Commit yourself to lifelong learning. The most valuable asset you'll ever have is your mind and what you put into it.

Albert Einstein

To commit to lifelong learning, one must know how to learn. Knowing how you learn is a skill in itself. During the first years of school, we follow closely what we are taught in class and learn and memorize information based on what is proposed to us. In university, things tend to be a little more complicated. We sit through a lecture and take notes hoping to make sense of what we hear and see. But, what if there were an optimal way of doing all that? And what if there is more to note-taking than we think? 

When starting a new academic year, most students feel motivated to succeed and it is important to ride this wave of motivation aware of the fact that it takes 66 days on average to form a habit according to Lally, van Jaarsveld, Potts and Wardle.1 Meeting new students, understanding how classes work, and building your schedule are mixed with the excitement of parties and social events. We will show you different options to organize yourself and structure your studies based on what type of learner you are, and what your style of learning is. A big part of the article will be focused on different types of apps (mostly free or low-priced), that will help you with note-taking, organization, and relaxation. To find which tools work best for you, take our quiz on learning styles.

 

Learning types and tips to navigate knowledge

 

 

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01.

Learning styles

John Burville Biggs, an Australian education psychologist, studied and categorized different types of learning. He wrote about this together with Ross Telfer.5 

  • Superficial learning is about the memorization: of years, names, vocabulary, and events.  

This first level of learning is a necessary part of studying before tests or exams.

  • Deep learning or deep structure is about understanding the underlying mechanisms of the subject. It usually comes from a genuine interest in what we learn about and often feels meaningful. 

It is about finding patterns, making connections, and applying a similar model to various learning experiences.

  • Performative learning is similar to deep learning because you will also make connections and find patterns.

Rather than being rooted in personal interest and curiosity, the motivation for this type of learning comes from wanting to perform well on an assignment. It does require understanding and not only memorizing according to Anderson.9

Both deep learning and performative learning require understanding rather than only memorizing. Deep learning usually feels more meaningful as the learner has a genuine interest in the subject. This interest will help both motivation and learning.

Since we are all different, we also have different ways of learning and studying techniques.

 

attach_file

Deep learning allows for higher motivation and better information recall

when individual learning styles are taken into consideration.

 

Doris B. Matthews also shows in her study that this is especially important for first-year students.17

Knowledge and information are processed through our senses, and people can prefer to learn via different dominant traits. The three largest categories are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic or tactile. These learning styles are presented in the form of characters and colors to help you better navigate the tools which we propose.

  • The photographer, associated with the color blue, represents visual learning.
  • The musician, associated with the color pink, represents audio learning.
  • The explorer, associated with the color green, represents kinesthetic or tactile learning.

Howard Gardner describes learning styles as different ways that the student approaches their learning material and school work.7 Different types of intelligence and different styles have an impact on how different people will retain information the best. 

 

The Photographer 

 

The photographer character sitting at a table and taking pictures

For the photographer, the dominant learning trait is visual perception. Luckily for this group, most school and study-related activities are targeted at this type of learning. The photographers learn well by reading texts and their notes. Photographers can use techniques such as flashcards, color coding, and mind mapping to optimize their learning.

Making full use of various visual cues that emphasize different aspects of the subject is beneficial to the photographer. The information is then retrieved as a mental image whenever they need to use it. For the purpose of this article, the photographer is associated with the color blue. The tools we provide to support you in your learning journey are color coded. You can identify the ones that fit you best by looking out for the blue color.

 

The Musician 

 

The musician character sitting at a table with headphones on

For musicians, hearing is the dominant sense when taking in information. Thus, attending lectures is the optimal way to learn.

People in this group tend to remember more when listening to a lecture or discussing with classmates than quietly reading. It is also usual for them to prefer to listen to music while studying to make it easier to focus. 

For musicians, any audio help will allow them to grasp and retain the information faster. Our musicians are associated with the color pink. Look out for it to better identify which tools can help you optimize your learning.

 

The Explorer  

 

The explorer character sitting at a table and looking at a map

The explorer’s dominant learning style can be called tactile or kinesthetic. Their ideal way is to learn by doing. They tend to prefer more practical ways of learning, such as lab assignments or study visits. The explorer can be extra quick at learning sports or how to play music. 

