I don’t know where we learn these bad study habits. I suspect that most of it is a by-product, an unintended consequence of otherwise good advice. Pay attention. Be disciplined. Work hard and push yourself. All of which can lead to a successful, productive life – but when applied to rereading and other bad study techniques, it’s wasted effort.
This is good news. If the problem lies with the techniques… well, those are fixable. After all, you can learn new habits, can you not? Which means you can, and will, improve – not by becoming smarter but by studying smarter. Good study techniques are often quicker than the old ways, which is the icing on the cake.
Try these and you’ll improve. Eventually you will realise how much time, energy and effort you are saving by doing this the right way. You’ll never look back.
I’m putting this one first because if you do nothing else but this, you’ll see huge improvements in your test scores. Self-testing shatters the illusion of competence. Without that holding you back, you’ll know exactly what you know and what needs improving.
Self-testing is simple – you ask yourself questions based on the material. Most subjects include things like exercises, sample exam questions and other methods of testing your understanding. Use these. Use them well, use them properly and use them often. If you think you understand something but you don’t, you’ll become aware of this gap like a slap in the face.
If your exam is closed book, then test yourself with your books away. If it’s open book, then feel free to refer to your reference material. If it’s some sort of practical skill, find a way to practice. It doesn’t matter what your score is – after all, you’re only studying at this stage. What matters is that you learn – now, not during the exam – what you need to learn more.
Suppose you don’t have enough (or any) given exercises. Well, then, come up with your own questions. When reading through the material, write down questions that could be asked. For example:
- If the notes say “Prokaryotic organisms lack membrane-bound organelles”, then write ‘What do prokaryotic organisms lack?’
- If your notes say “The volume of a cone is given by V = pi * r2 * h / 3”, then write ‘How do I calculate a cone’s volume?’
And so forth. Turning a statement into a question is a simple habit, but an uncommon one. By the end of your first read-through, you will have a list of questions on the topics. At the start of your next study session, read this list. What questions can you answer? What questions can’t you answer? This will reveal what you need to revise more.
One last thing – be sure to self-test often on every question, even ones you know you can answer. It is possible to forget a solution or get one strategy confused with another. Self-testing is the best way to reveal your weaknesses before it’s too late. And that’s the thing about weaknesses: if you plug these gaps, you will be unstoppable.
If you want to memorise something, rereading doesn’t help. All you are practising is reading it, not remembering it. To improve your recall, you need to practice the thing that you’ll do in the exam – that is, remembering without aid.
(Even in an open book exam, you want to reduce the time spent looking stuff up).
Ask yourself: how much of the material do you know off the top of your head? Run through it. Writing it down is best, but a mental checklist will work.
This is like self-testing. Well, really, it is self-testing for what you remember. You will learn what you know and learn what you don’t. This beats the usual strategy of rereading everything and hoping it stays in your mind.
One final note: if you can’t remember something, that’s okay. Look it up and try again later. Struggling to retrieve a memory that isn’t there drains your mental energy. Be kind to yourself.
Summarising Key Concepts
Textbooks and lecture slides contain huge volumes of information. Trying to squish it all into your brain won’t work for most people. Understanding is not something you load into your mind; it’s something you build for yourself. And like any building, you need a strong foundation.
Have you ever read something, then reread it, and realised you didn’t understand any of it? When learning something new, your mind makes sense of it by linking it to ideas it already understands. If the gap between what you know and what you are learning is too big, the new information has nothing to attach to. It’s like throwing a coat against a wall – thud, then it drops to the floor.
If you’ve tried to explain something to someone and they’ve given you a blank stare, this is what’s happening to them. Chances are, you assumed some common piece of understanding, a way of thinking about the world that they just didn’t have.
All those times you have read something and it has slid out of your mind… well, you either weren’t paying attention or your mind didn’t know what to do with it. Give your brain a chance by identifying the key concepts. These main ideas are usually easier to understand, at least at a high level. Once you know what these are, those details have somewhere to go.
This, by the way, is where highlighting is useful. Identify the key concepts, then start making sense of them. It’s a two-step process – don’t stop after highlighting.
This approach also helps you see the bigger picture, how each piece of knowledge fits in with the others. We’ll see much more about how and why that’s useful later.
The old term for this was ‘visualising’. Why ‘mentalising’ is preferred is that some people can imagine a door without being able to see it clearly in their mind. They still grasp what it is and what it can do; there’s just no image there. The image isn’t important. Holding it in your mind is.
Which brings us to abstract thinking. The further you go in your education, the more likely you are to encounter abstract ideas. Construction workers deal with bricks and concrete – physical things you can see, touch and feel. Architects deal more with flow and floorplans for buildings that don’t exist – things that only exist in the mind. The physical stuff is easy to understand. You think of a cow and, boom, there it is in your mind. You think of the law of supply and demand and… well… that’s a little less ready.
