How to Study Effectively & Focus: Sleepy when Studying?

For most students, studying isn’t fun. It is boring, and the hardest part is trying to stay awake and study effectively. After a long day of classes and extracurricular activities, students will often find themselves dozing off, and have a hard time keeping their eyelids open. Although you have sat at your study table for an hour, you will realize that you have barely progressed at all in your study session. If you find this situation familiar to you, here are a few tips and tricks how to study effectively.

How to Study Effectively

A lot of times, we may look like we are doing productive work and studying, but truthfully, we are not. Ineffective study methods give students a facade that they are spending their time wisely when in fact, they are not. Students are hence misguided in this way. And believe me, I have been in that same boat as well.

Ineffective study methods include: Highlighting and re-reading your learning materials. These are known as passive learning. You are consuming the content instead of creating them. With study methods like these, you also tend to get bored more easily as it is easier for your mind to drift off while “studying”.

Active learning is a much more effective study method and there are lots of scientifically proven articles for it. I will be breaking down the process of active learning into 3 parts, namely:

  1. Scope your subject
  2. Active Recall
  3. Spaced Repetition

Scope your Subject

In the past, I have underestimated the importance of scoping your subjects. This will allow you to have a clear overview or sort of a “birds-eye-view” while you are studying a certain topic. What I like to do is that after every lecture, I would write the scope of the topic down at the last page usually, as it is a blank page in most cases. I would draw out a spider diagram or a mindmap of what the lecture consisted of.

Here is an example of the mindmap that I did for this topic called: Digestive System Diseases.

Mindmap for Digestive System Diseases

As you can see, I broke the topic down into 4 parts: Gastroesophageal, Stomach, Colon, and liver. And under each parts, I summarized all the diseases that was covered, and under each diseases, it consisted of an overview of what it is, etiology, risk factors, signs and symptoms, pathophysiology, and treatment. Since all these apply to all of the diseases covered, I only wrote it once under the bullet point GERD, which stands for gastroesophageal reflux diseases.

Scoping the subject will only take me 5 to 10 minutes each time, and it is really useful as you will clearly know which part are you studying, and how it relates to the main picture. For example, if I am studying Hepatitis A, I will know that it is a liver disease, and there is also Hepatitis B and C, and there are also 2 other liver diseases called Jaundice and Cirrhosis.

In the past, I will often find myself studying something, but forget what is it about, or what I have studied 10 minutes ago. With this mindmap, I will clearly know what part of the lecture I am at. So, let’s say I am at the Colon part, studying IBD, which is Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, I can clearly know that I have already studied Gastroesophageal and Stomach, and still need to study about the Liver diseases.

This is especially useful if the topic is very large and content-heavy. For example, this is a mindmap that I did about the topic: Parasite.

Mindmap about Parasite

I classified them under 2 big chunks: Protozoa and Helminths. And under each chunks, I divided all the parasites by the areas that they infect in the body. So for those that infect the intestines, they are classified together, and for those that infect the blood, or CNS, which is Central Nervous System, they are classified together as well.

These are for subjects that do not have links between each topics. For example, digestive diseases can’t be linked with parasites, although they are under the same subject.

But for subjects such as Medical Biochemistry, every processes in the body can be linked. Medical Biochemistry is a subject that covers the different diseases in our body and link it to the chemical processes behind it.

For the final exam on this topic, I summarized all the lectures taught into a spider diagram on a single piece of paper, image below.

Spider diagram of lectures taught

During exams, I will have a mental picture of where a specific disease is, and if I can’t remember what part that it is linked to, I will think: Okay, I remember that this is at the top right part of the paper, and it is in green, then I will think of all the parts that were written in green, and then I will suddenly know the answer to the question. It may look very messy, but as long as you yourself can understand it, then it’s alright.

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For example, looking at the messy piece of paper above, my classmates may not understand it as they can’t read my handwriting (I know, it is very messy :)), but I can read and understand it, so it’s okay.

For Medical Biochemistry, there are about 12 to 13 topics, and I condensed the main concepts that will probably be tested into a piece of paper, and when I revise it, I will draw out the spider diagram, which, brings me to the next part that I will be talking about, known as Active Recall.

Active Recall

There are several ways where you can Active Recall, and these include: Closed book, making questions for yourself, and past year papers. For closed book, it is a method where you write down the main parts of the lecture down without referring to it. And when you are done, you can mark your work and do corrections beside it. It doesn’t have to look nice or be neat, as long as you know what you are writing.

This process is to evaluate what you know and what you do not know in that chapter. A lot of times, we will think that we understand or know something, but when it comes to writing the answers down in exams, we realized that we actually do not know it.

