University of Wisconsin–Madison
Student studying in library

5 Ways to Study more effectively for Midterm exams

Remember that factoid which told us that that an increasingly digital lifestyle has decreased our attention span to 8 seconds, less than that of a goldfish? It turns out that this was a popular myth and was debunked in a March, 2017 BBC News article entitled “Busting the Attention Span Myth.” In it, Open University Psychology Lecture Gemma Briggs offers a more nuanced perspective on the human attention span:

“It’s very much task-dependent. How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is…. How we apply our attention to different tasks depends very much about what the individual brings to that situation.”

When it comes to studying for mid-terms, what you bring to the situation will make a big difference in the success you enjoy.  With some thoughtful planning, the right setting, and a few useful tips, you can make your study time less stressful, and more effective.

Minimize distractions & interruptions

Distractions cause errors, and eat time like you wouldn’t believe. According to a study at University of California, Irvine, the average recovery time from a distracting interruption is about 23 minutes.  Avoiding only 3 distractions a week while studying is like getting an extra hour of study time.

Choose the Right Setting

 Limit distractions from your studies by picking a less distracting location. The Libraries website has an interactive map of campus library locations, with links to their hours, websites, phone numbers and other useful information.


Playing music can help block out distractions. Choosing the right music is important though. Avoid music with distracting vocals, as our brains are keyed into paying attention to them. Some people swear by video game soundtracks, which makes sense; they’re intended to accompany an activity without distracting from it.  Remember though, if your music is too loud, it may become a distraction itself. Also, playing music too loudly while wearing earbuds can damage your hearing, so keep volume just loud enough to block out distracting background noise, and below 85 decibels

Reward yourself

As any psych major can tell you, positive reinforcement is a highly effective learning tool. The best way to get yourself to study, or to keep studying is to reward yourself well for doing it. Here are 5 simple rules for using it to improve study habits gleaned from the article Improving Study Habits with Psychology:

  1. Use a meaningful reward. Make it something you truly enjoy, like a favorite meal, or an hour of a video game you enjoy.

  2. Set a goal and be specific. Describe exactly what you want to accomplish before getting started, for example, “I will study for 30-60 minutes twice a day for a week.”

  3. Set a reward schedule. Decide when you will reward yourself – it will likely be impractical to reward yourself every time you study. For one thing, your reward will become less enjoyable, and therefor less powerful, if used too often.

  4. Stick with the plan. Once you start training your study habits, stick with it. Remember you are training yourself to behave differently, and you may stop the new behavior if you don’t follow through.

  5. Reward yourself less frequently when you reach your goal. If you’ve been successful in your self-training, you will keep studying without the reward. Rather than rewarding yourself once or twice a week, reward yourself once or twice a month.

Take Breaks

Take a break for 5 minutes out of every hour. Use the time to move around and stretch – this will help you stay alert, and breaks can also function as small rewards.


If you want to improve your memorization skills, consider the following tips:

  1. Mnemonics: Mnemonics make memorization easier and quicker by converting information into a more easily recalled form. If you have trouble thinking of your own mnemonics, there are several websites that will generate them for you.
  2. Practice: Practice by yourself, and with friends. Use study cards, practice exams, and study groups. StudyBlue is an online study tool, founded by two UW-Madison students, where students can share content such as notes and flashcards. See UW-Madison course specific content on StudyBlue.

Manage Stress

Short of “final exams” few phrases cause students more anxiety than “midterms.”   Midterms are important, so a certain amount of anxiety is unavoidable, but anxiety can make students perform worse. University Health Services (UHS) tells us that according to the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment( ACHA HCHA 2013),  “Students report that stress, anxiety, and sleep difficulties create their greatest negative academic impact” underscoring the importance of managing stress.  Stress Management is one of the services that UHS provides.

While you definitely have an attention span longer than that of a goldfish, coming to your studies with the right techniques can only help you succeed!