The masters of any discipline owe their success to many factors. One such factor is that they are so used to their field’s abstract ideas that they start to become tangible. Amateur chess players, for example, are less able to memorise board positions than experienced players are. The amateurs talk about pieces and techniques; the masters talk about energy, tension and flow. They can feel a good move before they can see why it’s good.
Get in the habit of mentalising important ideas in your subjects. Take the abstract thoughts and make them as physical, as tangible as possible. The law of supply and demand is not a bunch of lines on a page – rather, it’s a sense of pressure as two objects press against each other. When you can see and feel an idea, you understand it. Any time before that and it’s just mental smoke drifting through your fingers.
Studying in a Variety of Ways
We’ve already seen how studying in the same place can trap you there. Take advantage of a range of locations when you study. Study with your notes and without them (in case you have done something strange like associate a physics equation with your pen).
But there’s more to variety than that. The temptation might be to study, alone, with your notes. If you mix it up, you’ll learn the material quicker and deeper. Some ideas:
- Find videos of people explaining the ideas. Find more of them.
- If an idea has been explained using a metaphor, find the point where the metaphor breaks down. Analogies are useful when starting out but none are perfect. When you see how the metaphor works and how it doesn’t, you’ll grasp the content much deeper.
- Instead of self-testing, find a partner and test each other.
- Do other schools/universities/academies teach the same idea in a different way? Find out!
- If you don’t use flashcards, give them a try. If you do, try something else (like taking a practice exam).
There are too many benefits to exercising to list. In relation to studying, it: boosts your mood; increases blood flow to the brain; ups your energy; improves your concentration; and gives you a break from your desk. Twenty minutes of fresh air and elevated heart rate can make hours of studying more effective.
If you use your body, your brain or both in life, there’s no getting around it. Exercise is important. You don’t have to run a marathon – long walks and tai chi work very well.
Both cardio and weights will improve your wellbeing. I’m no doctor but in my experience:
- people with slender builds and manic personalities benefit more from lifting weights. It has a grounding effect that keeps them focused.
- people with stocky builds and calmer personalities benefit more from cardio. It has a way of firing them up.
If in doubt, give both a try. Again, you don’t need to do much – a little light exercise each day will improve your state of mind a lot.
The best way to remember something is to forget it.
Wait, that’s not quite right. The best way to remember something is to forget it, then relearn it, then repeat the cycle a few more times.
If you think of something over a day or two then drop it, it mustn’t be important. Thoughts that you keep referring back to must be important, so your brain makes an effort to keep them.
What this means is you want to spread out your studying. It’s the opposite of cramming – you study a little each day over weeks and months. It is right there in the name: you repeat the content, but only after a delay.
Think of skills as being like trees. Trees that sprout up quickly get knocked down by weather and animals. The oldest, most stable trees grow slowly. Their size and strength comes from patient increases in size. Your memories are the same way – slow, steady effort beats a mad rush every time.
You can’t learn facts in a vacuum. Every new idea takes root in your mind by attaching itself to an existing one. An idea that is too new won’t stick in your mind. This has nothing to do with intelligence – it simply has nothing to stick to.
The remedy for this is to find the associations. For simple ideas, this will happen automatically. Your brain will be reminded of an old idea and, click, they are now associated. If that doesn’t happen on its own, you need to put the work in. This is why metaphors are so popular, especially in teaching. Learning to think of electric current as being like water flowing in a pipe gives you a familiar frame of reference.
Of course, all metaphors are flawed in some way. Find a metaphor that helps you grasp the idea, then evolve beyond it.
This one is a little strange, but bear with me. Interleaved practice is the idea of really mixing up your schedule. It looks like 20 minutes of physics here, half an hour of maths there, back to physics, then some electronics. Switching from topic to topic deepens your understanding of each of them.
This is the opposite of blocked practice. In the blocked practice section, I mentioned that it goes against the advice against multitasking. Every time you stop one task to start another, it takes your brain a little while to get in the right mode. That’s true and avoiding multitasking is good practice.
But learning is different from performing tasks. Learning works best when your mind can draw associations. When you interleave subjects, you provide fertile ground for associations to spring from. If an idea from mathematics reminds you of a concept from poetry, you will remember and understand them both better. If an idea from mathematics makes you think of one from poetry because they aren’t similar, the same thing happens. Associations are powerful, no matter what form they take.
It might take a bit to break the habit of blocked practice. If you can, it’s worth it. Interleaved practice is easier because it’s how your brain works. It’s more interesting, too.
Refer to the Learning Outcomes
All well-designed course build upon learning outcomes – those lists of things at the start of each subject. Things like ‘Calculate X using Y’ or ‘Define Z from memory’.
If your subjects don’t have learning outcomes or they aren’t shared with you, then the course designer hasn’t followed basic educational techniques. For that, on behalf of all educators, I apologise.
But if you are one of the lucky ones, take advantage of it.
The learning outcomes are a complete list of the knowledge and skills needed to pass the course. If you can do everything on that list, then you have reason to feel confident. Learning outcomes are your best study guide – don’t ignore them.