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Study Smarter, Not Harder: Techniques & Tips for Online Master’s Students

For online master’s degree students, creating effective, disciplined study habits can be challenging. Use this guide to study more strategically and avoid common challenges with these proven study techniques and tips.

Author: Kenya McCullum

Editor: Staff Editor

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If you’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree, you likely developed some solid study habits during your days as an undergraduate. According to a survey of graduate and undergraduate students conducted by Grand Canyon University, 50.5% of students dedicate up to two hours of study time per day. Meanwhile, 34.4% study three to four hours a day, while 15% spend over five hours studying daily.

As an online master’s student, dedicating two hours a day to studying may be difficult to manage. Chances are high that you chose a virtual program because it allows you to balance your education with your career or other obligations. This means you may not have as much time to dedicate to studying as you did during your undergraduate days.

Fortunately, you can make the most of your study sessions by developing habits and using techniques proven to improve your comprehension and understanding. Keep reading to learn different study techniques that online master’s degree students can use to comprehend, remember, and conceptualize information and optimize study time.

Study Techniques for Comprehension

Studying for comprehension is vital for graduate school success. When you read for understanding, rather than passively reading a text, you’re reading to analyze and internalize what’s on the page. As you do this, you’ll often draw on information you’ve already learned and ask questions to gain an understanding of the text.

The Feynman Technique

The Feynman Technique is a 4-step learning method that helps students comprehend difficult concepts by explaining them as if they were speaking to a child. By using clear and concise language, students are better able to mentally simplify ideas, thereby increasing their comprehension. Simplifying and explaining complex ideas also helps identify gaps in knowledge.

How the Feynman Technique Works

  1. Choose a subject.
  2. Pretend to explain the subject to a child.
  3. Reflect on knowledge gaps.
  4. Simplify and repeat step 2.

When to Use It

For example, a social work master’s student who is studying autism spectrum disorder might explain its fundamental tenets out loud as though they were speaking to a child, then reflect on whether they struggled with simplifying any concepts. From there, they would brush up on those concepts and try again.

The SQ3R Method

The SQ3R method is a five-step reading comprehension method designed to help students process and remember written information. SQ3R is an acronym for survey, question, read, recite, and review. Although it consists of five steps, you can always use the ones that work best for you if you don’t find the entire process effective. The goal is to ensure you increase your understanding of the material rather than just following steps.

How the SQ3R Method Works

  1. Survey. Skim through the material in a textbook chapter to get an idea of what will be included.
  2. Question. Write down questions based on each heading in a textbook chapter, as well as each photo included in the chapter.
  3. Read. Read the section with the main ideas of each paragraph in mind. Look for answers to the questions you jotted down.
  4. Recite. Recite the information you learned in the chapter when you’re finished.
  5. Review. Review the information in the chapter the next day to ensure that you’ve learned it.

When to Use It

A graduate student new to their degree discipline may use this method to begin building a foundation of knowledge. Students who are familiar with the discipline but new to the subject matter of a class may also find SQ3R valuable. This method can also help answer questions that come up during lectures so you can better follow along in subsequent classes.

The THIEVES Method

The THIEVES method is an acronym for title, headings, introduction, every first sentence in a paragraph, visuals and vocabulary, end-of-chapter questions, and summary. THIEVES is designed to give you an idea of the big picture of a book chapter before you start reading the actual text. This is done by taking sections of a textbook chapter and asking yourself questions about what you think the material you’re about to read will cover. By doing this, your brain starts working on processing the information it’s about to receive, so you’re in the best position to learn.