If you are an explorer, there are several ways to implement movement and tactile learning into university life.

Howard Gardner introduced the idea of different types of intelligence, and that we can all learn in a different way. He calls this bodily-kinesthetic intelligence and shows how this works.7

Rather than consulting notes, the explorer prefers writing them and perhaps having first-hand experiences. If you study art history, for example, you will be drawn to a museum. As an explorer, experiences make your learning. The explorer will be represented by the color green in our selection of learning tools.

Prithishkumar, I. J., & Michael, S. A. concluded, in Understanding Your Student: using the VARK model, a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Postgraduate Medicine, that most students perform multimodal learning and that they experienced the best outcome of their learning when mixing different learning styles.11

This means that you may have a main style of learning which can work perfectly with a secondary one. Find out what your learning style is and let’s talk about how to optimize it! 

 

02.

Taking notes

 

This is one of the first learning tools that we are taught in school. And no wonder!  But did anyone ever show you how to take notes? Or did you just learn by yourself? It turns out there is more to note-taking than meets the eye. 

 

Student performance improves when shown how to take notes

 

Who here didn’t take hectic notes that were difficult to understand when you got around to reviewing them? This is especially true if it took you longer than 6 days to get back to them and verify that you captured the correct information in class. Ebbinghaus proved in his studies that after 6 days, only 25% of the information learned is still retained.12

 

Graph of Ebbingaus' forgetting curve

 

Combine that with messy note-taking and you have a recipe for disaster. Don't panic, you are not the only one and we are here to prevent this situation from happening. 

Students who are shown how to take notes usually perform better than those to whom we don’t show note-taking.13 Note-taking, like learning, is a skill which is learned. When feeling overwhelmed with the information we receive during the first lectures, we may want to write everything down. However, your teacher may provide partial outlines or skeletal notes before the lecture to facilitate note-taking and thus help achieve higher grades in exams.14Reworking and summarizing notes is essential in comprehension 

I was surprised this summer to meet one of my mother’s friends who is approaching retirement and who proudly showed me a notebook where she was making resumes of the books she had recently read. She started doing it for fun without thinking too much about it. She was trying to make sense of the deeper meaning conveyed in books. My parents were amazed at the work and exclaimed: “Like in high school!” 

 

And why was she doing it? The answer is simple.

 

You will absorb more if you take notes in longhand and in this way achieve higher comprehension.15 This idea has been validated in multiple studies.

 

Close-up on longhand note-taking

If you have received a partial outline from one of your teachers, make sure you don’t take it as a job done. This is extra help that will allow you to organize yourself.

You will still need to rework and summarize information.

This is what will allow you to reinforce what you just learned. So remember outline or not, reworking the information you just obtained will allow you to focus on the most important points, be precise, prioritize, and order your thoughts.

 

This exercise will allow you to be more involved in the learning process than if you were simply listening or reading. Note-taking allows any type of learner to assimilate information in an organized way even though this may not be your preferred type of learning.16

 

Visual note-taking improves memory and thinking

 

When I was in high school, one of my close friends, Sofia, used to spend her time drawing. She always made beautiful drawings and had an extremely vivid imagination. I was always fascinated by her work and still am today. I used to peek at her desk and see her drawing during class. This motivated me to also try drawing and I must admit that one of the best drawings I did was during a calculus class at university. Today it hangs in my parent's living room. 

 

If this is what you naturally feel like doing when listening to lectures, try visual note-taking.

 

 

 

Visual note-taking depicting the human eyeball

 

Visual note-taking has been proven to be a better learning tool compared to traditional note-taking.4 It allows you to better visualize the information and thus may help visual learners or those who have an affinity for this type of learning to improve memory. 

Visual note-taking also activates deeper thinking and creative expression.4

 

03.

Note-taking apps

 

Now that the benefits and fun facts about taking notes have been established, we ask: what is the difference between taking notes manually or directly on your laptop? It turns out that note-taking on your laptop is not recommended - there are too many distractions which may hinder your focus.

College students who take notes on laptop computers are more likely to record lecturers’ words verbatim and are thus less likely to absorb what’s being said. 15

Mueller and Oppenheimer

What is the best of both worlds then? Science seems to support the idea that students taking notes on digital tablets with styluses get the best of both worlds because they engage in longhand notetaking while still having a variety of digital tools at their disposal.

