Optimizing Studying by Reflection

Optimizing Studying by Reflection

It’s happened to all of us: You sit down, pull out your notes and don’t even know where to start. Or maybe you do study, but you have Netflix playing in the background, causing a distracting mess. Optimizing your studying can limit these issues. Here are a few ways to improve your studying in this exam period:

1. Reflect on your methods

Self-reflection is one of the key ways I succeed in my courses: to start, think about this past semester. What worked well in acing that midterm? Why did that test go worse than planned? Maybe you tried out a new study method, but found yourself forgetting everything on test day.

With every new evaluation, whether it’s a paper, quiz or final, I think about what has worked for me in the past. I don’t only reflect on what helped me achieve a grade I am proud of, but also what was time effective. Sometimes I would love to be able to input all my energy into one course, but many students have multiple final exams or papers to juggle, meaning balance is key!

When studying for finals, use the methods that you know work best for you. Try not to compare yourself with your friends when it comes to studying, because everyone is different. If you’re really lost on where to start, it is helpful to ask your friends what they do to prepare, but you’ll need to customize any method you use. Even friends taking the same courses as I am use vastly different methods, and we had to spend some time figuring out what worked for us and what didn’t.


Photo of handwritten notes with black ink, on lined paper
Taking notes of my lecture slides is one method I find effective. However, different methods work for different students!

2. Find your distraction-free zone

Whether it’s a coffee shop, a library or your home in your pajamas, you probably want to find the place that puts you in the zone. By ‘zone’ I mean the spot that makes you most productive. Personally, I need to be somewhere familiar: for me, that means either my home or my favourite library. But for those of you who are still looking for that perfect space, you can¬†discover a new U of T library at

It’s important to be as distraction free as possible. Turn off your phone, zip it in your bag, or leave it in another room. Only have your computer on if your task is strictly computer based, like writing an essay or reviewing an electronic lecture. And if you need to do a few tasks online, making a to-do list to take care of later, when you turn the computer back on, can be a useful way of staying off the internet.

Now, assuming you’ve found your zone and have your methods set, it’s time to get to work. That said, more often than not the trickiest part of getting work done is in actually starting.

3. Make a to-do list

Every day, I write down what I plan to achieve. Be realistic with yourself. If you have class or have to work, schedule in your studying around these moments. I write three things I must get done, and then add a few other non-urgent tasks to my list. You should also include even the smallest tasks such as “read three pages of Biology textbook” or “make five cue cards for lecture six.” Checking those off your list will help you realize what you’ve already accomplished, which is often needed to maintain motivation.

4. Start off with a simple task

For example, making those five cue cards can get you into the productivity zone, and soon, those five cue cards become fifty. However, make sure you do not spend every hour of your study time on easy tasks. I like completing easy tasks at the very start of my studying and on days when I’m tired, but it’s important not to ignore the difficult jobs. I find that just getting started can give me a burst of energy to continue onward, so once you’re moving, use that momentum to transition over to that complicated problem that you’ve been putting off.

5. Reflect on your knowledge

Yet again, it’s reflection time! As you work through your exam preparation, think about which topics you are comfortable with in the course and which topics you still struggle with. Of course, it’s important to review the entire semester or year, but you want to ensure you give more time to difficult material or to topics that cost you marks on midterms and quizzes. As you study, quiz yourself! You can simply ask yourself to explain a topic aloud, redo textbook problems or find new ones, or take advantage of U of T’s Old Exam Repository ( It can also be helpful to spend time anticipating what kind of questions you’ll be tested on, and practice formulating answers.

Need more tips? See for some more suggestions from U of T’s Academic Success department. And if you have study tips that haven’t been covered, please put them in the comments below!¬†Good luck on exams, everyone!

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