How the THIEVES Method Works

  1. Title. Think about what the title of a textbook chapter may be about, what information the author will provide, and how the information fits with your knowledge of the subject.
  2. Headings. Look at the headings of a chapter and think about the information you’ll learn from these sections.
  3. Introduction. Ask yourself how the introduction increases your curiosity about the topic and whether or not it sets up anticipation for what you can expect to read later.
  4. Every first sentence in a paragraph. Think about how the first sentence of every paragraph will relate to what you’re about to read.
  5. Visuals and vocabulary. If there are any visuals in a chapter, such as photographs, maps, and charts, think about how the author uses them. Do they enhance your learning and explain the points being made? Do they include vocabulary words and other information you should remember?
  6. End of article or chapter questions. If there are questions at the end of the chapter, think about how you may be able to answer them when you’ve finished reading it. Also, consider why the questions are being asked and how they give clues to the information you should be paying attention to.
  7. Summary thinking. Evaluate everything you’ve read in the chapter and consider what you’ve learned. Also, consider how this chapter may relate to what you’ll subsequently read.

When to Use It

The THIEVES Method is a good way to get a head start if you don’t have a lot of time to devote to reading the chapter of a textbook but want to quickly prepare ahead for when you have time to do a more thorough reading.

Study Techniques for Conceptualization

When you use study techniques for conceptualization, you’re reading to get the big picture of the material. This allows you to apply it to specific information you’ll learn later and understand how it all comes together to bring the concept into focus.


Mind-mapping is a technique of visually generating ideas related to a central theme. This is a good technique to help you take a common theme you’re studying and combine it with facts, statistics, concepts, and keywords. According to a study published in Medical Education, students who used this method for studying recalled 10% more information a week after making a mind map than those who used other study techniques.

How Mind Mapping Works

  1. Write the central theme of what you’re studying in the center of a piece of paper.
  2. From there, use lines, arrows, branches, or bubbles to show how this central theme connects to related ideas. It doesn’t have to be visually appealing. Rather, the point is to create a way to conceptualize information and make it easily accessible.

When to Use It

Someone earning a master’s in English may use a mind map to understand the themes and plot points of a Shakespearean play. This technique allows a student to process the plot points in the play while keeping track of major themes to prepare for a test.


Self-quizzing is an interactive technique that can be more effective than simply looking at your notes after a lecture or reading chapters in a textbook. You try to recall as much information as possible through self-quizzing without looking at class materials. This is a good way to gauge how much you understood the information from class.

How Self-Quizzing Works

  1. After reading an assignment, put your textbook aside and write down everything you remember from the chapter. You can do the same after you’ve attended a lecture.
  2. Don’t expect to remember everything as you do it. The point is to work on increasing your memory.
  3. Continue doing this, and you’ll find that you’ll start remembering more information over time.

When to Use It

If you’re concerned about falling behind in class, you may do self-quizzing after every session to ensure you’re staying up to speed with the instructor’s teaching. A study published in Active Learning in Higher Education suggests that using practice examination questions, along with discussion boards and lecture handouts, will help boost understanding and recall of course information.

Study Techniques for Memorization

No matter what degree program you’re in, there is certain information you’ll need to understand throughout your studies, so you should have a system in place to help you remember it. Memorization study techniques increase your recall of that information, so you’re always prepared for tests and assignments.

The Leitner Method

Established by science journalist Sebastian Leitner, the Leitner method involves using flashcards to remember information. This is effective because it’s based on spaced repetition, where you learn over periods rather than trying to cram all the information you need to know at once.

How the Leitner Method Works

  1. Make flashcards with each one having one study concept.
  2. Get three boxes to store the cards and label them one, two, and three.
  3. When you start studying, place all the cards in the first box and review them every day.
  4. When you review the flashcards, move the ones you can answer correctly to the second box, which is to be reviewed every other day.
  5. The concepts you don’t get right in the first round stay in the first box.
  6. During your next study session, start with the second box. As you get the answers right for cards in the second box, move them to the third. Keep the ones you answered incorrectly in the second box.
  7. During the next study session, start with box two, moving the answers you’ve gotten correct to the third box, which will be reviewed once a week. The cards answered incorrectly will go back to the first box.
  8. Continue this process until all of the cards are in the third box.

