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School skills: What successful nursing students do

By: Jennifer Chicca, MS, RN, and Teresa Shellenbarger, PhD, RN, CNE, ANEF

Mastering these skills can help you reach your educational goals.

Congratulations on your decision to return to nursing school. Your continued pursuit of knowledge is important for the future of nursing, healthcare, education, and research. Whether you’re returning as an undergraduate or graduate student, you’ll likely face many challenges and competing responsibilities, such as family and work obligations, that can hinder degree completion. School can be overwhelming, but mastering certain skills—effective reading, good notetaking, smart studying, and self-testing— can help you succeed and attain your personal and professional goals.

Read effectively

Successful nursing students not only do their assigned readings, but they also read effectively and efficiently. Nothing is worse than spending hours reading only to realize you didn’t understand what you read. You must actively read and engage with the material to enhance your understanding. So, how do you read effectively?

Try the SQ3R (or SQRRR) approach: survey, question, read, recite, and review. When you begin any reading, survey the assignment first. Skim the headings, tables, illustrations, charts, and other materials to get a broad overview. You also may want to determine how much time the assigned reading will take and then break it into manageable chunks. Smaller bursts of reading may be better than extended hours.

After the survey, ask questions about the reading to help you prepare to read it effectively. (See Questions before reading.)

Now you’re ready to actively read thoroughly and slowly to understand the material. Look up unfamiliar words as necessary, and don’t ignore tables, illustrations, charts, figures, and other materials such as glossaries and practice questions. They’re designed to assist you and check your understanding. Difficult concepts may require you to read the material several times. Your first reading is intended to give you a broad overview of the topic while helping you create a framework for understanding, so don’t read with a highlighter or pen. Later readings will allow you to gain more comprehensive knowledge and understanding; that’s when you judiciously highlight or underline to identify key or critical concepts.

Next, recite what you read to check your understanding. In other words, try to summarize or rephrase the text in your own words. You can do this by writing your own notes, drawing figures or diagrams to show concept connections, or speaking out loud. Answer questions such as “What does it mean?” and “Why is it important?”

When you finish, briefly review what you read to help reinforce your learning and correct misunderstandings. As you review, reflect on what may still be unclear or confusing. You may need to repeat some of the steps in the SQ3R approach if you’re struggling to understand and retain information.

Questions before reading

Before you begin any reading assignment, ask yourself these questions:

What do I know about this topic?
What do I need to know about this topic?
What can I expect to learn from this reading?
How long will this reading assignment take?

Take good notes

Attend class, pay attention, and take notes that will facilitate recall. Successful students know not to write down everything the teacher says. Instead, they capture the main ideas and topics that are unfamiliar. Ask yourself, “Is this an important note to take?” or “Do I need to write this down to remember it?” As you listen to the teacher, connect what you’re hearing with what you already know and have read. Abbreviations, symbols, and acronyms are good notetaking shortcuts but remember that they need to make sense to you later.

Technology use during class can be tempting but consider placing your phone out of sight with the ringer silenced and turning off electronic devices such as your laptop. Use paper and pencil or pen for notetaking. Research suggests that handwritten notes help students more effectively retain material than typed notes. (See The pen is mightier than the keyboard.) Also pay attention to teacher cues. Important information is often repeated and emphasized. And remember, if the information is unclear, ask questions.

The pen is mightier than the keyboard

Mueller and Oppenheimer studied handwriting versus laptop notetaking in their research. They focused solely on notetaking whereas previous studies had focused on students’ capacities for multitasking and distractions when using laptops in class. The authors noted that students who took notes on laptops tended to copy down every word the teachers said, but that students who wrote notes by hand recited, reframed, and summarized the teachers’ words. This led to deeper learning and improved scores.

Study smart

One of the first ways to study smart is to regularly review your notes, readings, and other materials. Study in short bursts, perhaps 45 to 90 minutes, before taking a 15- to 20-minute break. If your mind starts to wander, take a break. Try to physically walk away from the material and allow time to process the information so that it sinks in. Set goals for your study sessions. For example, you might plan to review three pages of your notes each day. Don’t cram or procrastinate.