That takes us to the much-awaited segment listing note taking-apps.

 

 

App NamePlatformsAllows Recording?Available Offline?Cost
NotionPC, Mac, MobileNoYesFree for individuals
NotabilityMacYesYes£10.49-14.99 for the first year
OneNotePC, Mac, MobileYesYesIncluded in the Microsoft package
SimplenotePC, Mac, MobileNoYesFree
EvernotePC, Mac, MobileYesYesLimited free version with few resources
Bear Mac and iOS phones onlyNoYesThe £13.99 version allows for synching, exporting notes and different themes
CraftPC, Mac and iOS phones No Yes£5/month or a free version with limits on storage and notes
NoteBookPC, Mac, MobileYesYesFree

 

Notion

 

notion app logo on yellow background

Notion is an all-in-one app where you can plan your tasks, school work, and much more. It features a lot of free templates for students, including thesis planning, reading lists, budget, course schedule, etc. Clip-ons are particularly useful to save pages directly into your Notion.

Notion helps you keep track of everything. The Notion project management tool is easy to work with; all learning types find the Notion template aesthetic attractive and fun to work with. Notion dark mode is a particularly useful feature when you study at night because it gives your text a sharper contrast and doesn't strain your eyes.

Notion pricing is straightforward. It's free for personal use but you could subscribe to the service for $4 per month for more storage.

The Notion app is a complete tool which, we must admit, we like a lot at Superprof. Fitted for all learning types, it is on our top list of recommendations.

 

Notability

 

notability app logo on yellow background

Notability is a planner and note-taker which allows you to enjoy your iPad and stylus to take handwritten notes. All your notes can be exported into documents. Speech-to-text is also an option offered by this app.

You can directly record your lectures and save them as audio files in your app, or combine them with your notes. The app's paid version includes academic planners and is adapted to anyone working with maths. The Notability templates allow you to personalize your notes. Notability is particularly designed for audio note-taking and is mostly suited for the musician (audio learning style) and the explorer (tactile learning style).

 

OneNote

 

OneNote app logo on yellow background

This app is free with a Microsoft account and it provides all of the important note-taking tools such as image to text, video and audio recording and syncing to your other devices. Best of all, it's advert-free and you don't have to upgrade to access advanced features.

 

Simplenote

 

Simplenote app logo on yellow background

Simplenote is easy to set up and to use. It's a good option if you don't want set preferences. It lets you start writing without having to take a tutorial or a tour of the app. The simple interface removes all distractions and makes it easy to focus on the texts' content and layout.

 

Evernote

 

Evernote app logo on yellow background

Evernote is another complete tool which we like. You can use it for classical note taking, making outlines for your theses and essays, and integrate online materials. This app is a good fit for research, creating task lists, and tagging text for future work.

 

Bear

 

Bear app logo on yellow background

Bear is designed for writing, editing and organizing notes. Its' best features are editing and tagging texts, and linking notes (linking notes allows you to reference various bits of information). Focus mode allows you to hide notes and other features when you need to study.

Bear also features code blocks which are designed for those studying programming. Besides note-taking, the code blocks and other cool features, Bear also allows you to protect certain pieces of content by adding a password. Add images, texts and integrate other media into your notes to make Bear a most expansive study tool. A better fit for the visual and tactile or kinesthetic learners, Bear may be one of your best finds.

 

Craft

 

Craft app logo on yellow background

This note-taking and organizing app comes with a calendar and building blocks that let you design templates. The blocks make it easy to edit your notes and integrate different types of media - images, code, video, audio files, and more.

The free version limits how many blocks you can use. So, if you are looking at years of study and want to use the same app, you should consider the paid version. Craft is a great app for the photographers and explorers but also works for the musicians.

 

NoteBook

 

NoteBook app logo on yellow background

This note-taking app is similar to actual notebooks. You can open the notebooks that you create and write on individual pages. You can also use pages to record audio. This is a good option if you like the analog way of organizing your notes.

