Skip to main content

How I Write and Learn

Exam Prep: Eight Tips for Reading and Studying for the Long Haul

By Anna

Last fall, I realized that many of the study strategies and time management systems that I used as an academic coach could be helpful in my own life as a graduate student (and as an adult, in general). I was in the middle of reading for my Ph.D. qualifying exams and desperately needed a better system. (A list of nearly three hundred books to read in roughly a year felt daunting, to say the least.) Watching as my coaching students revelled in their newfound organizational skills and improved study strategies, I thought to myself, Gee, I should really try these, too.

Except that I didn’t. (At least not initially.)

For some time, I accepted my role as a coach who helped facilitate student growth but hadn’t “walked the walk.” I loved my work with students, but I felt like an imposter. This nagging feeling wouldn’t go away, and I knew it was communicating something important to me.


I don’t remember the exact moment that I made the shift. It must have been gradual. Leading the Academic Life Balance coaching group helped me be more accountable to myself because it required accountability from all participants. Then, I had several academic coaching appointments with Academic Coach Marc Howlett in which we discussed strategies to tackle the monstrous amount of reading I needed to get through. I started devising a system for myself, pulling on what I knew from my experience as an academic coach and as a lifelong learner. I asked myself questions: How and when do I learn best? What motivates me? How can I measure my progress?

And, will it be enough? (No, never. But also, yes. Yes, it can be.)

In the past months (years?) of reading, here is what I discovered:

  1. Recalling what I’ve read from memory truly tests whether I know something. I use this strategy after each selection I’ve read, and then I find details from the text and marginal notes after I’ve recalled as much content as I can. From this handout on note-taking while reading, I knew that forcing myself to recall the material would help me extract main ideas from my readings rather than get mired in details. And, it would show how much I had actually retained.
  2. Talking to my partner about my readings has been more fun than I imagined. Because he’s not in my field, I’m forced to explain things clearly (he calls me out on my jargon), which really tests how well I know the material. This handout on study skills helped me realize how valuable teaching the material to someone else could be in my own learning process.
  3. Keeping notes organized in Evernote has been a game changer. I can now study and review on the fly because the app links to all my devices. In my case, I have literary theory and novels to read and remember, so I have created separate “notebooks” that contain notes for each title. My notebooks are organized by author and title so that I can easily return to any note.
  4. Reviewing on a whiteboard can be a fun way for me to measure progress. I aim to review five to ten theorists per week. I jot down what I remember about their works on my whiteboard and then refer to my notes when I’ve recalled all that I can. (Full disclosure: I bought a whiteboard specifically for this purpose because I struggled to review my notes after having taken them.).
    A whiteboard with a message hangs on a wall with five colored markers. The message says "You can do it!" with a smiley face.
    The whiteboard can also be a great place to write encouraging messages to myself!
    The whiteboard can also be a great place to write encouraging messages to myself!
  5. Pacing Myself. This has been my longtime motto, because everyone in a Ph.D. program knows that we’re in it for the long haul. I’ve been trying to average no more than five hours of focused reading a day to avoid burnout. Balance is key.
  6. Using the Pomodoro Technique (or some method, any method!). I’ve become a full-on Pomodoro convert. Fifty minute sessions with ten minute breaks work well for me, and I aim for five per day. (I’ll probably increase this number once I’m no longer working at the Learning Center during the summer, but, for now, I accept this amount of time as enough.) Of course, the length of sessions and breaks can be adjusted based on individual preferences and needs. One of my fellow writing coaches has a wonderful blog post outlining his own journey with the Pomodoro Technique.
  7. Meeting with a coach to check in has been so helpful. Even though I feel I should know what I need to do by now, I gain so much from weekly or bimonthly check-ins.
  8. Staying Curious. This mindset has guided me to my true interests rather than to a cloud of “shoulds.” I use this mantra to check in with myself and see what I’m getting out of each reading. If I realize the reading won’t be useful to me, I move on. I like this video on the growth mindset. It reminds me that I am capable of learning and developing new abilities even if, at times, I feel intimidated by the sheer amount of reading I have to do.


Update: I’m still reading, taking notes, and testing myself on the material I’ve learned!

It has taken time to develop these practices, and it has required a lot of trial and error. Now that I have these tools, I know that when something’s not working, it needs to get tweaked. So, when frustration inevitably arises, I turn inward rather than immediately seek out another book on what to do–goodness knows, I’m already reading enough of those.

This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here.

Comments are closed.