5 Steps to Making a Strong Study Plan
Have you been floating through life? If so, here’s a warning for you: Students can’t float through their classes and do well. You must be organized and disciplined. In short, you must have a plan. The “study plan” has different meanings to different people. At the college level, a study plan is a formal, highly-structured way to not only do well in your individual classes, but to get from your first freshman course to graduation. For others, a study plan is some notes scratched in a notebook about how to survive this week’s tests and papers due. What we’re going to present here is a strong study plan that will work for most typical students in high school, college, or external study situations. It’s an intricate plan that should be committed to writing, and that starts broad and then gets very specific. Our plan has 5 key steps to it. Once you’ve completed this plan, you should live your life by it, consulting it daily to know what you need to do today to stay on track to achieve your academic goals.
First, if you’re still not clear, a study plan is more than a “to do” list. It is an “I will” list pertaining to your classes. It is a written commitment that today, this week, this month, and this year, you will achieve certain listed goals that directly relate to your classes.
The Good Study Plan Is . . .
What you have your study plan committed to paper, it should meet the following criteria. A good study plan is:
- Simple – never complicated
- Specific – never dwelling on generalities. It should state exactly what you’re going to do, when, where, and how you’ll do it.
- Positive—never negative. That is, don’t state what you’ll stop doing, but what you’ll start doing.
- Possible—never impossible. A good study plan details things that you’re capable of doing frequently.
- Immediate—not eventual. That means that after you have your study plan in writing, you should be able to start using it the next day.
- Written—not dependent on memory or willpower. That’s because you’re more likely to do something that you’ve put down on paper.
The Five Steps
Now that we understand what a study plan is, let’s get started. As mentioned, there are five steps involved.
STEP ONE is the easiest: Assemble your supplies. You need to make this plan a permanent part of your life, so buy a good quality notebook to hold it in. It will be neater and possibly easier to read if you make it and update it on your computer. However, pen and notebook paper is fine, if you find that easier. If you do choose to use the computer, then you’ll obviously need a hole-punch as well.
STEP TWO: Start with your broad education goals. You’ll need to dedicate a couple of pages to this. If you’re in a college or higher-education program, list the courses that you must take to satisfy your degree or diploma requirements. As you progress through one semester after enough, highlight the required courses that you’ll be taking that semester. This will be a constant visual reminder of what else needs to be taken to get your diploma. You can work similarly with high-school courses, since there are also classes that you must take to get your diploma, and other courses you need to get into most colleges. If you’re a high-school student, before doing this portion of the study plan, it’s a good idea to find out what most colleges that you’re considering will require for admission. Include these on your study plan, and again, highlight them as you sign up for each course. Keep in mind, the only courses that you highlight are those which you are required to take. Everything else is “for fun” and not important for your study plan.
STEP THREE: Now we get into passing each individual course. That involves keeping a weekly study schedule that includes all of your courses. A weekly study schedule keeps you aware of how much time you have available each week, and helps you determine how much of that time to allocate to each course. Here are some important points to keep in mind as you develop your weekly study schedule:
- When you first start, if you’re in high school, you should devote at least one hour each week to each course you have, in addition to “emergency” studying. Emergency studying is when you have something due the next day, such as a paper or a test. For instance, if you have a biology class that meets everyday, and you also have a biology test on Friday, you should study one hour for biology sometime during the week, in addition to studying for the test on Thursday. In college, the study time is different. It’s common for classes to meet one, two or three times a week. On your study schedule, allocate one hour of study for each hour that the class meets. If your economics class meets twice a week, then you allocate two hours on your study schedule for it.
- Schedule regular hours for study. If you don’t set aside specific time for each class and stick with it, then you’ll quickly lose control of your schedule.
- Fill out your weekly study schedule in one-hour increments. If you schedule something for less than an hour, you’ll be ready to stop right as yu’re getting warmed up.
- When possible, schedule your study times immediately before and after classes. For instance, if your economics class meets on Wednesday afternoons, then when you’re done for the day, go home and immediately study economics for an hour or two. Or alternatively, have your study time for a particular class an hour or two before going to class. During this study time, be sure to look over your notes from the previous class session and from your previous study session, just to keep your memory fresh.
