Welcome to nursing school, where everything you thought you knew about learning, studying, and taking exams is totally thrown out the window! Why? Because never before have you been required to learn so much content, think critically, and solve problems on your feet, and in such a time crunch.

Doing well in nursing school (and passing your exams) will require you to change the approach you’ve taken to studying up until this point. But the fact that you are here reading this means that you will have the tools and resources you need to do exactly that!

In this guide, we are going to give you game-changing tips you can use to accelerate your learning journey in nursing school, thereby preparing you to take on those final exams and the NCLEX with total confidence!

[And when you're ready for that next step, make sure you check out '5 Keys to passing the NCLEX nursing exam!']

Hi! We’re Brainscape

We’re the brains, minds, and hearts behind the world’s smartest study app. We’ve brought together some of the most experienced people in the realm of nursing and the NCLEX to compile a comprehensive collection of study guides (like this one) and digital flashcards for nursing school. In fact, you can get your hands on complete flashcard sets for each topic covered in nursing school here:

What sets Brainscape apart from any other study app is that our learning platform works WITH the way your brain is biologically hardwired to help you learn, understand, and MEMORIZE all your nursing school content TWICE as fast as any traditional study methods you’ve been using. (Check out 'How to use Brainscape in nursing school' to squeeze the very most value out of our web and mobile app!)

So, now that you know who we are, let’s dive into our best tips for studying in nursing school!

Tip # 1: Prime your brain to learn with prep BEFORE class

How to prime your brain to learn

In high school, you probably only picked up your textbook to study when you knew a test or exam was coming. And even then you probably only did that a week or a few days before. But when you consider the volume of information covered in nursing school (and the rate at which it’s delivered to you), the smartest thing you can do is review the relevant material BEFORE class. What does this mean?

  • Briefly read through the relevant textbook sections, so you know what’s coming;
  • Make a skeleton outline of the content, which you can then flesh out in class (or afterwards when you come back to consolidate your notes);
  • Carefully read the chapter summary and attempt to answer the end-of-chapter questions (these will tell you what your key take-aways are); and
  • Write down any questions you might have about the content.

The goal is not to know the chapter inside-and-out, but rather to give yourself a thorough preview of what's coming the next day in class, and to prepare your notes so that you aren’t overwhelmed with the rate at which the information is delivered in class.

Doing this will help you:

  1. Separate out the chapter’s most crucial knowledge from that which isn’t as important (which will help you prioritize when it comes to studying for exams);
  2. Identify and address any problem areas you may have; and
  3. Sit back and actually listen in class, as opposed to desperately having to scribble down notes, which only pulls your attention away from your instructor.

All of this PRIMES your brain for learning, which means you’ll soak up what your instructor has to say so much more efficiently than your classmates who do zero prep before class.

Tip # 2: Prioritize what’s covered in class

You’ll have A LOT of reading to do in nursing school. Every week, your instructors will probably send you home with multiple textbook chapters and outside resources to review. Initially, you might carefully read through every single assignment and make notes (because you’re excited and motivated at the outset). But you’ll quickly become burned out as you fight to stay on top of the relentless tidal wave of information.

This is why our next tip is to pay careful attention to what’s covered in class. Yes, I know this sounds obvious. But really! Consider things like: What are the key points covered in class? What topics does your instructor spend time on? Etc.

While extra knowledge is great and all, you have to admit that your real goal is to stealthily identify what is likely to show up on an exam. (#amirite) Forcing yourself to evaluate the importance of each concept is a great way to flex your metacognition muscles.

By attaining ninja-level calibration of our attention, you can become a better studier and a more discerning reader. Speaking of which…

Tip # 3: Get good at skim-reading

How to skim read, speed read

Following on from our previous tip, learn how to skim-read. Skim-reading gives you a 30,000-foot view of a chapter or article’s scope, how the content is structured, and what’s important*.

*You can usually tell this from the article’s headings and subheadings, and what’s been highlighted, repeated, and/or included in the chapter summary/question section.

Skim-reading gives you the basic picture of what’s covered—and the key take-aways—without having to invest a ton of time. If a chapter covers a lot of important content then you can then re-read it, this time with targeted focus, making detailed notes, and writing down any questions you might have.

If, on the other hand, the reading is more supportive in nature to what you already know or have covered in class, you can write down any additional nuggets you deem worthy. Or simply move on to other, more important reading.

