Studying: how to stay focused, productive, avoid distractions


One of the hardest lessons to learn in college is how to study. Of course, it’s something everyone already knows after they graduate high school — you just sit down with your books and read the parts that will be on the test. When you think of it that way, however, you’re asking for trouble. To study successfully, students must be able to focus, avoid the temptation of distraction and have a plan, and that means doing more than just sitting down in front of a book all night. Be warned, though: the more efficient your studying becomes, the easier it is to procrastinate.

1. Stay focused and get organized
Are you studying for a multiple-choice test or an essay exam? What material will be covered on the test? Do you have a presentation to give and you still haven’t settled on a topic? Where are those notes from class that one day? What about those quizzes your teacher handed back?

The first step to studying successfully is to gather all the materials you need that are related to the project, test or essay for which you’re preparing. Look at the syllabus and figure out what your professor’s expectations are. Find all the previous quizzes and notes you have from the class. Figure out whether your instructor will post any practice exams or hold any study sessions. Be sure to have all the materials you’ll need on the day of the test — a calculator, a blue book, a sheet of notes — so that you’re not panicking at the last moment.

2. Make a plan
Figure out what you need to know — what chapters will be covered on the test, which topics you’ll be writing about or what kind of information you need to present. These steps might seem like a waste of time at first, but if you have a plan for studying and you know what you don’t know, you will study much faster and more efficiently.

Tackle each problem one by one. It might help to write down what topics you still need to brush up on. If you know a certain type of problem will be on the test, make sure you know how to do the sample problems that are in your textbook. If you know your teacher really hates it when students read every word of their slides during a PowerPoint presentation, plan to make slides with bullet points or images and write notecards with the information you’ll actually be presenting. This is a really easy way to throw a presentation together quickly; the less information you put on each slide, the less time you’ll spend on the visual part of your presentation, and the more time you can spend practicing your speech.

In low-level math and science classes, many instructors borrow test questions from previous quizzes or slightly alter problems from practice tests or from the textbook. Keep all the quizzes you receive and make sure you can complete the practice test in the time you’re given.

3. Study without distraction
For many people, this means finding a secluded place and shutting out the rest of the world. For me, it means shutting myself in my room and closing all windows on my laptop that don’t relate to my studies. Online distractions are the worst, especially because students often have to be online to study. Luckily, there’s an app for that.

I use StayFocusd, a free extension for Google Chrome that blocks time-wasting websites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube. (A similar extension also exists for Mozilla Firefox called LeechBlock.) When installed, StayFocusd’s list of blocked sites is empty, and it gives you the option to add websites from a convenient list. You can set how many minutes per day you are allowed to browse these websites, but I usually set that very high and just activate “The Nuclear Option” whenever I need it.

Here’s what the nuclear option does: it blocks your access to any websites on your blocked list, for any amount of time you wish — and during that time, you can’t change the settings on the app. Usually I use StayFocusd to block those websites for an hour or two at a time, forcing me to work. Even when I mindlessly try to check Twitter, I can’t.

The extension can still be disabled in Chrome even when the nuclear option is activated, so you’re in no danger of accidentally cutting off access to important websites. If you just can’t keep yourself from checking Facebook, give StayFocusd a try.

Katie Goerl is a graduate student in history. Please send comments to