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Peer Tutor Handbook: Part 6: Study Skills and Strategies for Student Effectiveness

Peer tutoring is a core component of student success at USM. Here's the Keleher Learning Commons approach.

Time Management

Many of the students we see may struggle with time management and academic planning. Here are some helpful hints and tips you can offer them to develop these skills:

Top 10 Time Management Tactics:

10. Get a calendar/academic planner and USE it!

9. Make a “To Do” list.

8. Work at the most effective time of the day for you. Find your peak hour of the day and be productive during that time.

7. Reward yourself for getting things done.

6. Make a list of goals. Classify whether they are academic, personal, social, etc. Rank them in terms of importance to you, how difficult they are, and associated anxiety level.

Goal setting consists of the following components:

  • Be Thorough: Think through your goals carefully. Have you included goals relating to all areas of your life?
  • Be organized: Structure your time realistically and in such a way that YOU are in control of your time, not the other way around. Make sure the time you spend doing certain tasks is quality time. Make lists to reduce any anxiety you may have.
  • Be realistic: Make sure that your goals are realistic so that you avoid disappointment and frustration. Find your limits and stay within them.
  • Be accountable: It is easier to be accountable to others when you have set limits for yourself.
  • Be committed: Stick to your goals and keep your promises to yourself. Once you have proven to yourself that you can accomplish your goals, your anxiety will decrease.
  • Be kind: Be good to yourself – both your mind and your body. Make sure you have a balance between work and play. Reward yourself once you have accomplished your goals.

5. Make a weekly schedule skeleton. Block off all the times you are in class, sleeping, and meal times. Make sure you include free time too! This will help you determine what your peak hours of the day are.

4. Make a daily time log. Write down everything you did (or remember doing) yesterday and how long it took you to do each thing. You will be surprised at how much time you spend doing some things and how little time you spend on others.

3. Plan Ahead. Use the last few minutes of each day to plan for the next day. 

2. Don’t Procrastinate. We usually procrastinate when we find a job too large or overwhelming, so make the task smaller by breaking it down into smaller tasks.


Righting Wrongs – Learning From Errors

Mistakes are only worth making if we learn from them. Please reiterate this to students: it’s not only okay to make mistakes, but it’s expected! To that effect, encourage students to look at remarks and keep a log so that they can refrain from repeating their mistakes. This is especially important in terms of their writing progress. It will help you to keep an accurate record at the end of your sessions, too, so that students are not habitually working on the same issues in each session.

Reading Comprehension

Many students encounter this problem and are often unsure about how to fix it. In college, knowing and understanding what you have just read is of key importance. Here are some strategies below to help you better understand what you read and to help you get the most out of what you read.

General Tips

  • While you are reading, underline or highlight important words or phrases.
  • Don’t highlight everything!
  • Try to pick out the main ideas of each paragraph.
  • Jot down main ideas, key words, or important aspects in the margins.
  • If you are in a hurry, read the first sentence and the last sentence of each paragraph.

Anticipation Guides

This reading strategy can be applied to any subject matter and is one of the best ways to get the most out of what you read. An anticipation guide is simply a list of questions about the article/selection you are about to read. Before you begin to read and take notes, do the following:

  • Scan the title and the first paragraph of the selection /article.
  • Write down questions, such as “what seems to be the main idea of this article?”; “what do I expect to learn from this?” and other questions that may come to mind upon approaching the article/selection.
  • Write down questions that you may have that could be answered after you have read the article, such as “what methods does the author use to prove his/her point?” and “what are the shortcomings of the argument, if any, the author presents?”
  • When you have finished reading, see if you can go back and answer the questions you have written down. These questions may serve as a useful study guide for you later on.

Reading Comprehension

Tips (The K-W-L Strategy is adapted from Content Area Reading, Vacca and Vacca, 1994.)

The K-W-L strategy stands for “What do I KNOW, what do I WANT to know, and what have I LEARNED?” It is another reading strategy that is applicable to many subject fields and whose notes can serve as a useful study guide. This is how it works: 

Divide a sheet of paper up into three columns and label them as follows:

  • What do I know?
  • What do I want to Know?
  • What have I learned?

Before you read the article/selection, fill in the first column. What do you know about the subject you are reading about? Fill in any background information you may already have about the subject in this column. After you fill in the “what do I know” column, fill in the next column, “What do I want to know?” In this column, write down any questions you may have about the subject. Write down things you want to know more about, and questions you think might be answered by the end of the article. After you read the article, fill in the last column, “What have I learned?” Hopefully, by the time you are done reading the article, any questions you may have had earlier will be answered. If not, go back and re-read the sections of the article that you did not understand. 