So now that you've taken your notes, when is the best time to go over them? Before your exam? Well, yes but not only then. H. Ebbinghaus developed a model which depicts how fast we forget information.12 Everything seems clear and straightforward in class, but if we try to remember a week later what was explained to us, only a small part remains clear. 

To counter this forgetting curve, the notes that you took should be revised on the same day, and then again on the second and third day.2

Chun and Heo, 2018

According to Finkenbinder's study, there is also a best time to study and that is in the morning around 8 am.21

 

watch_later

In the morning, around 8 am

is the best time to study.

 

These techniques will allow you to remember information better so you won't find yourself pulling all-nighters before an exam. We've all done it and you will probably do it too, at times. But you know it can be avoided. And there are several arguments on why you should not treat sleep lightly. Let’s look at how to organize yourself first, now that you have mastered note-taking.  

 

04.

Organizing yourself

 

The way you organize is the key to your success. Just as you would organize your notes, everything else needs to be clear and compartmentalized so that you can easily retrieve what you need, be it information or items. This, in turn, allows you to spend more time on more important tasks. Being organized may feel like something you either are or aren’t but the reality is that you can learn how to be organized, like all of the other skills in this article. 

 

Organizing yourself is a skill not usually taught in school. It turns out that most employers don't teach it either. They take for granted that employees will have acquired this skill when they hire them.8

 

The exterior of 2 Pancras square in London
View of Two Pancras Square, London - taken by Dylan Nolte in 2018

 

If nobody teaches you how to be organized, how are you supposed to do it? Most people get these skills from their parents, but if they are not pros of organizing either (like mine), then you need to figure things out by yourself. You could also get help from a friend or an organizing coach. Keep in mind that if these organization skills are not acquired early on, as an adult they will keep on challenging you. 

 

Being organized will save you time, but it will also:

  • Reduce stress. When everything is sorted out, you will have nothing in the back of your mind to worry you.
  • Improve overall sense of control and accomplishment, and increase self-esteem.
  • Increase productivity.8
  • Decrease the chances of making errors.18  

 

Organization leads to better learning and so it should be put on your list of skills to acquire. 

 

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05.

Organizing Apps

 

We will go over the organization apps that can help you stay on top of your tasks. We are sure that a clean and organized environment and agenda will lead to clear and organized ideas and better learning. 

 

Organizing Apps at a Glance

 

App NamePlatformsAvailable offline?Cost
ItsycalOnly iOS devicesYesFree
Touch Bar TimerOnly iOS devicesYesFree
PomodoroPC, Mac and mobile YesFree for PC and Android; iOS starts at £0.79 Premium service is £6.99
MindMeisterPC, Mac and mobileNoFree limited access; full suite costs £3,59/month per person.
AnkiPC, Mac and mobileNoFree
ForestPC, Mac and mobileYesFree (with in-app purchases)
TilesPC, Mac and mobileYesThe app is free but you must buy tiles or have connectable devices
MiroOnly PC and Android devicesNoLimited free version; otherwise £8/ month
FigmaPC, Mac and mobileYesFree basic service; upgraded version is free for students
Ulyssesonly iOS devicesNo£5.99 monthly or £48.99 for a year.

 

Itsycal

 

Itsycal app logo on yellow background

Itsycal is a customizable menu bar calendar that you can set to show events. You can switch Itsycal to dark mode and use ISO week numbers. It even has a system clock replacement you can customize.

 

Touch Bar Timer

 

Touch Bar Timer app logo on yellow background

Touch Bar Timer is a stopwatch that you can set on Mac's touch bar. A single tap will start and stop it and a double tap will clear it so you can time yourself again. If you need to review or set your preferences, simply hold down the button.

As you prepare for exams, it's helpful to know how much time it takes for you to solve an equation or work through a problem. For such instances, Touch Bar Timer is a gem!

 

Pomodoro

 

Pomodoro app logo on yellow background

This app helps you adapt the Pomodoro learning technique to your studies. It is preset for 25 minutes, after which you should take a break from your studies. It takes a bit of discipline to use it but is a very effective tool to help you manage your study time.

 

Combine Pomodoro and Endel, and you'll be on top of your focus game! We will tell you more about Endel in just a bit. Meanwhile, remember that you can mix various apps and we hope you'll find the best combo for your learning style.

