Make this your year

Our 6 top tips for a successful new semester

Image credit: Element5 Digital on Unsplash

A new academic year is a great chance to start over. It’s a time to say goodbye to the bad habits that may have plagued you in the past and start developing good ones to help you succeed. We’ve culled some of our top tips from past blog posts to help you thrive in your studies. Whether you’re a first-year student or a seasoned professor, we hope you’ll find some strategies you can put into practice below.

  1. Outsmart the procrastination instinct

    One of the biggest problems nearly every student faces is procrastination. If you have an issue with putting off your work, there’s no need to feel ashamed – it’s very human and there a lot of reasons that you might be procrastinating other than laziness. In fact, many of the best students procrastinate, often due to fear of failure.

    Whatever the reason, it’s helpful to have some tools ready the next time you feel tempted to postpone an important assignment as giving in to procrastination can lead to lower-quality assignments and decreased learning retention.

    When you feel tempted to procrastinate, the hardest thing to do – and also the most important – is to just get started on what you’ve been avoiding. Once you’ve made even a little progress, the task won’t seem so daunting. There are a number of ways to naturally trick your brain into doing this, but the next three are some of our favorites:

    The one-inch picture frame

    This trick is described by writer Anne Lamott in her advice book for fiction writers Bird by Bird. With this method, you tell yourself that you’re just going to do one very small task. For example, your goal might be to just write the first sentence of a new section in your paper. Once that’s done, you’ll have built up some momentum and should be able to keep writing. Learn more in this blog post.

    The Pomodoro Technique®

    If you find you simply can’t get going on something, the Pomodoro Technique® is worth a try. The method is named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer common in Italy. You set a timer to 25 minutes, force yourself to work on your task for that time, and then take a five-minute break when the task is over. Then, you repeat this process several times, always with breaks in between. The method works similarly to the one-inch picture frame method – by telling yourself that you only have to do something for 25 minutes, you make the task feel manageable.

    Eat your frog

    This method can help you build up a daily habit of facing the tasks you most want to procrastinate on. When you metaphorically eat your frog, you begin your day by completing the worst task you have in front of you. This way, you face the project you’re dreading the most, get it out of the way for the day, and can then turn your attention to other, easier tasks.

  2. Learn how to focus

    While getting started is half the battle, keeping your attention focused is just as important.

    First, eliminate external distractions as much as possible. Going to the library for a study session? It can be helpful to “forget” your phone at home. If you find yourself surfing webpages or checking social media on your computer, set your computer to flight mode or use a blocking program to keep yourself from accessing websites you find hard to resist.

    To really get into a flow state and deep focus mode, you’ll need to make sure you have a good amount of time set aside for concentration. Schedule larger tasks in block of time of around 60-90 minutes and then only work on the item you said you would during that time. It   be helpful to put this in writing in a calendar. Once the time is up for the first task, move to the next one, even if the first task isn’t finished. This trains your brain to adhere to a plan and to avoid switching between tasks frequently (as we’ve noted in a previous blog-post, there are a lot of problems with multi-tasking).

    If you do find your thoughts drifting during these longer sessions, use the Pomodoro method described above to bring yourself back. Then, you continue trying to work in a more concentrated way for the remaining time.
  1. Every day is better than all at once

    You probably already know that pulling an all-nighter is never a great solution. While it might work in the short term, you’re unlikely to store what you "learned" in your long-term memory.  For this, the brain needs spaced repetition, i.e. repeated exposure to content with breaks in between.

    What can you do to avoid all-nighters? First, putting our procrastination-avoidance strategies in place (see tip #1) should already help. Beyond that, it’s good to start building a habit of regular study. Try to always look over your notes for a class right after the class has ended or get used to opening your books as soon as you come home in the evening.
  1. Make sure you’ve really learned what you think you learned

    One frustrating thing about studying is that you can spend a lot of time going through materials without really retaining any of the information. For example, you might re-read your books and notes for a few weeks before an exam. Then, during the test you realize in a panic that you don’t know any of the answers.

    The problem is that you had illusions of competence. You thought that you knew the material because you spent a lot of time studying. However, since your strategy wasn’t effective, you never mastered what you needed to know.

    So, just how can you ensure that you’re actually learning?

