How Do I Study Psychology? Tips for the First-Year Student

how to study psychology

Posted November 2019 by Sean Jackson, B.A. Social Studies Education, B.S.I.T.; M.S. Counseling; 7 updates since. Reading time: 7 min. Reading level: Grade 7+. Questions on first-year psychology student study tips? Email Toni at:

Psychology is an incredibly broad field, and even entry-level courses like Psychology 101 or Introduction to Psychology ask students to explore a wide range of topics.

With so much to learn in a single class – let alone throughout a major in psychology – it’s no wonder that many psychology students wonder how to study psychology effectively.

Fortunately, learning how to study psychology in college is all about implementing some tried-and-true strategies. Let these best tips for studying psychology outlined below help you make the most of your study time.

How to Study Psychology in College: Don’t Neglect Sleep

As strange as it may sound, much of your success in studying psychology lies in your ability to get adequate sleep.

Research shows that the various stages of sleep experienced throughout the night help consolidate memories of things we learn throughout the day.

Likewise, it’s well known that being deprived of sleep inhibits cognitive functioning, thereby reducing your ability to learn and retain new information.

This being the case, getting enough rest – at least six hours a night, and ideally around eight hours a night – will enable you to process and retain the information you study much more effectively.

And since all that learning is processed during sleep, waiting until the day of the test to cram won’t do you any favors. Instead, be sure you schedule plenty of studying time in the days leading up to the test, that way you maximize the value of memory consolidation.

Study for Recall, Not Recognition

Learning how to study psychology effectively means studying for recall rather than recognition.

When studying for recognition, all you’re doing is trying to memorize key terms or phrases so you recognize the correct answer when prompted. But not all exam questions (or class discussion questions, for that matter) offer you prompts.

Instead, you should study for recall. This is a deeper level of understanding that allows you to access information off the top of your head without any assistance.

Not only is this beneficial for instances in which your professor asks you to explain a concept in class or on an exam, but it’s also beneficial for multiple-choice prompts. This is because multiple-choice questions are often framed with very similar answers – answers that are intended to trick you if all you’ve done is study for recognition.

But if you study for recall, you’ll have all the necessary details in your memory and you’ll be better equipped to choose the right answer and you’ll have a greater understanding of the topic as well.

Don’t Just Read Your Textbook; Use It

Psychology textbooks have many different study tools built right in that can help you in your studies.

When reading psychology texts, start by reading the introduction to the chapter. The introduction offers a broad, yet structured overview of the chapter’s contents and helps you build a roadmap of understanding the topics discussed in the chapter.

Next, read each headline and subheadline in the chapter. This is another way to help form those informational pathways in your brain and prepare yourself for taking in – and remembering – important details as you read.

Then at the conclusion of the chapter, read the chapter summary very carefully. Doing so will help reinforce the main ideas presented in the chapter while also giving you a chance to clarify any details that might’ve been confusing as you progress through your reading.

Many textbooks also have activities, examples, charts, graphs, pictures with captions, and accompanying activities online. Don’t just skip over these things. Instead, make use of these added tools to help reinforce your learning even more.

Be Active in Your Studying

Studying is not simply reading the textbook and other class materials. Instead, you need to take an active role in the process of learning and retaining information.

The best way to be an active studier is to take notes as you read. These don’t have to overly detailed notes. In fact, keeping the notes simple and focused on key ideas and overarching details will help you more in the long run because our long-term memory is improved when we process small chunks of information at one time.

As you read and prepare notes, write down any questions that come up along the way – things that you don’t understand, things you want to know more about, and so forth. This enables you to be an active participant in class (which is also important!) by extending the conversation and clearing up anything that’s hazy about the topics under study.

Taking notes as you read also gives you another means by which to encode the information you’re learning. The acts of reading information in the text, writing them down, and reviewing your notes will help move what you’ve learned into long-term memory storage.

A final component of active studying is to avoid simply memorizing the bolded terms or concepts. Instead, think critically about what you’re reading. Ask why. Consider how concepts relate to one another. Try to relate what you’re learning to real life and to things you already know and understand. Doing so will help you retain information and recall it more effectively later on.

Be Active in Class, Too

The work you do outside of class is fodder for class discussions and deeper explanations of concepts by your professor. Taking an active role in class will help solidify your understanding of the material.

Class time is when you need to be your most curious. Ask your professor for clarification on topics or concepts you didn’t quite grasp in your readings. Request examples of concepts that are a little fuzzy.

Likewise, it’s important to be an active note-taker during class. This doesn’t mean you need to write down every word that comes out of your professor’s mouth, but should instead be a general overview of what was discussed.

Combined with your notes from your readings, your class notes serve to strengthen your understanding of the information you’re studying and will help you classify and organize all that new information for recall later on.

How to Study Psychology Effectively: Study Regularly

We learn best when we absorb information over time. This requires that you study regularly throughout each class you take.

While each student’s study needs and schedules vary, having a dedicated study time each day for your psychology courses is ideal. This doesn’t mean you need to set aside three hours of study time for each class every day, but budget 2-3 hours of study time per week per credit hour. That means if your Psychology 101 class is three credits, you need 4-6 hours of study time for that course each week.

Even when things get really busy and you’re pressed for time, finding just a few minutes – 10 minutes here or 15 minutes there – to review your study materials will go a long way in helping you develop a better understanding of the material and retain more information for a longer period.

Whatever you do, don’t overdo it. If you’re having a marathon study session, take a 10-15 minute break each hour. Your brain, your eyes, and your body need that time to recover a little bit, so take a break, go for a walk, get something to eat and drink, and recharge for the next hour of studying.

As noted in the introduction, psychology is a vast field of study, and no one can possibly remember everything about this field. But with these tips on how to study psychology in college, you can certainly improve your ability to retain information and set yourself up for better comprehension of psychology topics.

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