You also should carefully select a place to study. Whether your study space is at home or out of the house, you want to study without interruptions. Research suggests that learning is harder with background noise, so find a quiet location. Consider the library or campus study rooms. No matter your location, try to avoid distractions such as email, the Internet, or television.

When studying, focus on major concepts and applying knowledge rather than just recalling individual pieces of information. Ask yourself questions such as “Why is this important?” and “How will this help me in my current and/or future role?” Develop a real-life example, teach yourself the material, and link the topic to images or patient situations you’ve encountered in practice. You may want to consider studying with a partner or group, asking each other practice questions and teaching each other concepts. This also presents an opportunity to hear others discuss concepts so you can check your understanding. Group study time should remain focused; don’t get sidetracked with discussions about personal activities.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with study strategies that will work for you. For example, draw yourself a diagram, make a table, or create a concept map. Some successful students also develop mnemonics, abbreviations, or other memory aids to help them remember content. (See Mnemonics: A memory tool.)

When reviewing materials, many students try to master one topic or concept before moving on to the next, but interleaving may help with long-term retention. Try studying one topic until you have a general understanding and then move onto the next topic. Continue in this manner for several topics. Then, return to the original topic and repeat the process. This interleaved or interspersed learning helps you permanently learn material by revisiting concepts over time.

Mnemonics: A memory tool

Study strategies and memory tools can help you retain the information you learn in class and reading assignments. Mnemonics, for example, can help you memorize a variety of concepts, including disease processes, by creating word clues. The mnemonics below can aid in learning the symptoms of left-sided (FORCED) vs. right-sided (BACONED) heart failure.


Extreme weakness


Distended neck veins

Test yourself and others

Your active engagement in learning as an adult student will help ensure your success, so test yourself to determine what you know and what you don’t. (see Quizzing yourself: Sample question stems). You also may benefit from repetition through drill and practice activities. You can make paper or digital flashcards to practice. With computer applications like StudyBlue or Quizlet, you can create electronic flashcards for use with your phone or other digital devices. Though flashcards are a good way to learn terminology, memorize facts, or recall data, don’t forget to focus on understanding and practice application.

In addition to testing yourself, quizzing others can be helpful. Study group members can take turns asking each other questions and helping each other understand important concepts. Exchange phone numbers and email addresses with your peers so you can provide each other with insights and explanations when you need help.

Quizzing yourself: Sample question stems

Quizzing yourself (and others) can aid in uncovering what you understand and what needs clarification. Use these stems to form questions on specific topics.

What if _____________ happens?
What are the consequences/effects of _________?
Which _______ is most important?
Why would we do _____________ intervention?
How does _________ apply to my current and/or future role?
What other reasons are there for ___________?
What would likely happen after ______________?
What data are there to support ____________?
What are some alternatives to ____________? What would be the advantages and disadvantages to each alternative?
Why would I do ___________?
When would ___________ occur?
What would happen if _________?

Ask for help

Don’t forget to tap into faculty for help. Visit them during office hours or schedule a meeting if you’re having difficulty understanding material. Attend any review sessions and be sure to review faculty-provided materials. Handouts and other supplements are provided to support your learning, so use them.

Mastering skills

Attending nursing school offers many advantages to you and the profession, but it can be challenging. The best way to overcome those challenges is to master the school skills most likely to help you succeed.

The authors work at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pennsylvania. Jennifer Chicca is a doctoral (PhD) candidate and graduate assistant. Teresa Shellenbarger is a distinguished university professor and doctoral program coordinator.

Selected references

Fiorella L, Mayer RE. Eight ways to promote generative learning. Educ Psychol Rev. 2016;28(4):717-41.

Hanczakowski M, Beaman CP, Jones DM. Learning through clamor: The allocation and perception of study time in noise. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2018;147(7):1005-22.

Lang JM. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2016.

Mueller PA, Oppenheimer DM. The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop notetaking. Psychol Sci. 2014;25(6):1159-68.

Yue CL, Storm BC, Kornell N, Bjork EL. Highlighting and its relation to distributed study and students’ metacognitive beliefs. Educ Psychol Rev. 2015;27(1):69-78.

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