Check out: ‘How to read faster and better’ and ‘The dangerous truth about speed reading for students

Tip # 4: Use flashcards alongside your coursework to efficiently memorize the facts

Reading, listening in class, and taking notes is half the work done. The other half is taking all that information and ingraining it in your memory so that you can use it to answer exam questions and, ultimately, solve very real healthcare scenarios!

The best way to memorize the mountains of facts in nursing school?

Flashcards! But not the paper ones: those are SO last century. Nowadays, there are flashcard apps you can get on your phone (or any device), which enable you to study your nursing school content anytime, anywhere. And best of them all is Brainscape!

Brainscape has taken the latest test curriculum for the EIGHT core topics covered in nursing school and broken them down into comprehensive sets of flashcards, saving you hours of work doing it yourself:

These expert-curated collections of web and mobile flashcards cover the most important and commonly-tested concepts you have to know to pass nursing school with flying colors, setting you up for enormous success for the final licensing exam, the NCLEX, and a career in nursing.

Brainscape flashcards for nursing school
Screenshots of Brainscape’s mobile app showing the question side of a pharmacology flashcard (left) and the answer side of the flashcard (right). By rating how well you knew the answer to this flashcard using the colorful buttons at the bottom of the screen, Brainscape’s algorithm determines the best time interval at which to repeat that concept.

But the real “secret sauce” is Brainscape’s learning algorithm, which delivers information to your brain in a way that optimizes its ability to retain that information. And it does this by leveraging your brain’s biological hardwiring to make memorization TWICE as efficient.

So download Brainscape’s flashcards for the particular topic you’re currently studying and use them to memorize the content as you progress through that subject in nursing school. By the end of the chapter, you’ll have ingrained the most important facts, which—provided you follow the next tip—will save you TONS of time later on when final exams roll around.

Tip # 5: Regularly review older material so you never forget anything

How spaced repetition words illustration
Each time Brainscape repeats a concept at the perfectly determined time interval FOR YOU, your "forgetting curve" (how quickly you forget after that exposure) is shifted out to the right, meaning that you will now remember that concept for even longer before the next repetition.

Your brain isn’t a bottomless repository for every fact you have ever encountered. If you learn a concept but never use it or see it again, it’s probably going to “fall out the back of the truck” after a few days or weeks. It’s called the “forgetting curve” and it’s why you forget things after a period of time.

On the other hand, if you do see that concept again, particularly at the right time intervals, you’ll remember it for longer and longer until one day, it becomes so deeply and permanently ingrained in your brain, that you’ll never forget it! (This is exactly the way Brainscape works: by repeating concepts at precisely the right interval for your brain.)

So, dedicate a little time every day to reviewing the concepts you studied the day/s before. You should also make time once per week and once per month to review everything covered up until that point, paying particular attention to the things you struggled with the most. If you do this, you’ll arrive for your exams pretty much fully prepared!

Pro Tip: Brainscape automates the review process for you so when you’re ready to do a day’s, week’s, or month’s review, all you have to do is hit the “study” button and it’ll painlessly feed you a personalized stream of flashcards that relentlessly attack your weaknesses. This saves you time on reviewing concepts you’re already comfortable with.

Tip # 6: Reframe the facts in practical terms

The brain absorbs knowledge BEST when it understands how it can use that information in practical situations. In other words, if the information has context and meaning, it’s much easier to remember. So our next tip is to reframe the facts you learn about in nursing school in practical terms; to understand how they are applicable (or tie in with) the clinical environment.

Why does a certain condition happen? What’s happening physiologically to the patient? Why does a particular drug cause a certain side-effect, and why shouldn’t it be prescribed to, for example, pregnant patients?

Understanding the “why” behind the “what” will help you learn and remember information so much quicker, and it’ll make you a better nurse!

Read: The #1 habit to succeed in medical and nursing school

Tip # 7: Practice your knowledge with mock tests

Studying and thinking practice test

Another shortcut to learning information fast is by answering practice questions and tests. (Why do you think flashcards are so effective?) For starters, seeing information presented in question-and-answer format triggers the brain’s active learning abilities, as opposed to passive, which isn’t great for helping knowledge stick.

Then, it helps you see the content through the eyes of the examiner so that, as you learn, you can imagine that information being reframed as exam questions. This is pretty straightforward in nursing school but becomes super challenging for the licensing exam, the NCLEX, which not only tests your content knowledge but also your critical thinking and reasoning skills.

So, source quality practice tests and question banks—leaning most heavily on your textbooks and school’s past exams—and then do them, making sure you deeply understand why you got certain answers right/wrong.