 

MindMeister

 

Mindmeister app logo on yellow background

MindMeister offers different ways to code your work for easy recognition. You can use different colored icons like checkmarks and flags to keep track of your learning process.

 

You can draw a map for each subject and show connections between individual aspects of your study material. MindMeister has an easy-to-use toolbar that allows even beginners to build useful maps. It also comes with an extensive library of how-to tools and a generous FAQ section.

 

Anki

 

Anki app logo on yellow background

Anki allows you to create decks of flashcards for every subject you study. It comes with a variety of tools and color codes to mark your progress. You can also note which decks you added, which ones you've reviewed only once, and which ones are overdue for review.

You can further customize your decks to include images, videos, audio recordings, and scientific markup. Anki is ideal for any study subject, from maths to languages.

 

Forest

 

Forest app logo on yellow background

Forest helps you focus by monitoring your study time. Like Pomodoro, you can set a timer. This time, it can be more or less than 25 minutes. As you study, you earn virtual coins which help plant real trees around the world.

Part game and part study tool, the Forest app was named Best App of 2015-2016, and received the awards for Best Productivity App and Best Self-Improvement App in 2018.

 

Tile

 

Tile app logo on yellow background

Tile finds things in Bluetooth range or, if they're far away, shows you a map where that item last was. You can locate your phone with Tile; even if set to vibrate, your phone will ring. If you always misplace your keys, wallet or study guides, the Tile app can help you find them.

 

Miro

 

Miro app logo on yellow background

At your desk or on the go, you can collaborate with your study group. With Miro, you can plan your work, brainstorm ideas and discuss progress. Using a Miro mind map and spreadsheet integration, you have everything you need to complete group projects.

 

You have many choices when it comes to Miro templates, starting with the basic Miro mind map template. There are also brainstorming templates or research and design templates. Miro pricing is generous, too. A free account allows you access to three boards and pre-designed templates. You may work with as many collaborators as you'd like.

 

This is a great tool for group projects as it allows users to collaborate virtually.

 

 

 

 

 

Figma Desktop and Mobile

 

Figma app logo on yellow background

You can plan your work in Figjam using all of their collaborative tools, including their built-in whiteboard and sticky notes. Once your brainstorming has shaped itself into a workable design, hop over to Figma, where all of your previous work transfers over.

Figjam is a whiteboard application that allows you to explore ideas and collaborate on projects. It is loaded with fun Figma icons and special Figma fonts. It gives you and your collaborators a visual representation of all the work you're doing together. Figma not only offers a full complement of tools and utilities any designer would be happy to use, but they also have a vast, helpful community that offers plenty of support. Knowing how to use Figma will also allow you to create wireframes, present various projects to your team members, and may be useful for work. The Figma community is an inspiring place where you can browse the vast amount of possibilities that this app offers you.

 

Ulysses

 

Ulysses app logo on yellow background

Ulysses allows you to write in any order and organize your draft text once all of your ideas are written down. It comes with a proofreader or editor, and compiles your work into a library you can sort through. Ulysses makes it easy to write essays, term papers and theses.

 

06.

Sleeping well

 

Sleeping well will also allow for optimizing your learning. What does sleeping well mean, you might ask? According to Matthew Walker, neuroscience and psychology professor at Berkeley university and author of Why we sleep? indicators of a good night's sleep are not needing coffee in the morning and not being able to fall back asleep when you just woke up.3

 

But who thinks of student life without coffee? Well, it turns out that half of the dose of caffeine you consume is still in your body 6 hours later. This means that if you have coffee in the morning, caffeine will still be in your system when you go to bed. And with caffeine in your system, you’re not getting all of the benefits you should from your night of sleep. 

 

Alcohol is also an enemy of good sleep if consumed before bed. You will probably not have a restful night, so if you do drink alcohol, do so moderately. 

 

We definitely recommend reading this book. Matt also has a podcast: The Matt Walker Podcast, in case your reading list is full for now or if this is your preferred way of learning.