Hence, this method is very effective in testing yourself and be clear with the parts that you know or are still not sure with. What I did was that since I will mark my work afterwards, I will write the corrections in green pen, and when I review it, I will only look at the parts with green pen, which was where I got wrong or missed out something. In this way, I can quickly and effectively identify and revise the parts that I am getting wrong or forgot, and saves time on reviewing the parts that I am already familiar with.

The next Active Recall Study technique is known as Making Questions for Yourself. After every lecture, I will type out the possible questions that may be tested during exams, and print them out. I will do the questions a few days later, mark my work and review the parts that are written in green ink, just like what I mentioned just now.

Also, you may see words like: Awesome! Or, Good Job! once in a while. These may seem silly to you, but for me, it is a form of self-motivation and a way of making learning more fun for me. When I am revising and see the little reassuring words that I wrote for myself, it makes me happy and look forward to studying. Sometimes, I will also write little jokes for myself. It is important to find a way to make studying fun for yourself.

Again, when you do those questions, it doesn’t matter if your handwriting is nice or not, as long as you can understand it, it is good to go. But if you like everything to be neat and tidy, then you can write it nicely. For me, when I do things, I always have a priorities list. When I am revising and testing myself, my main priority is to be productive and get them done as soon as possible.

Hence, I will not mind if my handwriting is ugly as I am want to complete them as fast and accurate as possible. I will also shorten words that often pop up, for example, the word: Cell. During my revision, I will just draw a circle with a dot in the middle, which stands for nucleus. It will save you time and make studying more enjoyable.

Also a side note, my handwriting is not that ugly in real life. When submitting homework to teachers for example, the priority is submitting careful and good quality work, so my handwriting is neat on those. But for revision purposes, and me being the only one who will see the work, nice handwriting is at the very last of my priority list. For exams, my handwriting is equally bad, but legible. My priority during exams is to submit accurate answers, so I don’t have time to make my work aesthetically pleasing for the teachers. I rather finish the exam paper before time and use the extra time to double and triple check my work, than to submit a less accurate, but neat work. As long as the teachers can read it, I am submitting it. It is not my fault that there is a time limit during exams!

Lastly, is past year papers. They are very important as it will give you a rough estimate of the difficulty of the exam, as well as a good idea of what type of questions will be coming up. I recommend you to do past year papers under timed conditions, so that you know the speed that you need in order to complete the questions during exams. Just like before, I will mark it in red and do the corrections in green, and during revision sessions, I will just focus on the parts in green.

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Spaced Repetition

Spaced Repetition is a studying technique that you can use to review your lectures, notes, corrections, etc. It is based on the principle known as “The Forgetting Curve”. According to the curve, you review or re-memorize your learning materials right before you are about to forget them, and this method is very effective and time-saving. As you can see in the simple graph that I’ve drawn, for example, you were just taught Lecture ABC. You review it the day that is was taught, and then the following day, and 3 days later, a week later, 2 weeks later, etc.

There is no specific days that you follow, as everyone’s brain and length of content retention is different. For me, I will review it the day it was taught, and the the next day, 3 days later, 5 days later, a week later, and 2 weeks later. You can change it up according to what days suit you the best, and this process requires trial-and-error. The rough idea is that through spaced repetition, you don’t have to review your notes every other day, and only review them right before your brain is about to forget the information.

Lectures Excel Sheets

A useful tool to help you in the process is Excel Sheets, or Google Sheets. You can have all the lectures taught at the left column, and the dates where you have reviewed them in the right hand side column. You can colour-code it if you like. If you are still new and unfamiliar with the topic, leave it white. If you are very familiar with it, highlight it green. If you are somewhat familiar with if, highlight it orange, and for those that you definitely need to review, highlight them red. Through the method of colour-coding, you can clearly see which are the lectures that requires revision and those that do not require revision. Hence, you can save time and use your study sessions productively by only focusing on the parts that you are still not familiar with.

Rotate study subjects

You can change up your subjects during your study sessions. It is not necessary to stick to a single subject. Usually, I will do an hour of subject A, and the switch to an hour of subject B, and then to an hour of subject C.

Also, you need to be clear and be honest with yourself about the subjects that you are weak in and those that you are good in, and spend more of your time on the weaker subjects, or topics that you are not familiar with.

What I do is that I will start my study session with my weaker subjects, which are also subjects that I do not enjoy as much. As the day goes by, I will gradually switch to subjects that I am stronger at, which are also those that I enjoy studying. Through this way, although you may physically feel more and more tired as your study session goes on, but since you are slowly switching to the subjects that you really enjoy studying, you will mentally be more excited and hence, less tired as you will find yourself looking forward to studying the subject.

Also, starting your study session off with your weaker subjects allows you to be more focused in learning the topics as your mind is the most fresh at the beginning of study sessions.

