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Study Tips for Students in Graduate School

By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.

Study tips for students in graduate school are fundamentally the same as study tips for students in high school or college. That’s because the cognitive processes involved in learning are the same no matter what grade you’re in. However, students in graduate school can benefit from changing up their study systems, routines, and habits to better suit grad school expectations. 

The Two Foundational Study Tips for ALL Students, Not Just Those in Graduate School

No matter what grade you’re in, there are two study methods you need to be using. Every additional study strategy you want to throw into the mix should be an off-shoot of the following two:

Active Recall: Active recall is the one study strategy that really ensures that you know the material. It’s the process of giving yourself multiple opportunities to “struggle” to recall information you’re learning, without looking at your notes. Sounds simple, but it can actually be quite uncomfortable.

Spaced Repetition: Spaced repetition is the ideal framework for timing your study sessions for optimal learning and retention. After all, it’s pretty pointless to learn something if you only forget it the next day. Spaced repetition involves studying in short frequent intervals over an extended period of time, rather than studying in one epic study session. Cognitive science validates spaced repetition. 

5 Study Tips for Students in Graduate School

If you’re a grad student, you are either in full-time school or part-time, depending on whether or not you’re also working. Either way, the following 5 study tips should help you maximize your time and prevent you from falling behind in your courses. If there’s one thing about grad school that’s different from undergrad, it’s that things move quickly and no one waits for you to catch up.

1. Prepare For Class and Use Priming

Unlike high school where you can essentially just show up for class and expect to be taught, graduate school is different because the expectation is that you will do a lot of learning on your own. You’ll be expected to read, do homework, do problem sets, and figure things out independently, and then come to class with your questions. 

If you don’t prepare for class by doing the readings ahead of time, then you’re going to fall behind. Look at everything your professor posts on your learning management system and use your syllabus to figure out what readings you need to do before the next class, and then do them. Here are my best tips for preparing for class.

When you prepare for a class, you automatically tap into the magic power of priming. Priming is when you are exposed to material prior to really learning it. It’s kind of like priming a wall before you paint it: the primer gives the paint something to stick to, right? Learning works the same way: exposure to content before you fully dive into it gives the new material something to stick to, so to speak.

2. Follow the Syllabus to a T

The syllabus is king in graduate school. Very rarely does a grad school professor stray from what’s on the syllabus, and you should use this information when planning out your week. 

In the beginning of each semester, sit down with your syllabus, your calendar and your task management tool (likely your assignment notebook). 

  • Start by putting all your deadlines and test dates on the calendar. 
  • Next, look at your assignments and readings. Depending on how long or complex they are, add them to your assignment notebook as tasks at least several days leading up to the deadline. You can do this one week at a time, if you like.
  • Make sure you have all the materials – in your preferred format – to do your assignments for the class. If you like to annotate directly in textbooks, purchase one instead of borrow one. If you prefer digital textbooks to analog textbooks (or vice versa), then see how you can make that happen.

3. Do the Work Right After Class

One of the best study tips for students in graduate school is to do the work right after class (or as immediately as you can), instead of waiting a few days before getting started. 

Obviously, you need to work around your job schedule if you’re working while going to school, but if possible, plan time in your week to do your homework and readings either the same day you had class or no more than two days later. 

The reason for this comes back to spaced repetition, which I talked about in the first section. If you do your homework pretty soon after class, you’re naturally building in spaced repetition: the class counts as one learning session, and your homework session counts as another. 

This back-to-back reinforcement of the material will help you learn it more deeply and more permanently. 

4. Break Down Long-Term Projects

I already alluded to this study tip when I talked about using your syllabus to plan out your weeks, but I want to dive in a little deeper.

Most assignments in graduate school are technically long-term projects. Because you’re not going to class every day, you’re being assigned reading and assignments that are more extensive than if you had a daily class. Therefore, you’ll need to use some good task and time management strategies to make sure that you’re completing long-term projects over time, and not procrastinating. 

The best way to do this is to break down all your readings and projects into smaller steps, and then schedule those smaller steps as tasks in your task management system. 

This is my video about how to handle multiple projects at once.

5. Review Regularly

The last study tip for students in graduate school is to review regularly. This tip is powerful because – if done consistently – it can significantly reduce the amount of time you need to study.

Graduate classes are often spaced out over the week, with each course usually meeting only once or twice a week. This means that during a semester, you’re not actually meeting with your professor that many times, as compared to a high school schedule that meets five days a week. 

What does this mean? It means that you will need to dedicate some significant out-of-class time to reviewing material on your own so you don’t forget it by the time you need it for your final. Graduate-level classes move quickly, and it’s not uncommon to move from one subject to the next without returning to prior material. That part’s on you.

One good strategy to ensure that you’re reviewing the material regularly enough to not forget it is to make an ongoing set of flashcards throughout the semester. Every time you cover new material in class or in your readings, make flashcards from it. This deck of flashcards becomes a valuable tool for reviewing all the material from your class. When the test comes, you will find that you can study less because the material is fresh in your mind. 

Additional Study Resources for Graduate Students

No amount of study tips will save you from bad time management. That’s because good time management skills ensure that you can use spaced repetition to plan your study sessions and that you are able to schedule sufficient time in your week to complete your assignments.

If you’re in a reading-intensive course, don’t forget to schedule sufficient time to read your texts; this often takes longer than we like to admit it does. (That’s one of the top five common time management mistakes that I cover here.)

You might also enjoy these study tips for college students, as many will still apply to you in graduate school. 

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