Read: How to find & use NCLEX practice questions

Pro Tip: Another way to practice your nursing knowledge AND all-important soft skills is to volunteer if you have the time! This exposure to the challenges of the healthcare environment will prepare you for your nursing career in a way that no amount of schooling can.

Plus, if you find a mentor, make sure you glean as much from them as humanly possible: observe them carefully, ask them questions, and make yourself available to them to help. You never know: they might one day give you the glowing recommendation you need to get a job!

Tip # 8: Join a study group

Study groups - how to study in groups

Humans are social creatures, so studying in a group can seem pretty tempting… but they’re only productive if they’re done right. (Read: When to study in groups, and how to do it.)

Study groups provide great motivation to pick up your books because once those plans are made, you’re “locked in”, committed, and held accountable by your peers. They also enable you all to pool your notes and study resources, which can save you time, and they give you a group of people you can turn to for help or answers.

On the flipside, studying in a group can become a burden when you start getting distracted by the social element of “hanging out with friends”; and when people show up without having reviewed the necessary sections or prepared any questions.

As long as your group study sessions are structured with clear expectations, and are used to support your more in-depth, at-home studying, they can be a wonderful boost to the learning process.

Tip # 9: Study like you’re preparing for the NCLEX

One of the biggest game-changing tips you can apply to your nursing school experience is to study throughout like you’re preparing to take the NCLEX. Yes, in a way you are, but MOST students only start thinking about the NCLEX once they’ve passed nursing school, and only then do they turn their attention to this final hurdle.

However, if you start practicing NCLEX-style questions early on in your nursing education, which are a different beast to the kinds of tests and exams you’ll be taking in nursing school, you’ll give yourself a massive advantage over your peers.

Seeing what you’re ultimately studying for—and how that content is framed as questions—is one of the best ways to focus your studies. Also, it gives you the opportunity to practice and hone those all-important critical thinking and reasoning skills; skills that are, unfortunately, somewhat neglected by nursing school.

Read: How to study for the NCLEX more efficiently

Tip # 10: Multitask your learning to free up more time

Our final tip for studying in nursing school (and passing with flying colors) is a little hack we encourage all students of any subject to do: multitask your learning with Brainscape! As an app on your phone, you can take your flashcards with you anywhere and study anytime, effectively allowing you to repurpose your “downtime” or time spent doing more menial things into powerful study sessions. For example, when you’re:

  • On a cardio machine at the gym,
  • Going for a walk,
  • Cooking or cleaning,
  • Between classes,
  • On your daily commute,
  • Waiting for a friend,
  • On the porcelain throne (what?)

Even if you just use Brainscape to whip through a single round of flashcards during these free snatches of time—for as little as five minutes at a time—you could be accomplishing as much as 20 to 30 minutes of studying every day! This could be a quality review of the stuff you’ve covered in class that day (or week), which will really help to consolidate that knowledge.

Pro Tip: If you get Brainscape’s premade, expert-curated flashcard sets for the key nursing topics, you’ll save yourself an enormous amount of time having to make those flashcards! Get them here:

Final thoughts on succeeding in nursing school

How to succeed in nursing school

So there are 10 key tips for successful studying in nursing school and acing your final exams. Remember:

Tip # 1: Prime your brain to learn by studying a little bit BEFORE class;

Tip # 2: Prioritize the content covered in class when deciding what’s important to learn and remember, and what’s not;

Tip # 3: Get good at skim-reading so that you can whip through all the assigned reading quicker and more efficiently;

Tip # 4: Use Brainscape’s expert-curated nursing flashcards alongside your coursework to efficiently memorize the facts;

Tip # 5: Regularly review older material so you never forget anything and can constantly build on what you learned the days, weeks, and months before;

Tip # 6: Reframe the facts in practical terms so that they have context and meaning, helping you remember them better;

Tip # 7: Practice your knowledge with mock tests and questions;

Tip # 8: Join a study group to keep you motivated and accountable;

Tip # 9: Study like you’re preparing for the NCLEX (passing the licensing exam is, ultimately, the most important goal post here!); and

Tip # 10: Multitask your learning to free up more time, giving you the breathing room to do other, important things or, you know, just take a much-needed break!

For even more excellent advice on just about any nursing and NCLEX topic, you can think of, check out Brainscape’s Nursing Academy, where you’ll find a library of totally free guides. You can also peruse our Nursing & Healthcare Professionals YouTube channel for cool videos and interviews with experienced nurses.

Armed with these resources and Brainscape’s flashcards, you’ll have what it takes to rise to the challenge of nursing school!