Learning at Iowa: How to study effectively

Learning at Iowa: The three Ms of successful learning can help you develop strong study habits.
Monday, August 28, 2023

Although you spend many years in school before arriving at college, when asked, most college students—as many as 80 percent—say that they have never been taught how to study. You may have also been given study recommendations that are sketchy or simply wrong—such as “learning styles."

To help you avoid using trial and error to figure out how to study effectively, Learning at Iowa has distilled decades of research from cognitive science to create recommendations for effective learning. These recommendations are also shared with instructors, advisors, and others across campus to reach as many students as possible. 

A to-do list as described by the Three Ms

The Three Ms 

Learning at Iowa revolves around the Three Ms: Mindset, Metacognition, and Memory. Each M is an essential piece of learning: 

Mindset: Successful learners know that they can learn. A growth mindset is the attitude that learning and intelligence are the result of practice and effort.  

Metacognition: This is “thinking about thinking” and involves an assessment of your learning and the limits or shortcomings of your learning. Learning at Iowa highlights three important components of metacognition: planning, monitoring, and evaluating.  

Memory: The third M centers on the learning processes that produce the most effective learning, processes such as spacing your learning and testing yourself. 

For more information on the Three Ms, check out these short videos.

The importance of time management

The Three Ms are useful for all aspects of studying and learning. For example, how is your time management? If you’re like most students, time management is a challenge because college courses are less structured than high school courses. And, many of the features of college courses—such as deadlines that are far in the future or feedback that is infrequent—can lead to procrastination, which is time mismanagement.  

Metacognition is essential to good time management. Much of time management boils down to metacognitive planning and monitoring. If you plan and monitor your time use, just as you would your learning, you’ll be proactively managing your time. 

 Here are some ways to take action and promote effective time management: 

  •  Create a calendar that lists all of your time commitments (classes, work, study sessions, exams, assignment deadlines, etc.). Adding everything to your calendar help you better understand where you spend your time so you can be strategic with your priorities. 
  • Establish your routine, or habits. For your classes, plan to study or work on classes a consistent time each day. Plan your learning in set blocks of time, rather than by which assignment is due next. For example, plan to study from 7-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, with short breaks after every hour or so.  
  • Set learning goals or make a to-do list for each of your study sessions. Be sure to check upcoming deadlines and exams and put those on your to-do list well in advance. 
  • Avoid distractions. Put your phone in airplane mode and keep it out of sight. Check it during your short study breaks as a reward to yourself. 
  • Avoid the planning fallacy: People underestimate the amount of time that a task will take. Give yourself more time than you think it will take to complete an assignment or study for an exam.  

To learn more about how to use the Three Ms, visit learning.uiowa.edu/students

The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences offers about 70 majors across the humanities; fine, performing and literary arts; natural and mathematical sciences; social and behavioral sciences; and communication disciplines. About 15,000 undergraduate and nearly 2,000 graduate students study each year in the college’s 37 departments, led by faculty at the forefront of teaching and research in their disciplines. The college teaches all Iowa undergraduates through the college's general education program, CLAS CORE. About 80 percent of all Iowa undergraduates begin their academic journey in CLAS. The college confers about 60 percent of the university's bachelor's degrees each academic year.