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Learning Skills and Strategies

Learning strategies are ways to understand, remember, and apply the knowledge you learn.

Why Develop Study Skills?

Effective study habits are not inherited; they are learned. Study skills and strategies are a variety of methods to help understand and effectively use your process of taking in and organizing new information, retaining information, or dealing with assignments, tests, and exams.

Good study skills are critical to your success in school. They:

  • Improve your grades,
  • Help you understand, remember and apply the knowledge you are receiving in your courses, and,
  • Use your time effectively.

Brain Power and Memory

Did you know that you can train your brain to concentrate better and retain more information?

Principles That Help Improve Memory

1. Attention

An important principle of memory is that you must pay attention to information if you want to remember it. Improve your ability to pay attention and concentrate by:  

  • eliminating distractions,
  • studying in the same place each time, and,
  • making a study plan that includes setting goals and accomplishing them through small steps.

2. Interest

Learning is influenced by interest. We pay attention to, and remember, things that we're interested in. Try to find something interesting about the information you're studying, and you'll be more likely to remember it. 

3. Feedback

As you're studying, test yourself to see if you've learned the information. If you make errors in recall, you know that you do not have the information in memory. It's better to discover this before an exam, when you have the opportunity to do something about it, rather than during the exam. 

4. Distributed practice

Try to space your study times. Studying for several one hour blocks of time, with breaks in between, is more effective than studying for several hours without a break. Research shows that immediate and long-term retention of information is greater for students who practice spaced study than for students who cram for hours at a time. 

5. Meaningfulness

You're more likely to remember something if it's meaningful to you. If it doesn't make sense to you, it will be harder to learn. To increase your chances of remembering information, try to fully understand it and make it personally meaningful. 

6. Repetition

One way to improve your chances of recall is to repeatedly expose yourself to the information; repeated exposure to information makes the neural traces stronger. Review immediately after exposure to new material (i.e. after lectures; after reading a chapter), and on a regular basis. 

7. Organization

The more you consciously organize material as you learn it, the easier it will be to recall the information later. Try to take notes in lectures and from your text in an organized fashion. When you're preparing for an exam, study related information in your lecture and textbook notes together. 

8. Visualization

Visualization is a powerful way to remember information. When you use mental pictures, or imagery, you engage the right side of your brain which can make learning more effective. 

9. Association

You are more likely to remember something if you associate it with something you already know well. For example, how do you find Italy on a map? You look for a shape of a boot. Thus, you associate Italy with something that you know very well: a boot. 

Memory Aid Techniques

Here are some techniques to help you retain and recall information. 


Rhymes are useful for remembering important information. Take the information you want to remember and turn it into rhyming sentences.


Acronyms are code words. Each of the letters in the code word stand for the first letter of the words that you want to remember.  


Acrostics are like acronyms, except they are code sentences instead of code words. The first letter of each of the words in the code sentence stands for the first letter of each of the words you want to remember.  

Key word

The key word technique is useful for remembering definitions, meanings of abstract words, or words from other languages. Associate a new word and its definition with familiar and concrete items that you already know. This involves two steps: first, take the word and think of something that the word reminds you of; then, take the meaning of the word and try to work the meaning into a mental picture you have of the word. 


Concentration Strategies

Create a Study Space

This is the first step in improving your concentration. If possible, find a particular place in your home to use only for studying. 

Your study space should include a desk large enough to spread out on, a no-glare desk lamp, and a straight chair.

Your study space should be free from distractions, both audible and visible. Music should be instrumental; any other type of music will probably distract you. Visual distractions, such as a window with a view of a busy playground, will compete for your attention.

Take a Break

Do you catch yourself daydreaming, sitting and staring at your books, telling yourself to have more will power? Associating your study area and time with the little sermon you preach to yourself defeats the purpose of improving concentration. Instead, when you find yourself beginning to daydream, take a short break. Concentration tends to lag after an hour, so breaks are important to help maintain focus. Try studying in blocks of 30-40 minutes, followed by a 5-10 minute break. 

Select a Symbol that is Related to Study

Choose a special article of clothing to wear when you study. It can be a wild hat, a colorful scarf, or any other piece of clothing that is easy to put on and take off. Wear it only when you're in your study area, and take it off when you're done studying. After a while, you will feel like studying each time you put it on.