For now, let's treat you to a short list of recommendations about optimizing your sleep:

  1. Be regular - try sleeping at the same time and waking up at the same time, even on weekends. Your brain will love it. 
  2. Dim the lights about one hour before going to bed to prepare for sleep and create a winding-down routine. 
  3. Don’t watch tv or scroll on your phone before bed. 
  4. Don’t stay in bed for long periods of time if you are awake. 
  5. Don’t take naps that are longer than 20 minutes.10 

 

Resting well will allow you to absorb information better and learn faster. According to Walker, an all-night cram session equals a 40% drop in learning ability.3

It takes a little bit of discipline to do all of this but consider that having discipline will allow you to form good habits. You might have heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. However, researchers from University College London found that it takes closer to 66 days. The range lies somewhere between 18 and 264 days, so less than a year.1 If you do set your mind and decide to give yourself the best opportunity to learn, the first year is essential.

 

07.

Relaxing apps

 

Being mindful of one’s emotions, state of fatigue, optimal moments for studying, and general well-being is as important as sleeping. Meditation reduces cortisol levels according to a study by Tang et al.20

 

woman reading by a fireplace and window
There are moments when you should challenge yourself to do more, and moments when recharging your batteries is your best choice.

Needless to say, that rest will allow you to improve your focus. Meditation, according to a study from the University of Illinois at Chicago, improves student knowledge retention during lectures.19

Here are some of the best relaxing, winding down, and meditation apps which we have tested personally, but you can also find a full list of apps recommended by the American Psychiatric Association

 

Comparing Relaxation Apps

 

App NamePlatforms Offline AvailabilityFunctionsCost
HeadspacePC, iOS, MobileYesMeditation and soundscapes£49,99/year or
£9,99/month
CalmPC, iOS, MobileYes, sessions need to be previously downloadedMeditation and soundscapesFree limited content or £28.99/year
BalancePC, iOS, MobileYes, sessions need to be previously downloaded or listened to MeditationFree for a limited time, and then £50,64/year
EndelPC, iOS, MobileYesSoundscapesFree limited content or £4/month for full access

 

Balance

 

Balance app logo on yellow background

Balance offers specific meditation sessions to help you rest, boost motivation, focus, or nurture positivity. What is special about this app is its' immersive sessions which use the vibration of your phone to help you focus.

 

The Balance app gives you options on certain meditation sessions, for example, the choice of meditating with or without a coach. Options aside, each session is designed to help you develop certain skills: awareness, body scan, breath focus, loving-kindness, and visualization. Note that the Balance app won Google's best app of 2021 award.

 

Headspace

 

Headspace app logo on yellow background

The app has a colorful design with a variety of coaching sessions from mindful eating to confronting debt, prioritizing and coaching from Olympic athletes. There is even a Star Wars-themed sleepcast selection - 45 minutes sessions to help you wind down.

 

Like Balance, there is an immersive touch to some sessions, using visuals and the vibration of your phone. Meditation and educational videos are available for free on Headspace's blog page and YouTube channel. There is currently an offer for students of certain universities. Contact Headspace directly to find out if this offer applies to you.

 

Calm

 

Calm app logo on yellow background

This app features soundscapes and meditation sessions which adapt to your mood. The latest collaboration with Lebron James is one of the many options.

 

Calm also offers various playlists to accompany reading sessions, winding down and more. Apple's App of the year 2017 contains a catalog of sounds but I prefer the minimalism of the Endel app or the Balance meditation app. I find that Calm has limited selections. Endel offers more soundscapes and content on the free version of the app.

 

Endel

 

Endel app logo on yellow background

Endel is designed to accompany you in daily activities with neuroscience-backed sounds according to circadian rhythms and more. AI has been designed to adapt to personal inputs such as location, weather, and the user's heart rate.

 

What is cool about this app is the fact that when you open it, it is already proposing a sound that will most probably fit your activity. Maybe you need an after-lunch boost, help winding down in the evening, or an intense focus session according to your behavior. Blocking exterior sounds, the Endel app is absolutely excellent to help you reconnect and feel grounded.

 

08.

Conclusion

 

Albert Einstein is right: your mind is the most valuable asset you have. Now, as you take your first steps into higher education and, by proxy, into your adult life, optimizing how your mind works and developing good habits for life is essential. Getting a handle on organization strategies and finding the tools that work for you, mastering how to learn efficiently and when to let it all go and relax are all vital to your success at university and for the rest of your life.

09.

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