How to study better
Most students use ineffective methods to study. Follow these five points and you'll study like a pro3 min read Published: 15 Mar 2023
Whether you have trouble procrastinating, a tendency to cram or simply don’t know where to start, better techniques can help you to study more effectively. Learning how to study better doesn’t necessarily mean studying harder, it simply means using evidence-based techniques that are proven to work.
And the good news is, learning how to study effectively will not only help you get better grades and reduce anxiety around exams and deadlines, but better study skills can also cut down the amount of time you need to spend studying, not to mention help you become an effective lifelong learner.
Many students think rereading passages or highlighting key concepts will help them retain information. While this strategy might help you to become familiar with new information, it isn't a productive study method.
Instead, once you're familiar with the material, focus on elaboration instead. This means going into more detail about the ideas to help you get a better grasp of them. You can do this by talking out loud or writing it down.
Elaborating on an idea doesn't mean complicating it though. The Feynman Technique, named after Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, provides a framework for this.
- Write down the concept you want to learn.
- Explain the concept using basic language, imagine you are trying to teach it to someone with no prior understanding.
- Naturally, you will notice parts you struggle to explain. Research these further to fill in the gaps in your understanding.
- Once you've explained the concept fully, highlight any complicated parts or terms and try to simplify them even further.
2. Repeated retrieval practice
Repeated retrieval practice means remembering information multiple times. This works, because every time you recover a memory it becomes easier to access going forward. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the 'testing effect', which simply refers to the idea that being tested to recall information improves the memory encoding process.
You can study in this way by quizzing yourself.
Research has shown the best results happen when you space the quizzes out, taking them multiple times. You could also try quizzing your study buddy or using flashcards.
Repeated retrieval practice, also called active recall, feels difficult. For that reason, many students shy away from it, preferring to review and reread their material instead. But it's supposed to be difficult, as it highlights gaps in your knowledge. Despite its challenges, it’s worth persevering with - research has shown that if you follow retrieval practice across several days until you can recall 100% of the information correctly, your ability to remember that information over longer periods of time is maximized.
When you've got a big exam looming, it can be tempting to focus all your attention on one subject, also known as blocked practice. But researchers believe there is a benefit to 'interleaving', which means studying different material in the same study session.
Interleaving forces you to retrieve, as each practice is different from the last and so rote responses from your short-term memory are ineffective. Because of this, interleaving can feel harder than blocked studying, but it's worth the effort if it produces better long-term results.
4. Develop a growth mindset
Research has found that students with a growth mindset are able to overcome challenges easier. This is compared with students who think that intelligence or academic ability are fixed, who are more likely to get flustered at the first sign of challenge.
Mindset is important when adopting some of these more demanding study techniques, because while they are effective they can often feel harder. This means those with more grit and determination to persevere through any challenges will ultimately be able to study better.
5. Spaced repetition
Chronic crammer? You might want to rethink this study strategy.
Psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus studied memory and came up with the Forgetting Curve. This shows that once a memory has been made, we typically forget more and more as time passes. But luckily Ebbinghaus also discovered how to reduce the rate at which you forget: regularly review the new information. Today, this study technique is often referred to as spaced repetition or distributive practice.
But how exactly do you space study sessions optimally? Luckily a study looked into exactly this; it found that the best time to leave material before reviewing it is somewhere between 10% and 30% of the period you want to remember it for.
If that’s a bit too precise for you, just keep it simple and remember that regularly reviewing information in the lead up to a test will typically better encode those facts to long-term memory. This is why cramming is generally a poor study technique.
Learning for life
Learning how to study will not just improve your grades, but it will help you become a better student for life.
There are various evidence-based approaches to consider when it comes to learning information more effectively. Elaboration is where instead of reviewing material, you take the time to explain what you know of a concept and highlight weak areas to research further. Repeated retrieval practice involves quizzing yourself on concepts and trying to recall the information without referring to your study notes, this helps you to more easily access this information going forward.
While it can be tempting to focus your study blocks on one topic, interleaving suggests studying multiple subjects over one study session can actually produce better long-term results. How you think is an important, and often overlooked, aspect of studying. Having a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset, makes it easier to overcome challenges and recover from setbacks - both of which are vital when employing demanding study techniques.
Lastly, regularly reviewing the material you are studying over multiple sessions is far more effective than cramming for one or two nights before a test. This is known as spaced repetition, and it works particularly well when paired with repeated retrieval practice.
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