When to Use It

This is a good method to use if you’re planning to start studying for an exam early. It gives you enough space to practice remembering concepts over a period to ensure that you know what you’re supposed to learn by the test date.

The PQ4R Method

The PQ4R method (preview, question, read, reflect, recite, review) is for learning and processing new information. It’s a good option for online master’s degree students because it’s particularly effective for learners who work best independently. PQ4R is an active way of studying, so instead of just reading a textbook, it allows you to better digest information, answer questions, and recall what you have learned.

How the PQ4R Method Works

  1. Preview. Before reading a chapter, look at the title, visual images, headings, and the first and last paragraphs.
  2. Question. Think about any questions that you may have after doing this preview. Consider what you believe the chapter will teach you when you read it. Write your questions down for later.
  3. Read. Read through the textbook. It’s a good idea to highlight sections or add notes in the margins as you go along.
  4. Reflect. Reflect on what you’ve learned and think about it in the larger context of what you’ve previously read, the upcoming chapters of the book, and other class materials you’ve gone through. Find connections between the current chapter and the bigger picture of the course.
  5. Recite. Think about how you’d explain what you learned to someone else. Tell a friend, a classmate, or even a pet about the concepts in the textbook. It doesn’t matter who you speak to, the important part is that you’re able to explain the information in a way someone else would understand. If you can, that means you learned the material.
  6. Review. Take a look at the questions you asked and the notes you took and think about how well you understand the concepts you read about. This is not a one-time activity. You should continually review to make sure you remember and understand what you read.

When to Use It

Graduate students who have started studying early can use this method over time to reinforce the material they’ve learned and fill in any gaps in their knowledge.

Study Techniques for Retention

Study techniques for retention are crucial because it doesn’t take long for us to forget the things we’ve read. According to Dr. Art Kohn of Portland State University School of Business, we experience a forgetting curve that happens quickly. People forget 50% of the material they read in just one hour. Just 24 hours after reading something, you’ll forget 70% and 90% of what you read within a week.

Spaced/Distributed Practice

Spaced practice, also known as distributed practice, is based on the idea that we can retain information more effectively when we spread it out over time rather than learning multiple concepts one after the other in a short period. This allows the brain to search for information, including material that may be related to what you’re trying to remember. Connections form to make recall easier.

How Spaced/Distributed Practice Works

  1. Plan ahead. You don’t have to wait until exams are coming up to start spaced practice. It’s best to start at the beginning of the semester by planning when and what you’ll study each week, so you have enough time to space out your learning.
  2. Regularly reviewing information. A day or two after every class session, review what was covered.
  3. Focus on new and old information. In addition to reviewing information from the most recent lectures, go back and look over what you learned in previous classes.
  4. Study up until the exam. Make this a regular practice so that by the time an exam comes, you have given yourself enough time to remember the information.

When to Use It

If you’re a busy student juggling your online master’s degree program with a full-time job, this is a great technique to help you stay organized, so you don’t have to worry about cramming for a test the night before. This will ensure that you’re able to handle your learning in small doses and better retain the information.

Active Recall

Active recall refers to actively stimulating your memory to recall information. Instead of trying to add information to what you know, you can use this method to retrieve information by continuously formulating questions about a topic and working to answer them. This allows you to determine which concepts you understand and which ones you need to study more.

How Active Recall Works

  1. Collect your study materials. Get handouts, textbooks, and other study materials together to begin reviewing course information.
  2. Review the content. Use different techniques to review the course material, such as creating mind maps and flash cards.
  3. Test yourself. After reviewing the material, test yourself to find out what you remember and understand. You can create your own questions or use any study questions that can be found in the textbooks, or the course materials provided by your professor.

When to Use It

This can be a good method for a student who needs to brush up on certain types of information or to fill in the blanks in their understanding when there’s information they can’t grasp.

