3 Do's and Don'ts for Healthy Studying in College

From over-the-counter ‘study aids’ to hammocks, here’s what college students should use or avoid.

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In his more than 25 years of service as associate dean of academic advising at Marquette University, Robert Neuman observed many unhealthy study habits—from students trying to concentrate with their electronic devices nearby, to believing "their well-honed cramming skills" from high school could work in college. 

"All these factors set off a crippling chain reaction that leads to low grades, dropped courses, changed majors, and changed colleges—resulting in delaying graduation. Only about 35 percent of students graduate on time; nearly 65 percent take six years or longer. The financial consequences are devastating," says Neuman, who is author of Are You Really Ready for College—A College Dean's 12 Secrets for Success

Health professionals, student services officers, and current college students share advice on study habits and conditions to embrace—and some to avoid—if you want to do well academically without compromising your health or graduation timeline.

[Read about how teens are taking their study groups online.]

1. Where to sit: Students can choose from many kinds of chairs for their own living spaces, many with manufacturers' promises of perfect posture and fixes to back problems. The marketing materials for one product, the Aeron chair, even boast of its fixture in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

A seating option being marketed directly to students is the hammock. Seth Haber, founder and chief executive officer of Trek Light Gear, based in Boulder, Colo., says he has sold 6,000 to 8,000 hammocks to graduate and undergraduate students over the past eight years.

"Students are often under a lot of stress, which can have a negative impact on their grades, sleep, health, and everything in between," Haber says. "The hammocks that I sell aren't your ordinary backyard hammock. They're extremely lightweight and portable, which means they can be set up just about anywhere from the quad to the study lounge to the bedroom."

Lucas Harris used a hammock frequently as an undergraduate at Iowa State University. "I would definitely recommend it to students," he says. "The flexibility of hanging options and portability made it an easy choice for me to bring my hammock around instead of trying to find a dry patch of grass to sit on."

[Read seven ways teenagers can learn more without more study.]

Harris says that sitting on a chair can develop "uncomfortable pressure points," which is why he recommends students use hammocks instead. The only caveat he adds is that hammocks can have a lack of space to spread out books and papers.

2. Whether to use medicinal 'study aids': Some students swear by energy drinks, Adderall, NoDoz capsules, and a variety of other "study drugs" as stimulants that make it easier to pull all-nighters. But health professionals discourage using drugs as study tools, even if they can be obtained over the counter.

"Medications are not recommended for use during studying unless prescribed by a physician to aid in the facilitation of concentration, [to] reduce anxiety, or [to] allow for more effective information processing," says Laura Forbes, associate professor of health education at the University of Alabama—Birmingham. "While the ability to study long hours may be an indication of achievement, ... there are better means of self-care when academically preparing."

Forbes says studies recommend that students sleep six to eight hours the night before a test, eat foods high in protein, and hydrate themselves.

Alex Song-Xia, a freshman at New York University, says she drank Red Bull "almost exclusively" in her first semester. Though she admits drinking so much Red Bulls wasn't healthy, Song-Xia says the drink helped her stay focused in early classes and stay alert while doing homework.

"I wouldn't say there's no crash, but one can [of Red Bull] has helped me stay up all night before," she says.

Song-Xia adds that she has heard of other students selling Adderall or other prescription drugs to classmates for use as study aids. "I think it's pretty common knowledge around college campuses these days," she says.