- When possible, you should work on the hardest subjects when you’re at your best. Courses that you find fun should be saved for when you’re least motivated, since the course content itself will motivate you to work.
- Balance other activities with your weekly schedule. Allow time for extracurricular activities, friends, family, sports, TV, music, etc. Some people prefer to keep several open blocks on the weekend for some of these things.
- Reward yourself for those times when you’ve been especially productive in your study time. For instance, maybe after a good period, you could let yourself watch TV for an hour or talk to a friend on the phone. These rewards will make you more likely to use your time effectively. Don’t cheat on the rewards! Otherwise, you defeat the whole purpose.
- Remember to keep a very specific format in this section of your study plan. Your pages are divided up into one-hour blocks. Each block will have a statement such as: ”I will spend two hours studying economics. I will read the textbook from pages 110-125. I will review my previous day’s class notes. I will highlight all key points in the textbook that I think might be on the test. I will write these key points on a study guide, to refer to later.”
- After you’ve completed each block as planned, highlight it to show that you followed through on your plan. If for some reason, you did not keep the commitment for that time period, leave it as is–with no highlighting.
STEP FOUR: Keep a daily “to do” list in your notebook. Most successful people make a habit of keeping a daily “to do” list. They consider it a necessary step for making the best use of their time. It’s also one of the best habits that you can incorporate into your study plan. However, it does not replace your detailed weekly schedule. It supplements it. The study plan’s “to do” page is for those items that somehow didn’t make it onto your weekly study schedule. Keep in mind that you’ll make up the weekly schedule at least a week in advance (Maybe even a month in advance). In the meantime, however, things come up. Maybe you missed a goal of studying on one day, and it needs to be made up sometime during the week. Then put it on the “to do” list for another day during the week. Maybe you have a Tuesday and Thursday biology class, and you’ve done your studying for the week on Tuesday morning, but then the instructor assigns something that’s due on Thursday. Put that on your “to do” list for Wednesday. As early as possible, before you’ve completely worn yourself out, tackle the items on your list. This should NOT, however, be done when you have other studying on your schedule. Do the “to do” items in between the other study time-blocks.
STEP FIVE: Evaluate. This is one situation where “last” is certainly not “least.” Your study plan needs to have several evaluation pages in it. There should be an evaluation page following each day’s page, and an evaluation page following the Broad Plan that tracks the courses you’ve taken.
At the end of each day, before you retire for the night, you should go through your study plan. Look at your blocks for that day. Did you complete everything that you had on your agenda? If not, you need to write down where you fell short of your study goals for the day. Using the “I will” format again, you need to write down how you will make it up. For instance, “Since I did not study my economics textbook for two hours two, I will allocate two hours for it on Sunday, between 2 and 4 p.m.”
Finally,at the bottom of the page, you need to give an action plan for how to avoid missing this goal in the future: “Next time, if someone asks me to run an errand during my economics study time, I will try to schedule it for later in the evening.”
You need a similar evaluation section for your Course Tracking section, where you’re tracking your progress toward getting your diploma or degree. In this case, though, at the end of the semester, jot down a note as to whether you passed each course or not. If you failed one, you need an action statement as to when you can take that course in the future. If you didn’t take enough courses for the semester, then you need to mention how you’ll make up the credits in the future. For instance, if your degree requires 128 credits, that means you need a minimum of 16 credits per semester. If you only managed 14 this semester, note that in the evaluation section, and then tell how and when you’ll make up those two credits.
Finally, all of these action steps should now be penned into your goals, so that you’ll remember that these are two more courses that you’ll need to take. The same holds true of your weekly schedule and evaluation. When you’ve noted that you fell short of your study goals for the week, then you should pen in that extra time needed, either over the next couple of days or during the following week.
SOUND COMPLICATED? Does it seem like this is a rather involved way of approaching your schooling? Maybe it is. But it’s systematic and those who use an approach like this almost always stay on top of their course load, rather than getting overwhelmed by it. In short, the time invested in this study plan inevitably pays off in the way of better grades and a higher GPA.
About the Author Brian is a writer and web developer living in Victoria BC. He has a BA in Economics and an MA in Psychology. Brian has written and published widely on education, testing, psychology and popular culture.