Study Tips to Avoid 10 Common Challenges of Online Master’s Students

Earning an online master’s degree requires a higher level of discipline and motivation than in-person programs. It can be easy to fall behind or develop poor study habits without the stability and routine of on-campus classes. Set yourself up for academic success by considering the following pitfalls and implementing the suggested tips to avoid these mistakes.

Challenge Helpful Study Tips

An unstable or inconsistent study environment

  • Create a study space. Creating a study space that is conducive to learning is a good way to ensure you get the most out of your study time.
  • Find good places to study. If you can’t create a study space at home that will enhance your learning, take your learning outside the house. You can do this at the public library, coffee shops, or coworking spaces so you have a quiet place to get your work done.


  • Use a paper planner or digital calendar like Google Calendar. Track your assignments and deadlines and set aside time to study.
  • Use pictures. If you remember information better when it’s in graphic form, you can put pictures on your calendar to represent assignment due dates and tests.

Feeling isolated or unsupported

  • Explore your resources. Even as an online student, there are ways you can connect with others virtually. Take advantage of the student support services that may be available, including tutoring.
  • Participate in virtual study groups. If you need help and feel isolated and unsupported, chances are, someone in your degree program may feel the same way. Since there are ways you can communicate with your classmates through your school’s learning management system, use that as an opportunity to find a study group or organize one.

Feeling overwhelmed

  • Break down tasks into more achievable pieces. Looking at the big picture is a good way to keep your project in focus, but it can also make you feel like you’ll never get through it. Break your tasks down into smaller pieces, and your work will feel much more achievable.
  • Take a break. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, trying to push yourself too hard and too far may be counterproductive and you end up feeling worse. It’s okay to take a break, so if you feel like you need one, take one. Take a walk, call someone for a little moral support, or just rest your eyes for a few minutes. When you come back to your study session, you’ll have a clear head and will be in a much better position to get your work done.

Getting easily distracted

  • Try interleaving. Interleaving is the process of learning multiple concepts or skills by switching between them.
  • Use the Pomodoro technique. The Pomodoro Technique allows you to take frequent breaks so you don’t get distracted as you’re studying. To do this, set a timer for 25 to 30 minutes and dedicate your full attention to studying during this time. When that time is up, take a two- or three-minute break. After four times, you can take longer breaks before starting again.

Inconsistent routine

  • Make daily checklists. If you make a checklist every day, you’ll get into the habit of doing certain tasks. Over time, you’ll incorporate studying into your daily routine, so you won’t be scrambling to fit it into your schedule.
  • Manage your time wisely. Considering you may only have limited time if you’re working and raising a family as you earn your master’s degree, managing your time wisely is imperative. This can be done by creating a daily and weekly plan and removing distractions, like your phone, from the room as you study.

Lacking motivation

  • Reward yourself for milestones. You don’t have to wait until something big happens to celebrate your progress. The small wins matter as much as the big ones, so to motivate yourself along the way, be sure to celebrate them.
  • Stop focusing on the negative. There may be times that you don’t make the grades you want, but focusing on that is only going to take away your motivation. As you reward yourself for milestones, be sure to learn from your mistakes, rather than letting them hinder you from reaching your goals.

Neglecting self-care

  • Eat properly. You may remember the late-night study sessions you had as an undergrad while eating junk food fondly, but chances are, they didn’t do much for your ability to study efficiently. It’s important to eat properly while studying to have the energy and brainpower you need.
  • Get enough sleep. All-nighters may have been a staple of your undergraduate years, but having a good sleep schedule goes a long way toward helping you with your studies. Quality sleep can actually help you improve your grades because you increase your brain power and retention.


  • Make a study plan. You may have heard the adage “failing to plan means planning to fail,” so creating a study schedule as early in the semester as possible is a great way to ensure you’re able to learn class material effectively and efficiently.
  • Set goals and milestones. You won’t know where you are in your progress unless you set goals and milestones for yourself. Set daily or weekly goals about how much you want to accomplish so you can monitor how well you’re doing.

