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Effective study habits for nursing students

Chancellor, Joanna SN

doi: 10.1097/01.NURSE.0000427903.30637.d9

Joanna Chancellor is a nursing student at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pa.

The author has disclosed that she has no financial relationships related to this article.

NURSING SCHOOL is extremely challenging for most students. The process of learning and studying differs from what they may have experienced in high school or other undergraduate programs. This article outlines some best practices for nursing students who want to improve their study habits.

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Begin with good notes

The first step is to master the art of note taking, which starts with familiarizing yourself with the assigned reading material before class. You don't have to read all of the material before you go to class, but you should be familiar with the key points. As you skim book chapters, write out the definitions for bold-faced words on index cards. Read over all charts and illustrations throughout each chapter.1 Review chapter objectives so you'll know what to expect in class.

Shorthand is a useful skill to develop for taking notes in class. Use abbreviations that you'll be able to understand when you read your notes later. Leave out conjunctions to speed up your writing. Pay special attention to anything that your instructor writes on the board or repeats.

As soon as possible after class, rewrite your notes in longhand. By doing this, you can fill in any gaps while the information is still fresh in your mind. This process will also help cement concepts in your memory. If you didn't have time to complete the assigned readings before class, reading them after class will help reinforce content and clarify areas where you might need additional explanation.

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Make time to study

Now that your notes are skillfully written, you need to set aside time to study them. Time management is crucial when you're navigating through a nursing program. If you're struggling to find enough time to dedicate to studying, create an activity journal. Honestly record how you spend your time and try to find activities that can be reduced or eliminated from your schedule. Are you spending 2 hours each day on a social networking site? Or do you park yourself in front of the TV each night to watch your favorite shows? Once you've identified barriers to your productivity, you can figure out ways to lessen their impact. For example, a website blocker can temporarily restrict your access to favorite sites during the time you're dedicating to studying. Choose a few favorite shows and set up your digital video recorder to record them, then save them for later.

Another way to manage your time is to set up several calendars. Use a monthly calendar to plan out the entire semester. Write important due dates for your courses, as well as family and personal commitments. Also make a weekly calendar to plan your daily schedule. Factor in time to travel to various events, study, and relax and take a break.2 Then adjust the schedule as needed. If you find that you're too tired to concentrate when it's time to study, change the schedule so that you maximize the times when you're most alert.

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Establish a routine

Now that you've made a schedule, you're ready to establish your study routine. When setting up your study space, choose a quiet place with few distractions.3 Simulate a classroom environment with suitable lighting and a comfortable table or desk and chair. Prepare to study by making sure that all of your materials are ready and accessible. Having to get up to find books and notes or index cards will break your concentration and cut down on how much information you can absorb.

Don't forget to take breaks. If you spend too much time studying or cramming, you're likely to forget what you learned at the beginning of your study session. You also need to ensure that you're well hydrated and that you're not skipping meals to study. Hunger will only distract you from your work.3

Next, figure out a study system that works for you, whether it's 40 minutes of studying with a 20-minute break every hour, or several 30-minute sessions in between your other activities. Just make sure that you have enough time to focus on what you're trying to learn.

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Prepping for exams

Now that your space is ready and you have a study system in place, you need to understand how to prepare for nursing exams. The four types of questions that generally appear on nursing exams cover knowledge, comprehension, application, and analysis. You need specific study techniques to prepare for each.1

Knowledge questions are the most straightforward; they simply require you to recall information learned in class. Repetition is one of the best ways to commit basic information to memory. Review your notes repeatedly. Carry your index cards with you so you can look them over while you're standing in line at the grocery store or on your lunch break. Create acronyms to help memorize lists, like making SMART goals on your care plan: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timed. You can also use mnemonics, such as Never Let Monkeys Eat Bananas, to recall the types of white blood cells: Neutrophils, Lymphocytes, Macrophages, Eosinophils, and Basophils.

When preparing for comprehension questions, explore how or why something occurs. For example, when learning that performing range-of-motion exercises is important for immobile patients, investigate why. Immobility in a patient can lead to musculoskeletal issues, such as disuse osteoporosis and contractures; cardiovascular issues, such as orthostatic hypotension; and respiratory issues, such as pneumonia.4

Application questions demand that the learner demonstrate the ability to relate information to a real situation. The easiest way to study for these questions is to find ways to link nursing information with other outside information that you've already learned. For example, by understanding the basic principles of gravity, you can apply the reasoning for putting a urine collection bag below the level of the bladder or hanging an I.V. bag above the infusion site.1

Finally, analysis questions are the most challenging because they entail bringing together all the levels of understanding. For example, when studying asepsis, you must first be able to define it. Then you must comprehend why asepsis is important when caring for your patient. Once you've done that, you need to apply your knowledge of asepsis to real-life situations that require sterile technique.

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Wrap-up session

Once you've read your notes thoroughly and you're confident you comprehend the material, what else can you do to help cement your understanding? Form a study group with other students in your class. Compare notes with them to ensure that you've covered everything that your instructor taught you. Quiz each other to discover any gaps in your understanding. Study groups are also helpful when you don't feel secure in your learning and need some help grasping the information.

If you're still feeling doubtful, take advantage of resources that your school makes available. Many schools have tutors who can help show you where to concentrate your efforts.

Don't hesitate to approach your instructors. Their job is to make sure that you understand what they're teaching. If they don't know that you're having difficulty, they can't help you.

Finally, trust yourself. If you've made it this far, you've clearly been doing something right!

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1. Nugent PM, Vitale BA.Test Success: Test-Taking Techniques for Beginning Nursing Students. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis Company; 2008:37–43.
4. Taylor CR, Lillis C, LeMone P, Lynn P.Fundamentals of Nursing: The Art and Science of Nursing Care. 7th ed. New York, NY: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2010:534, 1006, 1015.
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