Top 10 Study Tips and Suggestions For Those Living With A Chronic Illness


Coming from a lover of all learning and a future teacher, school and all of the studying it encompasses means everything to me. A true perfectionist, I wanted to prove that my chronic illnesses would not keep me from succeeding in something that was so intrinsically personal to me: education. I knew before the age of four that I would be a teacher when I grew up. When I was diagnosed at fourteen, after suffering for nearly five undiagnosed years, I was told with the severity of my health issues, I likely would not graduate high school. Tears seared my cheeks hearing those brutal words. Here I was sitting on a cold table in a sterile white room with someone who didn’t even know me, telling me that I wouldn’t live out my lifelong dreams. I wanted to be valedictorian. Dropping out, not continuing on, however you look at it, were not visions in my head, nor would those doctor’s words taint my drive and dreams.

Meanwhile, you do have to face reality when faced with chronic illness. It is not likely that you can continue on attacking your goals’ in the same fashion that you had, prior to illness. And that’s okay! I like to call it “customizing” your goals. You maintain your overarching vision, but the way you accomplish it, may or may not be standard. You realize what is the important part of the goal and let go of the rest. For example, if you have set the goal to finish your college education, do it! The tough part? To reset your vision to accept that it doesn’t mean that you have to finish in four year’s time, just because that’s status quo. Focus on what you can do, and set up a plan.
(Preface: I study, organize, and am driven to the extreme. Thus, I was a little bit of a neurotic student. Keep this in mind as you read my tips and apply in a balanced approach! )
Everybody has a few personalized tactics that makes studying work for them, but here are a few other suggestions:
Find out your learning style
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Using one or more of the above websites (or google “Multiple Intelligences:” has an in-depth, but light-hearted assessment), you can find your strengths as a learner. Remember, you are a learner in all avenues of life, so it’s really just defining the way you interact with the world.
Study based on your strengths (
By knowing your strengths, you can devise a game plan on what techniques help you study best. For example, if you’re a spatial learner, spend your time doodling a few sketches that correspond with the notes from your class. Create charts or other graphic organizers (webs, tables, timelines). Color-code your notes. If you’re really good with music, use mnemonic devices to help remember long strings of information. Rhythmically “rewrite” the information so that you can “sing” it in your mind. It’s likely that you have several areas you are strong in. Mix and match, depending on what’s more expedient for the situation. But this way, you are using strategies customized to fit YOUR individual strengths. And you also don’t waste time on strategies that will not help you learn as easily.
Plan ahead
Being a planner- this one is very personal to me. When you receive your syllabus at the beginning of the semester, MARK DOWN ALL IMPORTANT DUE DATES in your calendars. Go ahead and do it when you first receive them. Yes, the dates might change, but it’s better to have a vision in your mind of how this semester will essentially play out.
The next step is to NOT let all of those tasks overwhelm you. How can you do that? Well, this isn’t a total cure, but look at your weeks individually and as a whole, including all due dates from little to big assignments. Set aside time each day/week to work on tackling that week’s goal for your assignments. I always set aside at least one full week before a test (considerably more if it was a paper or project), and wrote it in my calendar that studying was part of my to-do’s for that day, with the last three nights before the test having a heavy focus on studying for the test or finalizing the paper or project.
4. Break down big tasks
This is all part of planning, but it’s an important step. To make life seem more manageable when you’re creating your schedule, realize that a big task is composed of much smaller tasks. For instance, even a “simple” paper has different parts (choosing a topic, defining your theme, research, organizing your support structures, drawing conclusions). Divide the smaller tasks and assign an appropriate timetable. Be realistic with yourself. If it’s a big project, a week or two won’t suffice, especially if you have your health, sleep, and stress levels to consider. Stay on top of it before the deadlines draw too near.
5. Create a homework schedule
Choose a set ideal of how you’d like to accomplish everyday assignments. Nearly without exception, I liked to complete assignments the day they were given. So, for MWF classes, I did those assignments on MWF. As well, I usually allotted myself about twenty to thirty minutes to go over assignments/topics due the next day for the TH classes to refresh my overworked brain of what I needed to know for those classes.
6. Allot extra time for more challenging courses