    One method that can help is summarizing. As you’re going through your notes or reading a text, make sure to periodically re-state the main ideas in your own words. You can do this out loud, in your head, or by writing it down. It can be helpful to imagine that you’re explaining the idea to someone else. It’s okay to do this a few times until you really feel you’ve captured the idea. If you realize you can’t summarize the text, you’ll need to go back and re-read it until you can.

    Periodically stopping to summarize what you’re reading is a great habit to get into. It has an additional benefit as well, since it stops the auto-pilot mode that it’s all too easy to fall into when reading dense academic prose.
  1. Get organized

    While some people do fine co-existing with a messy desk (I’m sure you know some professors who fall into this category!), for others it leads to feelings of being overwhelmed. In addition, there’s nothing more frustrating than sitting down to study and then having to spend precious time searching for your notes or textbooks. We recommend setting up an organizational system for your workspace and then getting into the habit of maintaining it. This can be a simple weekly reminder in your calendar to take a look at your desk and bring everything back into order again. Other tips for cleaning up a messy desk can be found in this blog post.

    If you find that you’re often searching around for your sources when writing a paper or putting together a bibliography, we recommend using reference management software. When you put all of your source information into the program, it means you’ll have all of their information at hand when it’s time to write. Reference management software also takes care of citation formatting for you, so you can spend focus more on your writing instead of checking all the periods, commas, and abbreviations in your bibliography entries.

    You may think you don’t need a reference manager at the beginning of your studies since it’s easy to put together a list of works cited for your first short papers. However, it’s still worth getting to know one of these programs early on, since it can also be useful as a study tool.

    How’s that? Readings, lecture notes, and course text book information can be stored in the program. Nearly every program will also have a notes field where you can save your comments. Alternatively, you can write your notes in Word and attach the file to the source record.

    With some programs, such as Citavi, you can even excerpt information from items in PDF format and save your comments on the text. The summaries and comments you’ve now decided to start writing after reading Tip #4 can also be stored there. They then can be placed in an outline and printed out to use as a study guide for your next test. If you’re writing a paper, you can even insert them into Word with a single click.

    Not sure how you should go about choosing a reference management program? This blog article can help.
  1. Use smart search strategies

    This one’s a bit of a pro tip, since the paper topics you’ll have as a beginning student usually have ample sources that you can find just by using the database and library catalog search strategies you learn in your library instruction classes. As you progress in your studies, you should start becoming more concerned with finding the best sources on your topic, and you might also have topics that it’s hard to find sources for. In both cases, the tips below can help.

    First, if you already found one good source, you can use bibliography hacking and citation tracking to find others on the same topic. Bibliography hacking is when you check the source’s bibliography for other relevant works on the same subject. In a sense you’re going backwards in time to find the sources that your current author used. To go forwards in time and see which works cited the source you have in front of you, you can use the citation tracking features that are available in some databases.

    Another good method is to let your sources come to you. If you find yourself continually going back to the same database and performing the same search, you can set up a search alert to be notified when new articles are added that meet your search terms. Then, you just need to enter the link in an RSS feed reader (such as the one in Citavi) and the article information will be delivered straight to you.

    As a beginning student, it’s all too easy to focus on finding articles on the topic itself. But research is done by people,  which is something that matters more and more as you progress in your academic career. Who are the big names in your field? If they have a Twitter account, they might post articles they recommend there, or you could hear about their latest pre-prints. Following academics in your field on social media can be a great way to get notified about articles on a topic that otherwise might never have appeared on your radar screen. Not a big fan of social media or the big names in your field don’t tend to use it? Many academics will have a website listing their publications on their university’s website. In addition, you can use Web of Science, Scopus, or other similar databases that let you search for publications written by a particular author.

We hope you’ll use these six tips to start the new academic year off on the right foot!

Now it’s your turn – do you agree with our list? What tips would you suggest instead? Let us know on our Facebook page!

Created by: Jennifer Schultz – Published on: 9/10/2019
Tags: Time management Writing tips Reading tips Good to know Beginning students Graduate students


About Jennifer Schultz

Jennifer Schultz is the sole American team member at Citavi, but her colleagues don’t hold that against her (usually). Supporting research interests her so much that she got a degree in it, but she also likes learning difficult languages, being out in nature, and having her nose in a book.

Get a regular dose of research inspiration. Enter your email address to get bi-weekly emails whenever new content is added.