Sleep and Power-naps

A lot of students do not think that sleep is important, and as the exam approaches, they will study until 3 or 4 am, or even, pull all-nighters. This is very unhealthy to you, both physically and mentally. The truth is, if you are consistent with your revision throughout your semester, there is no need to study until 3 or 4 am when exam approaches as you will already be pretty familiar with all the contents by then.

I always sleep for 8 hours, and sometimes, I will sleep for 7 hours. I do know a lot of classmates who sleep for 3 or 4 hours everyday, or when exam approaches. If you can survive that way, then good for you. Unfortunately I can’t, so I always stick to sleeping 8 hours every night. If you get a good night’s sleep, you will feel very refreshed the next day, and be more productive as compared to sleeping for 5 or 6 hours.

Although it may seem like you have saved 2 or 3 hours by cutting down on your sleep, you will probably be less productive during your study sessions. For example, to revise Chapter X, it will normally take you 1 hour but with less sleep, you take 1.5 or 2 hours instead, and not to mention the ability of your brain to retain and process those information is slower. Hence, sleep is very important.

Sometimes, even with 8 hours of sleep, I will still get sleepy, especially after lunch. What I do is I will take power naps that usually lasts 15 to 30 minutes. These power naps works wonders for me, and I feel so refreshed afterwards. The short burst of energy will help you focus much better after you wake up.

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Importance of Movement: Take breaks and change up your study environment

It is important to take breaks and change up your study environment as doing something new will wake up your brain and allow it to readjust. It is good to move around, for example, go to the toilet, go for a run, refill your water bottle, wash your face, go get a snack, etc. Moving around not only helps to keep you awake, but it is also scientifically proven to relief your stress and improve memorization and information retention.

Sometimes, I like to walk around the block while I am studying. I will take my notes with me, and memorize the materials by speaking to myself when I am walking about. I did get a few stares from other people in several occasions, but I don’t mind it. As long as you are not hurting others or doing something against the law, it is okay. I am much more productive during my walking sessions. Sometimes, I will also stand up instead of sitting down during studying sessions.

Changing up for study environment works similarly as taking a break for your brain. In a new environment, your brain will readjust itself and studying in a new situation will feel refreshing. For example, after a few weeks of studying at the school library, I will study at home for a few weeks, and then study at the public library for the next few weeks. This also keeps studying more exciting and fun.

I also like to study on the go. When I am on the bus to school or going back home after school, or exercising, or just doing the daily mundane activities such as brushing my teeth or showering, I like to study during these times as I find these quick study sessions productive for me. If I am doing something that is not convenient to hold the lecture notes, I will silently go through them in my head. So I will be thinking, Okay, for the lecture on parasites, there is ABCDE, and they cause XXX, the signs and symptoms are, XXX, the treatment are XXX. I am actually doing spaced repetition in this way. In the morning, I will look at the Excel sheet, and for example, the topic of parasites is highlighted in red, so I know that I must review them today. When I am doing the daily activities, I will just be going through the lecture in my head, and when I can sit down and physically see my lecture notes, I can quickly identify the parts that I have missed out and the parts that I got right. This will save a lot of time.

Motivate yourself with snacks or activities that you enjoy

Self-motivation is a very important skill to have, not only for studying, but also for the future when you are working. When I feel like I am getting sleepy during the study session, I will normally have snacks with me as a reward. For example, if I finish 3 questions, I will allow myself to have a slice of apple, or 1 biscuit or sweet. Through this way, studying sessions become more fun,enjoyable and is something that I look forward to.

If you are not food motivated, you can reward yourself through other means, such as watching an episode of your favourite TV show, or playing a few rounds of your favourite game after, for example, an hour of study session. Everyone is different and are motivated in different ways, hence you can customize it such that you personally get motivated in the studying process.

Study with others

If you are someone who like to study with your friends as seeing other people studying gives you motivation, this is a great way for you. Through group study sessions, you can help each other out and is both motivating and stimulating. As I mentioned earlier, everyone is different and have different methods that suit them. As for me, I prefer studying by myself and be in my own headspace while I study. If you are like me, studying at the library can be a great option for you as by being in the presence of others, you are less likely to fall alseep.

Good lighting

Our bodies are very smart, and are attuned to respond to environmental stimulations such as light and darkness. Studying in a dimly lit area can make you feel sleepy easily, hence, either on the light while you are studying at home, or sit in under a brightly lit area if you are studying outside. Although it seems insignificant, this can make a huge difference in improving your productivity. Additionally, sitting in a brighter area can boost your mood.


Staying productive, alert and focused can be challenging when you need to study, especially at the end of a long day. There are many methods to boost your energy level and avoid dozing off during study sessions. The key is to adopt effective study methods, and healthy study habits. You can do it!

Lastly, thank you very much for reading, I hope that you found it helpful, and if you want to see more contents like this, please leave your suggestions in the comment section down below, I would be very grateful for that!

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