4 Online Tools to Help Students Study Smarter


As students start counting down to finals, stress levels start ratcheting up. A raft of online study aids, from adaptive flashcards that change with mastery of the material to new ways of sharing notes with peers, may help relieve some anxiety and improve grades.

Advanced eTextbooks.

Students with etextbooks often have access to features such as virtual study groups, explanatory videos and quiz answers, interactive material, and other online study aids. The apps and online platforms associated with etextbooks typically make it easy to share notes and highlights and ask questions of other students.

Chegg, one of Cheapism's top picks for cheap college textbooks, offers step-by-step solutions to textbook problems and a Q&A platform that delivers expert answers within a couple of hours. Those services cost $14.95 a month, and one-on-one tutoring is available through Chegg starting at $30 an hour.

Intel Education Study (formerly Kno.com) sells and rents etextbooks, but users can also import PDFs to a web reader or a free iPad, Android, or Windows app. These ereaders let users highlight text in multiple colors and take notes that are combined and organized in a journal. Flashcards of important terms or ideas are available for some etextbooks. Users can access a stats page to track time spent reading, notes made, and flashcards memorized.

Adaptive Learning.

As students learn, the material in adaptive learning software changes to reflect the user's current level of understanding. Brainscape, for example, sells certified sets of flashcards for a variety of subjects, including test prep, language study, and general knowledge. Students can also create flashcard sets or use flashcards created by other users. As students work through the decks of flashcards giving answers, they indicate how confident they are in their knowledge of the material. The cards repeat more or less often depending on the user's certainty of the answers.

Online Courses.

Khan Academy offers free access to hundreds of explanatory videos on topics ranging from arithmetic fundamentals to linear algebra, animation, the Electoral College, and the birth of stars. Members can post questions relevant to the material, which elicit answers from other users. There are also some practice and coaching resources.

Students struggling with a particular class or professor can try choosing an online course similar to the one they're taking in person and see if a different approach or a lecture from a different professor can help solidify the ideas. Coursera offers free university-level courses online. Some have a definite start date, and a cohort of students works through the material at the same time. Other courses begin on demand and have suggested deadlines. Additional online university courses are offered by EdX and Open Culture.

Free and cheap courses are also available on Udemy -- but while the other sites offer assurances of academic rigor and display the logos of institutions such as Harvard and MIT, Udemy courses can be taught by anyone. The work could add to understanding of a formal course, but it isn't for college credit. Udemy often has site-wide discounts, and most courses drop to $10 to $15 with a coupon code.

Productivity Aids.

High-tech flashcards and notes can help students directly, but other kinds of software may also come in handy during finals. Browser plugins such as SelfControl, Freedom, and StayFocusd help users fight procrastination by blocking distracting websites such as Facebook and YouTube.

Another app worth trying is F.lux, which changes the color temperature of a computer screen based on the time of day. As the sun sets, the screen dims, and the app shifts the blue light of the display to a warmer tone. Blue light may disrupt sleep cycles and delay sleep for about an hour after use, and at exam time a good night's rest can be even more important than cramming.