That one is obvious, but just not as “fun.” Use in-between times, like extra time between classes to focus on the classes that are harder. I had a particularly challenging art history course where I had to memorize several pages worth of facts for 100+ pieces of art every three or so weeks. I used color-coded flashcards, (various colors to differentiate art eras, flashcards so they could be transportable). During lunch, short breaks between classes, at night before bed, I could pull out those note cards and do a little (okay, a lot of) studying.
7. Use time wisely
One of my least favorite sayings is, “If I had your kind of time, I could….” Every one has the same amount of time in a given day. (Notice: I did NOT say same amount of energy!). It is how you choose to divvy it up. Yes, every one has different duties, expectations, and obstacles, but that is your reality. Realize it. Accept it. And figure out extra times to squeeze in study or assignments within your realm of energy levels. Use peak times of your day to complete your more challenging tasks. If you’re a morning person, take classes in the morning or wake up early to make use of that as prime study time. If you work better at night, use those times to complete tasks. When you have breaks and you know your friends are in class, instead of typically filling it with mindless activities, utilize it as extra preparation time. Likewise, set aside break times when you’re typically more fatigued. If you’re not good at focusing during late afternoon, take a nap, watch TV, or use that time to catch up with friends. Knowing yourself and applying that knowledge can mean a world of difference in what you accomplish.
8. Take detailed notes
I know I had many days I would go home from school and not have a clue what I had learned that day. Thankfully, I had trained myself to take neurotically precise notes. I would read them when I got home and be blown away about all that my over exhausted, painful body had experienced that day with my mind not intact. Stay focused on the lecturer. Whether you remember it or not, if you’re working to the teacher, and writing down in detail what he says, you have that lecture in print for you to listen to at later times. Bring a tape recorder with you if you have trouble focusing, so you can scribe the notes for yourself when it’s more convenient for your health. And once you have those notes, rework them in a way that helps YOU learn best, like rewriting them over and over, color coding them with highlights, drawing diagrams, organizing the information into tables, creating flashcards. Whatever your learning mechanism of choice, USE your notes. Add information to these notes when you complete your course’s readings for clarification’s purposes. But always put them in terms that YOU can understand and relate to.
9. Refresh your memory: reread notes before class
Reread your notes or major highlighted points before each class. Because I had an extreme fear of being called on in class, I always wanted to make sure I knew what was going on in class that day. So I spent five minutes before class rereading notes from the previous class or my readings, to make sure I was on top of things. It also helps get you in the proper frame of mind to know where that day’s lecture fit into the scheme of things and therefore you could take more precise notes. You could also review any self-prepared visual aids you had created to help understand the notes better.
10. Build in body “crash” time
You never know when your health is going to fail you. I liked to always be at least one week ahead in my assignments. That way, if I was having a particularly challenging week, I could take it a little easier on myself. In fact, I was highly neurotic, admittedly so, and usually finished my “menial” assignments (readings, short responses, research papers, anything I COULD complete ahead of time) significantly early so I could just “function” for the rest of the semester. One week “ahead” time didn’t comfort me enough. Choose what you think is reasonable. I found it relieved much of my stress, since I could focus on attending classes and enriching my learning rather than trying to just survive. I liked to set crazy early deadlines for myself (i.e. something was due in April? I finished in January). Now, that might be completely unnatural, but you get the idea. Work a little harder at the beginning of the semester as possible, so you can give yourself a little leeway for the rough times.
In the end, the best thing to do is remember your life’s priorities. This has a “real life” meaning and a more practical side. The more practical side is less significant in the scheme of things. But as an aspect of working towards a goal, it is essential to rank what is most important. Make a daily list of what needs to be accomplished, what you’d like to accomplish, and in a dream world, what you would love to work on if you could. Stick to your list starting at the top priorities and it might surprise you at how successful you are at tackling your list.
In the big picture, your health is of high importance. Break down your tasks so that it suits your health the best. Accomplishing goals is never easy, so yes, it takes work and ultimately a great deal of patience, with life’s interruptions and yourself. There might be obstacles you face that seem to undermine your attempts. Step back. Remember the big picture. Keep a balance in your life to prevent burnout. (Include those health-saving parts of your day into your must-do list!). You’ll need a short and long-term vision in sight. And you’ll find a way to make it through each course, semester, curriculum, or degree.

