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Physical Sciences: Study skills and tips


Studying at university involves building on your existing skills and developing new ones. Cambridge University Libraries are here to support you with your studies and the following page covers some of the essential skills you need together with our top tips. If you need help at any point you can contact your departmental librarian or the Physical Sciences Research Support Team for more information.

Time management

Clock graphicPlanning your time effectively is one of the most helpful skills you can develop. You will have multiple readings, supervisions and deadlines to fit into your day and we know that it can seem overwhelming. The good news is that there are many tools and techniques available to help your think about what you need to do, set priorities and manage your time.

1. Think about how you are currently spending your time

As you work through your tasks make a note of what you find easy, what you find harder, any distractions you might face and how you dealt with them. It also helps to think about any particular times of day when you feel especially productive. Some of us work better in the mornings, others work well later at night whilst for some it doesn't seem to matter. Although it's not always possible to work at your preferred times, knowing when they are can help you to better plan your schedule.

2. Set your priorities

Once you know how you are currently spending your time you can start to solve any problems and capitalise on what is working well. Having multiple tasks on your to-do list can seem overwhelming but the key is to set priorities so that you work on the most important things first. There are several techniques you can use to do this but one of the best is the Eisenhower Method. Named after the US president it allows you to divide your tasks into four groups to see which you need to work on first. If a tasks is important and urgent then it goes to the top of the pile. If you are interested in this technique you can read more about the Eisenhower Method on the Product Plan website. 

Eisenhower Matrix
3 Write a to-do list

To-do lists have come a long way since they were scribbled on the back of envelopes. Writing a to-do list helps you to remember what you need to do and gives you a sense of achievement when you are dealing complete a task. You can of course rely on the traditional pen and paper but there are lots of list and project management apps available which mean you can take your list anywhere you're working. Trello, ToDoist,  and are all easy to use and don't forget that you have access to Office 365 through the University so you could also use Microsoft ToDo. Our top tip: make 'write to-do list' your first entry. That way you can cross something off straight away!

4. Set SMART goals

Once you know what which order you need to tackle your tasks in it's time to set yourself some goals. SMART goals follow the formula below and turn a vague goal such as 'write essay' into something you will actually be able to do.

S - Specific

M - Measurable

A - Achievable

R -Realistic

T - Timely

By making your goals SMART you can develop a plan to follow rather than just trying to finish something. You can read more about SMART goals and time management on the MindTools website.

Even more study skills...

Our colleagues across Cambridge Libraries have developed a huge range of study skills guides that you might find helpful. You can find all of these guides via the homepage but we've put together a list of some of the best below:


The important thing to remember about notes is that they are designed as a way for you to remember and react to the key points of a lecture, reading or other source. As long as the system you use works for you the it doesn't matter which one you like. You may find that you end up using different methods depending on the topic or assignment you are working on so it's always good to have a range of methods in your toolkit.

If you have not yet found a method you prefer there are several established techniques to chose from. You can find some suggestions below:

Note-taking methods

Example of the Cornell MethodThe Cornell Method is one of the most popular techniques for recording academic notes. This template offer space for you to record your main thoughts on a topic or reading but also prompts you for some extra information. You can record the title, author and page numbers of what you're reading - vital when it comes to good referencing. There is space at the side of the page for you to note down any keyword, thoughts and questions about a topic which can help you start to think more about what you are reading and how it connects with other ideas. Finally there is space at the bottom of the page to summarise your reading in your own words. Find out more about the Cornell Method.

You can read a summary of the pros and cons of these and other methods on the LifeHack website.

Outline MethodThe Outline Method involves thinking about the main points of a reading and using these as headers to make further notes. Under each of these main headings you can record as many sub-headings as needed followed by any evidence which backs this up or thoughts you have about the material. This method requires you to think about the main topics in your reading and may work best after you have already read through the material once to get an idea of what is being said. The main advantage of this method is that it makes it simple to determine the main points of the reading which is useful for quick revision of a topic. Find out more about the Outline Method.

You can read a summary of the pros and cons of these and other methods on the LifeHack website.

Mind mappingMind mapping is a great way to explore connections. It's also useful if you respond to more visual methods rather than lots of text. Sometimes referred to as spider diagrams, mind maps put a topic at the centre and then draw branches to sub-topics. These can be further divided into more sub-topics and so on. Limited space means that this type of note-taking won't be as detailed but this can stop the problem of just copying down what you have read. The main advantage to this method is that it is easy to draw connections between ideas to help you build up a picture of current thinking. This is especially useful if you're doing any type of literature review. Find out more about mind mapping.

You can read a summary of the pros and cons of these and other methods on the LifeHack website.

