I’m sure you’ve got plenty of pens, pencils, notepads and perhaps a few gadgets that you regularly use to study, but do you use them effectively? And what else do you have in your ‘study toolkit’ that enables you to learn in the most preferred and effective way for your brain?

Effective skills and strategies, our ways of using what we have to achieve success, which become good habits are often the most important factors in a student’s success story. So, it’s all well and good having plenty of colourful stationery and physical study tools, but you have to know how to use them effectively to gain the most benefit.

Incorporating these five strategic approaches into your daily study routine will enable you to develop your cognitive study toolkit:

1. Colour-code with meaning

Using coloured pens, pencils, highlighters and paper can be of great benefit to your organisation and learning strategies. However, the colours you use need to be meaningful and consistent. I always write ideas for blogs on pink Post-it™ notes and I write my to-do lists on yellow lined Post-its™ (they’re great for shopping lists too). The pink helps to stimulate my brain with ideas while yellow has a calming effect so I can think through which tasks I need to prioritize as I list them. I never change this and it helps me to organise and ‘compartmentalise’ my thoughts better.

I always write using pens with interchangeable multicoloured inks. I use blue to add my own thoughts and ideas to printed copy, which is usually black on white and is a great strategy for annotating printed lecture slides. I use red to write or underline important information that I need to remember and I tend to write in green if I’m thinking and planning creatively. I only use highlighters for underlining really important information that I know I’ll need to come back to at some point. Overuse of highlighters, what I call ‘highlighter happiness‘, is one of the most flawed study approaches I see and should be avoided.

2. Plan to manage, and stay on top of, your deadlines

Effective time planning and applying the SMART strategy is essential to staying on top of deadlines and submitting work on time. I have monthly planners pinned to the wall above my desk on which I chart my 90-day deadlines (90 days = 3 months or 1 term or semester and 1/4 of a year) and the interim milestone deadlines that I need to complete in order to meet my big, longer term deadlines. My monthly planners also contain regular weekly events so I’m continually reminded of them.

I then chunk down the interim milestones onto weekly planners. I allocate days and realistic time chunks to the projects I’m working on so that I can monitor my progress by crossing off completed tasks. This enables me to see if I’m on track to meet my interim deadlines on a day-to-day basis so I can see immediately if I’m getting behind and need to spend more time on certain tasks and if I’m being realistic with the amount of time I’m allocating to achieving my goals.

I also add important appointments and events to my phone calendar and set 2 reminders for each so I have a back-up on my phone that reminds me of appointments and when I need to start travelling to get to them on time. As I’m working I keep a lined Post-it™ pad next to me to write down any additional tasks that crop up on each day, or anything I’ve forgotten to put on my weekly planner, so I’m reminded of them. If I’ve focused on getting through what’s on my weekly planner for that day, I’m still reminded of those outstanding tasks written on the Post-it™ at the end of the day.

3. Measure your productivity daily and weekly

As I complete each task I cross it off my planner. By the end of the week my planner is covered in scribbled out tasks and looks a mess, but I can see clearly what I’ve completed and achieved as well as, and more importantly, what I haven’t completed. Crossing off tasks is vital to gaining a sense of achievement and enabling us to see how productive we’re being. If you’re not getting things done, you need to be able to reflect on and figure out why that is, and quickly, so that you can do something about it.

At the end of each day, cross off the tasks you have completed and rethink whether the rest of your planner for that week is still achievable. At the end of each week, spend at least 30 minutes reflecting on and reviewing your progress over the week to check if you’ve allocated enough time to get enough study done.

If you realise you haven’t allocated enough time and you’re behind, you either need to re-write your task list or allocate more time to your study tasks.

4. Allocate realistic amounts of time to tasks

In order to know how much time needs to be allocated to completing certain tasks, you need to have a good sense of time and know what your capabilities are. If you allocate 1 hour to reading a very complex text that’s realistically going to take you 3 hours including brain breaks, or you schedule 2 days to write an assignment that realistically will take you 4 days, you’ll constantly be behind with your workload and it’ll be a continual struggle to meet your deadlines.

If you don’t have a realistic sense of how long your study tasks take, use a timer to start developing that sense. Try out the Focus Booster app or just use the timer or alarm function on your phone or watch. If you don’t have a watch or a smartphone, use a kitchen timer instead.

Often complex tasks take longer than we anticipate so we need to constantly re-evaluate our planned use of time. Allocating realistic amounts of time to study will invariably mean making sacrifices as you’ll have less time for leisure and social activities but they always fall into the Reward category of using the SMART approach. However, if you can use time more effectively and get more done in the time you’ve allocated, you’ll have more time for rewards and be able to do the things you want to do in addition to the things to have to do.

5. Take action to overcome your distractions

Too many people allow their distractions to control them. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people say “but I can’t help logging into Facebook.” Yes, you can help it! You have ultimate control over what you allow into your life and your brain, certainly when it comes to social media. If you’re constantly allowing distractions to interrupt your ability to plan and achieve, take action. Use the Unlocked Learner’s free downloadable Action Over Distraction worksheet to implement a strategic approach to this.

Mastering these 5 essential strategies will mean your study toolkit contains real, transferable skills and knowledge of how to put all of that colourful stationery to highly effective use. Not only will that make you a more effective learner, it’ll also give you a head start as a graduate employee. In the 21st century employment landscape we all need to be effective lifelong learners.

For more personalised advice and guidance to master these essential skills, book a 1-1 Study Coaching session. Remember, your first 15 minute session is always completely free!

Feel free to share any other effective study tools and habits that you use, either in the comments below or post them on the Unlocked Learner’s Facebook page.

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