Set Aside a Certain Time to Begin Studying

If you can make your studying habitual (at the same time each day), it will be much easier to begin studying.  If this behaviour takes place at a certain time each day, you will find it much easier to start studying without daydreaming or talking about other things. Pay attention to the time of day that you focus the best.

Set Small, Short-Range Goals and Keep a Record of Your Goal Setting

For more information on goal setting please click here.

Use a Reminder Pad

When you're studying, if you happen to think of something that needs to be done, write it down on your reminder pad. After you have written it down, you can go back to studying without distraction. When you look at the pad later, you'll be reminded of the things you have to do.

Relax Completely Before you Start to Study

Sit in a comfortable chair in a quiet room. For each muscle group mentioned below, tense or contract for a count of 10, then relax slowly for a count of 10. Notice the difference between the feeling of tension and relaxation for each muscle group. The transition from tension to relaxation should be a slow one, like air slowly leaking from a balloon. 

  1. Tense and then slowly relax your fists and forearms.
  2. Bend your elbows and tense and then relax your biceps.
  3. Straighten your arms and tense and then relax your triceps.
  4. Wrinkle up and then relax your forehead.
  5. Clench and then relax your jaw.
  6. Shrug and then relax your shoulders.
  7. Fill your lungs and then let air out slowly.
  8. Pull in and then relax your stomach.
  9. Push down your feet to tense your thighs and then relax them.
  10. Tip up your toes to tense your shins and then relax them.
  11. Raise your heels to tense your calves and then relax them.

The first time through, the whole procedure should take about 20 minutes. As time goes on, you'll be able to perform the steps more quickly. Eventually, you should be able to completely relax almost at will.  

Reading Skills

If you typically read a chapter in your textbook and then, a few minutes later, have trouble recalling what you read, you're not alone. Many students benefit from learning strategies to retain and process the information in their texts.

Try the SQ4R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Record, Review) reading technique, which helps you retain and process the information in your texts.

SQ4R- A Reading Strategy

The key to being a good and successful reader is to make reading an active process, instead of simply passively moving your eyes along the page. You need to work at understanding what you are reading, search for main details, link ideas together, and understand new vocabulary. The goal is to try to do all of this while only reading the chapter once; you don’t have time to re-read!

The following reading strategy can help you become a more active reader.

S – Survey

Preview the chapter before reading it. Read the introduction to get an idea of what will be covered in the chapter. Scan the headings and subheading, pictures, graphs, etc. Get a feel for what the chapter is about and also how long you expect it to take to read. Divide the chapter into sections.

Q – Question

Before reading, turn the headings and subheadings into questions that you will try to find the answer to while reading. Write them down. This makes reading more active because you are doing something with the information. An example of a heading you might find in a Sociology text is “Ethnocentrism”. Turning this into a question could give you “What is ethnocentrism?” If ethnocentrism was a subheading under the heading “Culture”, the question could be “What is ethnocentrism and how does it affect culture?”

R – Read

Now it is time to read! While reading a section, try to answer the question you created. Look for main ideas, new vocabulary and try to link information with other things you have learned so far (from the prof’s lectures and the text). Don’t just passively move your eyes along the lines of the page. THINK about what you are reading and what it means.

R – Recite/Rephrase

Once you've read a section and found the answer to your question (which should be the main idea of the paragraph/section), ask yourself if you understand it. The key to knowing if you understand or not is if you can rephrase the idea in your own words. If you can’t do it, you probably don’t have a good enough grasp of the concept. Read it over again and look at any examples that are provided.

R – Record

Now write down the answer to your questions and any other important points that you feel are worth studying and remembering. Try not to just copy – put things in your own words. It is easier to remember something that is in our words than something that is in someone else’s. There is no need to write complete sentences. Use points as much as possible. One of the major goals of creating these notes is to condense the information as much as possible.

R – Review

Once you've pulled out the main ideas from the text and written them down, you no longer need the textbook. Spend your time reviewing the notes that you have made. It is much easier to work with a condensed version of the information. Review your notes regularly so that you will not have to re-learn everything by the time the midterm and exam come along.

