Study Strategies

It is important to realize you can't know every single thing on the NCLEX. We want you to utilize a variety of learning tools to minimize your test taking anxiety and to build a strong foundation and increase your confidence. When you walk out of the test center, want you to feel confident that you were as prepared as possible and you gave it all you had! Please let us know how we can help. Email us at or give us a call at (319) 237-7162.

Use “snatches” of time. Think of all the time you spend waiting: 5 minutes waiting in line, 15 minutes waiting at the doctor’s office, 10 minutes waiting for a meal, 10 minutes waiting for a friend to meet you... Use those moments to your advantage. You can keep flashcards on you, MP3s of your notes to listen to (those are great for long drives), and NCLEX Mastery for quizzes. If you sneak in just an extra 30 minutes a week this way (which is easy to do!), that adds up to 25 hours of extra study time over the year with barely any effort!

Vary your review methods. Another way to create alternate pathways for information recall is to create diverse associations for the material. Study in different places and reinforce the information with your different senses. Try reading your notes aloud; you can even record it and listen to it during your commute or while exercising. Color code the endocrine system on your flashcards. Draw out mind maps of conditions and symptoms. You can even quiz yourself on anatomy in the lab by tracing your fingers along blood vessels or bones on the anatomical models with a friend and quizzing each other. 

Set goals for your studying. Avoid becoming overwhelmed by knowing what you plan to accomplish and keeping it realistic. Plan how long you will study, what material you plan to cover, and when you will stop. Your goals may be to study new lecture material for 90 minutes, to quiz yourself from a “chunk” of material from earlier in the semester for 30 minutes, and to answer 50 NCLEX questions. When you accomplish this, stop. Then reward yourself by meeting up with a friend or watching a movie, whatever you enjoy. In your senior year, increase the time spent taking NCLEX quizzes and track your progress. This is a plan for success!

Use an appointment book or calendar to keep track of your classes and clinicals, due dates, exams, and to schedule study time. Don’t waste your mental energy trying to keep track of all of this in your head. Many colleges have a Google calendar you can import to automatically add school breaks to your agenda. Using an online calendar will also allow you to schedule study groups and coordinate more easily with other students.

Your study location should be comfortable and distraction-free. Plan ahead and bring anything you’ll need to avoid having to cut the session short, and always bring snacks and water. You can minimize distractions with apps for your computer or phone that will block social media and specific websites while you study. There are also websites that broadcast free white noise or background music to drown out distracting noises. Make it easy to focus!

Study in shorter sessions to improve focus. Three sessions of three hours each will earn greater rewards than a nine-hour study session. Take a break every hour to get up and stretch, take a drink, and walk away from your desk. If you are having trouble concentrating, write down whatever thoughts are interrupting you on a list. This will let you clear you mind and give you an actionable to-do list for later.

Participate in study groups. Small groups of 3-6 are best because it’s easier to stay on task and keep the side talk to a minimum. Study partners can share assigned reading and take turns explaining the material to the group, reinforcing the information and exposing you to ideas you may not have considered on your own. Members of the group can also consolidate their lecture notes and work together to identify the information that is likely to be included on tests.

Budget time in your schedule for studying. Let your family, roommates, or kids know that this is your time to focus on school work, and make agreements with them to respect this rule. Study away from home, if necessary. In fact, researchers have found that varying your study location improves retention, so identifying alternate study spots is a good idea.

Plan your study times for when you are most awake. This will allow you to direct your full resources at the task. Study more challenging topics first and get them out of the way to feel more accomplished. Then review any new material, and also a “chunk” of older material you haven’t revisited in a while. Especially for the older information, use quizzing to reinforce those memory pathways!

To improve your memory of a topic, start with organization of the overarching concept. Start each new module by skimming the entire section of the text covered to identify the material that will be taught. This will give you a framework that will help you think ahead as the information is put together in lecture. Try to read the chapter summary just before your lecture, even if the reading assignment comes after class. You will be a more active learner because instead of hearing it all for the first time, you will anticipate where things are going and may think of questions and examples of application of the material. This is higher-level understanding that comes with being more familiar with the information.

Use your resources! Many textbooks come with online materials that include animations or downloadable MP3s to explain some of the more complex topics as well as study guides and extra practice questions. Read every chapter introduction for new terms and concepts that are being introduced and the chapter review for a concise summary of the material. Don’t forget to do the practice questions at the end of each chapter in your text, too. Every practice question helps!

If your instructors lecture along with a PowerPoint presentation, either print the slides before class or bring a laptop to type notes on each slide during the lecture. This keeps you engaged during the lecture (rather than only audio recording it for later) and keeps all your notes and related information together. Pro-tip: If you add your notes using the “outline” view in PowerPoint, you can easily copy and paste all of those notes into a word-processing document later for easier editing and studying.

Long-term memory is more reliable than short-term memory, especially in stressful situations (like an exam day!). Moving information from short to long-term memory requires time and repetition. Research shows that if you review material within 24 hours of initially learning it, your retention increases by 60%. To significantly reduce the time required to study in nursing school, always review your lecture notes the same evening after the lecture. If you reorganize your notes or type them up/edit them, this counts!

“Spacing” your study sessions is one way to improve recall and retention without any extra work or overall effort. Studies have confirmed that by waiting and revisiting material after allowing it to become a bit “fuzzy,” it forces the brain to create more varied “memory traces.” When learners are prompted to retrieve information after a period of time (after 5 days and again at 10 days, for example), it alters the way the information is stored for easier retrieval. For this reason, it is best to review information in “chunks” and to take practice quizzes on the material at various times throughout the semester, not just right after the lecture or before the exam. Set aside times to revisit material later and quiz your study partners to boost those memory pathways.

Use brainstorming to create connections and link information. Not being able to recall information is part of the learning process. When you “draw a blank,” instead of immediately looking it up, try brainstorming what you do know. Write down everything you can remember related to the topic and try to recall any examples you may have heard in class or clinicals. As you link all the data together, you may remember the information, but even if you have to look it up, you’ll connect pieces that will make it easier to “put together” next time!

Nursing school requires a much higher level of commitment and focus than most other college programs, but that dedication will pay off! Laying a foundation of organization and good study habits from the start will help you make the most efficient use of you time, but even if you’re trying to “catch up” these tips can helps you get back on track. Remember that every action counts and you can always start where you are and refocus.