Trouble understanding the material

  • Taking good notes. Effective note taking can make the process of learning much easier, so think about how well your notes represent what was discussed during class lectures. If you’re missing a lot, look for ways to improve your note taking skills to make your notes more accurate. This will go a long way toward getting the most out of your study time.
  • Know your strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses to become the best student you can be. That doesn’t mean you need to beat yourself up over your weaknesses but understanding them can help you know what you need to improve so you can address them.

Study Resources for Online Students

Being successful in an online graduate school program can be challenging, so you want to get as much help as you can. The following are some resources to assist you in your journey.

A College Professor’s Study Tips


Dr. Anindya Kundu is a sociologist, educator, and writer who studies agency and how individuals can create positive change. He received his doctorate from New York University, where he was awarded an outstanding teaching award. Currently, Mr. Kundu is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Florida International University. His TED Talks on the opportunity gap in education and agency have been viewed more than six million times.

What are some of the unique challenges that online master's students face when it comes to studying and staying motivated compared to traditional classroom-based students?

Online master’s students may struggle with independent studying given how autonomous their programs can be. These students are not in physical classes with both instructors and other students keeping them accountable. They must hold themselves accountable. At the same time, these students may be disconnected from the larger university culture and environment if they are not actively participating in on-campus activities, which help students feel like they belong. They may find it harder to make friends and network with peers and mentors given that they are not sharing space with them as frequently to have conversations.

Could you share some effective time management strategies that online master's students can use to balance their studies with other commitments?

Online master’s students should block off periods of time on their calendar strictly for the reading, writing, and homework demands of grad school, with no exceptions or distractions. Students should also find ways to make their experience social—they should identify “accountability buddies” to do homework with. They should also remember to build in time for social activities, which are an integral part of positive graduate school experiences.

Online courses often involve a lot of self-directed learning. What strategies can students use to maintain discipline and accountability in their studies?

Practice is key when it comes to setting new studying habits. Routines have to be built over weeks and months. Students should strive to implement new rhythms in their lives as they undertake a new degree. Students should ask friends and family for their understanding as well as help in holding the student accountable. Study groups and buddies are proven to help reduce stress and increase achievement.

Are there specific study techniques or tools that you recommend for online master's students to enhance their retention and understanding of the course material?

Reading and rote memorization are not enough for deep learning. I recommend students consistently make themselves demonstrate their comprehension by putting big concepts into their own words and making connections between what they are learning, to their own experiences and lives. Write, speak, draw—whatever it takes to process information in new memorable ways.

How important is setting up an effective study environment for online students, and what tips can you provide for creating an optimal study space?

Study spaces are best if simple. Quiet, ample space for writing and reading, and natural light. Zoom-rooms work too to study concurrently with someone else who is not in the same physical space.

Many online students struggle with procrastination. What advice can you offer to help students overcome procrastination and stay on track with their studies?

It’s natural to procrastinate, but graduate school is not easy enough to cruise through. Students should make sure they are consistently working in little chunks (chunking up their work into digestible bits) that build upon each other towards creating large assignments and milestones. Also, email professors and meet with them so that they know who you are and that will help you keep yourself accountable too.

Are there any technological tools or apps that you believe can be particularly beneficial for online master's students to improve their study habits or productivity?

Online learning doesn’t mean we need special apps. Timers are still great tools—set a timer to study or work on a project for 30 undisturbed minutes at a time to get a lot of productive work done in bursts.

As the field of online education continues to evolve, are there any emerging trends or innovative study techniques that you think students should be aware of?

Students should be mindful when using AI in their assignments. Too much AI can now be detected and flagged as plagiarism. AI should be used as an additive tool to help students think broadly (how to structure a paper vs. come up with the ideas themselves). Even if AI helps students get “unstuck,” the students should always put things into their own words.