Article written by Carrie Burns, © 2008

  • I am currently working on my PhD…when brain fog hits it can be very trying to get everything read for classes. I have found that using a screen reading program can be really helpful when I have a lot of articles to read that are in .pdf form, great for those days when I have a hard time keeping my eyes focused on the screen!

  • I was suggested this blog by my cousin. I am not sure whether this post is written by him as no one else know such detailed about my problem. You’re incredible! Thanks!

  • Risha

    I go to a college with trimesters, which I found very helpful for me. Since my memory is not the greatest, it gives me only 3 classes at a time rather than 5 or 6. Although more information is thrown at you at one time, it is at least the same subject area, and therefore, easier to keep track of.

    Also, I am working with the learning differences office and the health office. They have come together to help me with what they can. When I’m too sick for class (since I missed 10 of my 20 classes last term) not only are my teachers unable to dock me points for not getting to class, but I can also have a note taker go into my class and record everything that happened, plus get the assignments I would have missed. It makes things much easier. I didn’t have to push too much, and since I got this new program started, 5 other students with health problems have been helped also.

    I am now a junior in college and finally getting into the swing of things. I get looks of amazement when people find out I work 25 hours a week as a waitress, go to school full time, and deal with health problems. It’s hard, but you do what you have to. I too will be graduating with a degree in education, and I hope that I can inspire my students no matter what their situation.

  • Carol

    A great article.
    I was doing my MA and one of the classes was held at the top of a tower in an old mansion. Trying to climb the narrow and curving steps with books and a stick was not fun.
    When we had a break everyone else could run downstairs to get a drink or snack while I was like the princess stuck in my ivory tower.
    Thankfully it was just one night a week, the rest of the classes were held downstairs in the mansion, which was soooo cold at 9am. No heating in the entire building because it was a protected building.
    It was amazing to see the old call buttons for the servants and the huge fireplaces that were never lit.
    Thankfully, I finished in a year and waved goodbye to that cold cold building.

  • Those are great tips, even for a child whose dealing with the daily pressures of being a teenager.

  • Thanks for posting this. After a number of years I returned to college to finish what I started before I got sick. I had to change so much about how I do everything including school. It is a big help to know that others are doing it too! Thanks for the lift-now off to study…

  • Thank you for a brilliant article on school and studying. Reading it over, I can see how that could have prevented my flunking out of college — especially if I had gone to the college of my choice and not one that was in a climate I couldn’t function in. I’ve often told people that I flunked out of college on campus size.
    Logistics matter. How long it takes to get from class to class makes a difference. I did fine when I went to a junior college with plenty of parking, and drove from building to building. When I had to walk across a campus nearly as large because it was all pedestrian oriented, I was not only always late, but three weeks into the semester went into total body crash from the overexertion. As soon as the weather turned bad, I couldn’t go out at all.
    But I still wound up doing well on tests right up to the flunkout because my learning style was visual and reading. What I read, I retain. I should’ve made arrangements for disability and not even shown up for in-person classes, just read up and tested through — because what happened in the lectures was just that the professor read it aloud for those audial learners who needed that help.
    In retrospect the best education I could’ve had would’ve come from a correspondence course with a lot of heavy outside reading. And putting your choices of school, where to go, what to take per semester and so on, through the filter of who you really are and what you actually do could even help the undisabled.
    I’ve seen abled night people crash through taking too many morning classes, then get depressed and quit. I’ve seen a lot of abled freshmen drive themselves nuts for lack of that organization. Schools and colleges now actually have to make allowances for disability — but these strategies would even help the abled to get more done with less stress and trouble.