Making good notes

Whichever method you are using it's important that it you use it well. Any notes you make should be purposeful and meaningful to you and your work - if you are just copying extracts of textbooks or articles there is something wrong. Your notes are a way to make sense of what you are learning and start to draw connections. Good notes should record the main points in your own words. Not only does this help you to better understand what you are reading but avoids accidental plagiarism when you put these notes into practice. Make sure that you record the full reference details for whatever you read so that you can attribute ideas to the right authors. There is nothing worse than the stress of hunting for the page number of a quote you want to use the night before an essay is due in! Try and record what YOU think about what you're reading, in a separate space if needed. This can help you start to form connections and arguments that you will need to use in assignments. If you can, try and leave some gaps on your page so that you can go back and add more information later if needed. 

If you prefer to take notes in a digital format there are several options to choose from.

  • Microsoft OneNote - all Cambridge staff and students have access to Office365 including OneNote. This tools allows you to organise your notes into multiple tabs and notebooks as well as adding in extra materials such as scans and images.
  • Notability - the app version of this tool can be used to capture handwritten notes on the go. 
  • Mindmapping - if you like using mind maps there are several tools available such as Mindmeister and WiseMapping.
  • Audio notes - most mobile phones come with note-taking and audio apps to capture thoughts on the go.

Work smarter

Organise your work space

Image of an organised deskA tidy desk equals a tidy mind! Think about how you can organise your physical and digital workspaces so you have what you need to hand. Think about an organisation system for your notebooks, files and emails, minimise potential disruptions and make sure you have space to keep your coffee cup away from your laptop! Being able to have what you need to hand will stop you from having to go and find it and the potential distractions this will cause.

Organise your day

Image of a tomatoWhen you wake up a whole day seems like a lot of time but the time can quickly get used up and you find that you haven't achieved what you set out to. If you have trouble pacing your day or devoting time to a task you might want to try out the Pomodoro method. This technique was developed in the 1980s as a way to break down work into intervals and build in breaks. 

  • Decide on the task you want to complete/work on
  • Set a 25 minute timer 
  • Work on the task until the timer sounds. Put a checkmark on a piece of paper. 
  • Take a break. If you have made fewer than 4 checkmarks, take a short (3-5 minute) break. When you have had your break, reset your timer and get back to work!
  • After four checkmarks, take a longer (15-30 minute) break. Reset your checkmarks to 0 and continue on.

The Pomodoro technique is great because it just requires a timer (and discipline!). You can use a stopwatch, or a phone timer, or you can use a browser extension such as  Be Focused (Mac, iOS), Marinara (Chrome) or a web-based timer such as

Minimise distractions

The world is full of distractions! If you find yourself easily sidetracked or falling into the trap of procrastinating there are several tools out there to help you. If digital distraction is an issue then try an app such as Forest or StayFocused to help you avoid spending too much time on unnecessary websites like social media. You might also want to try turning off your email/Teams notifications for a set period. You can read more about avoiding digital distractions in this blog post from the Faculty of Education Research Students' Association. 

Reflective practice

Being able to reflect is a valuable skill to have both during your studies and as you move on to the workplace. Even if it is not immediately obvious from the description, many assignments contain some form of reflection. Courses will increasingly expect you to reflect on your own learning, either formally or informally. This reflection can help you to assess what has gone well, identify areas for improvement and set achievable goals.

You can find out more about reflection and how to use it in the the Reflective Practice Toolkit

3 What's Model of reflection - what, so what, now what?

Searching the literature

Pile of books iconDid you know that as a member of the University of Cambridge you have access to millions of books and journal articles to support you in your studies? We think this is fantastic but we also understand that it can be overwhelming if you are unsure where to start. Don't worry - we have you covered. You can learn more about searching the literature in this handy online, self-paced course from Cambridge University Libraries. The course is on Moodle so you will need to log in and enroll using your Raven password.

Critical reading

Book with pencil iconAt a university level reading is different. You will be set some core readings by lecturers and tutors but you will also be expected to supplement this with your own reading. Your time is precious and it's important that you make the best use of when reading for an assignment. This Cambridge University Libraries online course on critical reading can help you to better understand what you are reading and how to use it in your studies. The course is on Moodle so you will need to log in and enroll using your Raven password.


Image of a desk with laptopReferencing your sources is a vital part of good academic practice but it can be confusing to know what to reference and how to do it. For more information about referencing, reference managers and academic integrity you can check out our dedicated referencing page which tells you everything you need to know.

Learning online

We are all likely to have more experience with learning online than we did two years ago. It is a different environment to the physical classroom and requires thought and behaviour adjustments from all involved. he Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning has developed some excellent guidance on learning from lecture recordings including their twelve top tips.


CamGuides logo​CamGuides is an open educational resource designed to introduce students to study at Cambridge. Even if you have been with us a while you will find lots of tips and handy hints about finding and using information as well as details on areas such as maintaining an online presence and managing your data. Use CamGuides to get an overview of a topic or to refresh your knowledge at any point.

CamGuides has sections for both undergraduate and master's students.


Although it's not strictly a study skill, taking care of your wellbeing is a vital part of studying. Burnout is a serious problem which can impact your health as well as your studies. It's important to take time to take care of yourself and ask for any help if you need it.

A full list of support services can he found on the University webpages (Raven login required)

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