Goal Setting: Help Students be Managers of Their Own Learning

  • Encourage students to develop a work schedule that they will be able to stick to. Schedules are part of the prewriting-writing-rewriting process, and everyone needs to learn how long they can spend on each task without ceasing to be productive.
  • At the end of each session or segment of the session, review what you have done. Better yet, ask the student to review it and remind the student of anything (s)he has not included.
  • Try to think of mnemonic devices or “tricks” to help students memorize new rules. Once the student gets used to the idea, you can work together on making up mnemonics for each new rule, strategy, or process.
  • Teach students how to outline ideas and papers—no matter how short. Organization is crucial.
  • Aim for quality not quantity of work—and remember to praise all advances, no matter how small. A little positive reinforcement goes a long way.

(Section adapted from Austin College’s Peer Tutor Handbook) 

Test Taking Strategies

  • Attend class regularly
  • Avoid cramming
  • Create a study group and teach each other the material
  • Know the test format
  • Over-learning never hurts and often helps
  • Summarize notes and study outline before the test to review key terms
  • Take breaks during study time – 10 minutes for every hour of studying is recommended
  • Eat well, RELAX and get a good night’s sleep

Essay Test Strategies

  • Read all the questions before beginning
  • Look for key terms that may help “jog” memory
  • Begin by answering the easiest question
  • This will lessen frustration and build confidence
  • Jot down any ideas which immediately come to mind
  • Make an outline
  • If you don’t finish, the professor will see where you were trying to go
  • Keep track of the time – do not spend more time on questions which are worth fewer points
  • Write legibly
  • Leave space for added ideas and corrections
  • Check for grammatical errors and misspellings before turning in your test

Multiple Choice Strategies

  • Use the process of elimination – it is easy to pick out the answers which are obviously wrong
  • Answer questions before reading answer choices – this will help you anticipate what the answer choices might be
  • If you do not know the answer, go on because the answer may be found in subsequent questions
  • Beware of questions with “no,” “not,” and “none.” These words easily change the meaning of questions
  • Change your answer if, and only if, you feel strongly about it, or if you misread the question

If You Must Guess

  • Reject answers that use specific determiners such as: everyone, always, never, etc.
  • Choose answers which use qualifying terms such as: Often, most, etc.
  • Choose the answer which first caught your eye. 

Assessing Your Test-Taking Pattern

Evaluating your own test taking habits and identifying your weaknesses are the first steps toward improving your performance, not only as a test-taker, but also as a tutor. Which of the following applies to you?

1. Information Gap: I do not remember encountering this material at all, or I glossed over it or did not have it in my notes.

2. Retention Gap: I studied this, but I could not call it up from memory.

3. Over/Under Generalization: I eliminated too much or did not eliminate enough information when studying for this test.

4. Misinterpretation of Information: I incorrectly understood the information when I initially read the text or heard it in lecture.

5. Misreading: I made decoding errors in reading the question or response.

6. General Vocabulary Gap: I did not know the correct meaning or assumed an incorrect meaning of general vocabulary.

7. Inability to Decipher: I could not get past the grammatical structure of the question or response.

8. Jumping to Conclusions: I did not fully consider all the responses or did not take the time to consider the question carefully.

9. Mis-keying: I knew the correct answer, but I copied the wrong response on the answer sheet.  

Managing Test Anxiety

  • Recognition – Listen to your body and decide what you are feeling anxious about.
  • Preparation – Do not prepare for a test the night before and expect to learn everything.
  • Attitude – Your frame of mind concerning an exam can have an effect on how well you do on the exam. Remember: this is only one test. •
  • Physical Needs – Maintain good eating and sleeping habits.
  • Test Day – Avoid caffeine, sugar and nicotine because these stimulants set off a process that can result in rapid fluctuations of sugar levels, which produce symptoms of anxiety and panic. Arrive at the test location early. Wear a watch and check it frequently as you pace yourself through the test. Choose a seat to minimize distractions.

(Section adapted from Austin College’s Peer Tutor Handbook)

Timed Writing Evaluations

Some students may seek help with preparing for in-class writing assignments or exams. Here are some best practices to use when teaching students how to tackle these tasks:

Prior to Evaluation:

  • Read text(s) in advance
    • Discern thesis
    • o Locate what type of support is given
  • Review prior readings
    • Discern theses
    • Locate what type of support is given
  • Review rhetorical and analytical strategies
    • Logos – appeal to logic
    • Ethos – appeal to credibility
    • Pathos – appeal to emotion
    • Figurative language
    • Tropes – figures of speech
    • Tone
    • Diction [word choice] – connotation/denotation 

Day of Evaluation:

1. Dissect the prompt

a. Circle the “question” words

i. How – by/through [process/procedure]

ii. Why – because [cause and effect]

iii. What – this/that [list]

b. Underline verbs – discern what you’re being asked to do

Verb Expectation
Analyze Break into separate parts and evaluate how the parts affect the whole
Compare Identify similarities and differences, emphasizing similarities, in two or more texts
Contrast Identify similarities and differences, emphasizing differences, in two or more texts
Evaluate Ascribe a value to a text based on analysis and evidence
Explain Give reasons for happenings or situations
Summarize Organize and bring together the main points only; NO evaluation!
Synthesize Coherently combine ideas from a number of texts to support your main argument 

2. (Re)Read Source Text(s)

a. Pick apart support based on what you’re being asked to do

b. Relate texts to each other (if there are more than one)

i. Use a chart or word/concept map to draw any comparisons/contrasts

3. Compose thesis

a. Appropriately ANSWER the question you are being asked

b. 2 parts: argument and roadmap

4. Construct outline from thesis

a. Place thesis in introduction

b. Craft topic sentences with transitional phrases

c. Restate thesis in conclusion

5. Begin writing

a. Start from the beginning

b. Get your thoughts out!

i. Use the highlighting function to mark things for later [or star the margin if you’re writing long-hand]

6. Review your writing


b. Read your work “out loud” [mouth the words as you go through it]

c. Be sure you have ample support for all of your claims

d. Ensure that you’ve used transitional phrases to link one point to the next

e. Double check that you’ve integrated your source text properly

i. Lead into your source text with a signal phrase (i.e., “the author argues/contends/writes/states…”)

ii. Employ the source text: quote, paraphrase, or summary

iii. Cite your source(s)!

iv. Give justification for or analysis of the excerpt you chose. What is the reader supposed to do with this information?

7. Breathe – You’re done!

Helpful Tips:

  • If using a computer, have one Word document for your composition, and another for your notes (if permissible)
  • Don’t think of the exam in terms of its duration
    • Break it up into chunks/steps – this will help to defray mental fatigue
  • When taking notes on your text(s), consider using different colored highlighters to categorize different concepts
    • Easier to recall (“see” in your mind) during pressure situations

Note Taking

Note taking is an important and extremely critical study skill that many students need to develop, especially during their first year of school. Here are some pointers that can help you retain more information. Note taking is a THREE-PART PROCESS: “before,” “during,” and “after” phases.

#1 - The first phase is the “before” phase. Before you go to class to take notes, there are a couple of things you can do to make your time in lecture more effective. They are:

  • DO THE ASSIGNED READING! Professors aren’t the only ones who have to prepare for class – you do too! Reading before going to class will help clarify points presented in lecture.
  • Write down questions about the reading. These can be asked during class. The professors usually leave time for your questions, and asking questions can even improve your grade! This is because most professors have a portion of the grade set aside for participation, and asking a questions shows active interest and participation in the class.

#2 - The second phase is the “during” phase. Once you are in class, ready to take notes, remember these things:

  • Do not try to write down everything the lecturer says! First of all, this is nearly impossible to do, and is an inefficient use of time and energy. Instead, pick out key points in the lecture and write those down instead.
  • Use abbreviations. Sometimes it is too hard to try and write down full words, so abbreviate whenever possible.
  • Listen carefully! You need to listen carefully to what is said so that you can pick up on those key points we mentioned earlier. Active listening is always preferable to passive listening.
  • Write questions about things you do not understand. If there is something you don’t understand, write it down and ask the professor during class, or after class, if time runs out. These questions can also serve as a useful study tool when reviewing for a future test. • If the professor posts an outline, COPY IT DOWN. Usually, if the professor puts up an outline, it will contain the main points of his/her lecture and will save you from having to write more later on. This will also help you to study for tests and quizzes that you may have over the information presented.  

#3 - The last phase is the “after” phase. Yes, there are a few things you can do after you have taken notes to make sure that everything “sticks.” They are:

  • Review. Reviewing your notes in those last few minutes of class can help you not only see what you have just learned, but can also help you retain what you have just learned a little better. Also, reviewing your notes before the next class can help you prepare for that class by reminding you of important topics discussed, and any questions you may have had.
  • Recall. Recall what you have learned. Look at the questions you have written down and try to answer them without looking at your notes. This will help jog your memory and improve retention.
  • Recite. It sounds silly to read out loud to yourself, but it is actually a valuable study tool for helping you retain what you have learned. It has been proven that students retain information better if it has been presented to them in multiple sensory modalities. You have heard and seen the lecture once, and written down the notes. Now it is your job to review what you have written and heard. Read your notes to yourself out loud. Hearing the lecture again will help you retain the information.

Using this three-phase system will help you improve information retention, and will hopefully serve as a useful study tool.

(Section adapted from Austin College’s Peer Tutor Handbook)