Reading Tips

  • Highlight and Tabulate: Highlight and mark important information so that you can find it again later. Don’t highlight too much. You want the important points to stand out. 
  • Write in the margins: Annotate your text material with comments, questions, examples, and more.
  • Read out loud: Rather than reading silently in your head, read your material out loud, either to someone else, or to an invisible audience.
  • Explain what you have read to someone else: Relaying information to other people helps you understand it better. It can also help you notice information that you haven’t quite grasped or understood.
  • Test yourself: After you’ve read a chapter, try to write down key points without checking the text. Refer to your learning objectives!

Group Work

Why participate in a study group? 

  • Share materials and resources and clarify understanding. 
  • Opportunity to test yourself and your peers. 
  • See material presented in alternative ways to those used in class. 
  • Material put into a student's own words can aid in remembering it. 
  • Teaching others is a very effective way to master information.

Working Effectively in Groups

It can be exciting to form groups to complete a project, especially when you have a group full of friends. However, sometimes gaining support and cooperation from all of the group members can prove to be challenging! Some group members are unwilling to accept responsibility, while others are dominant and pushy. This kind of co-operation within the group can have adverse effects on your performance in the project. Unfortunately, this is so common that you are likely to find yourself facing similar situations in your future career.

When working in groups, it's important to foster the 5R’s: 

Responsibility - Contribute as much as you can and complete the work that is assigned to you

Reliance - Help each other to learn from and complete the project

Relationship - Encourage each other to share information, exchange viewpoints, discuss learning strategies and form good partnerships

Respect - Be sensitive to each other's needs, feelings and positions

Reflection - Be aware of how much progress the group has made and how much you have contributed to the group

Forming Study Groups

Forming study groups may be your saving grace. They may be required for project work, preparing for course work or assignments, or studying for exams. Study groups can provide a support system to get you through some of those difficult classes. They allow you to cover more information by dividing up the work among the group members and they allow you to learn information you don’t know. Working in study groups allows you to explain concepts to other students to help you learn what your strengths and weaknesses are with specific information.

Here are some tips on how to form study groups:

  • Scan your class for peers or friends with whom you would like to work with, but be careful with choosing close friends. Working with close friends makes it difficult to hold them accountable for their contribution to the study group. Form study groups with individuals you respect academically.
  • Alternatively, create a sign-up sheet that asks for students’ names and email addresses. This sheet may be passed around during a lecture. This method works well for students who may be shy. Remember, if you are the one who initiates the sign-up sheet, you will be responsible to contact everyone on the list.
  • Do not make a study group too large. Five people at most is an effective size for a study group. Too many people will turn the study session into a social gathering.
  • Promote your strengths to the group. Tell them what you will bring to the study group. Don’t just think about what the study group will do for you.
  • When you have joined a group, try not to be shy. Suggest times and places to meet. Agree in the beginning how often you want to meet and clarify your goals.
  • When meeting with the study group, always be prepared! Have all the necessary tools, resources and information required, and a plan for the session. Plan for meetings to be in a neutral location. One suggestion is booking a Group Study Room in the Library. They can be scheduled online here.
  • Do not bring too much food to the study group. This will potentially cause the group to eat and socialize instead of studying and learning. However, do allow for some socializing. This is one of the pleasures of forming study groups. But make sure it only takes up a small portion of your group study time.


"How to Form Study Groups in College." BookRags, n.d. Web. 13 April 2016.

"Study Group Handout." The McGraw Centre for Teaching and Learning. Princeton University, n.d. Web. 13 April 2016.

Tips for Trades & Technologies Students

Having strong skills, such as reading, document use, writing, and thinking, can help you succeed in your apprenticeship training. By having these skills, you will be able to:

  • prepare for in-class training;
  • take effective notes; and
  • understand and remember what you have learned.

Human Resources and Skills Development Canada created a document that provides tips and strategies to learn these skills.

Resources to Print

Tools and Apps

There are a variety of tools and apps that can assist you with studying. We have tried and used some of them and others have come to our attention from faculty and students who have found them helpful. 

Red Deer Polytechnic does not endorse the apps and sites listed here, and is not responsible for any technological problems that may arise from their use.