student, she used a paper calendar for her planning. She wrote in the date for each exam. “And then for four or five other days,” she recalls, “I wrote in time to study.”

a photo of a person running away from the viewer on a leafy path, zoomed in on the feet and lower legs
Build breaks for exercise into your study schedule too. Even a few minutes outside can help you perk up for more studying.
Try to stick to a routine, too. Have a set time and place where you do schoolwork and studying. It may seem odd at first. But, Kornell assures you, “by the time week two rolls around, it becomes a normal thing.” And put your phone somewhere else while you work, adds Nebel.

Allow yourself short breaks. Set a timer for 25 minutes or so, suggests Sana. Study during that time, with no distractions. When the timer goes off, take a five or 10 minute break. Exercise. Check your phone. Maybe drink some water — whatever. Afterward, set the timer again.

“If you have a study plan, stick to it!” adds McDaniel. Recently, he and psychologist Gilles Einstein at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., looked at why students don’t use good study skills. Many students know what those skills are, they report. But often they don’t plan when they intend to put them in action. Even when students do make plans, something more enticing may come up. Studying has to become a priority, they say. The team published its report in Perspectives on Psychological Science on July 23.

Bonus: Be kind to yourself
Try to stick to a regular routine. And get enough sleep — not just the night before the test but for weeks or months on end. “Those things are really, really important for learning,” Nebel says. Exercise helps as well, she says.

Don’t stress out if all of this seems like a lot, she adds. If a lot seems new, try adding just one new study skill each week or two. Or at least space out your study sessions and practice retrieval for the first few months. As you get more practice, you can add more skills. And if you need help, ask.

Finally, if you struggle to follow the advice above (such as you can’t keep track of time or find it very hard to just sit and focus on your work), you may have an undiagnosed condition, such as ADHD. To find out, check with your doctor. The good news: It may be treatable.

Doing schoolwork during a pandemic is a tough situation at best. But remember your teachers and classmates also face challenges. Like you, they have fears, concerns and questions. Be willing to cut them some slack. And be kind to yourself as well. After all, Kornell says, “we’re all in this together.”