It’s official: scientists have figured out the secrets for how to study effectively for exams.
Or at least, a darn sight more effectively than you’d be doing without using these strategies. Read on, and discover how you too can:
- Study smarter, not harder: get more done in less time
- Learn faster and remember more with the science of memory
- Take control of your to-do list, and build the routines and focus that let you Get Stuff Done on your terms
- And so watch your grades go up, without the need to work all hours of the day or night
- For a happier, less stressed, more successful time at school / college / uni!
There are 6 areas you need to “win” in order to study as effectively as possible. So you’ll find the 37 strategies grouped into the following 6 “chapters”:
BTW – if you’re thinking “aargh, there are THIRTY-SEVEN things I need to do right – that’s loads!!” Then don’t worry. You don’t need them all to succeed. Some are solutions to problems that you might not even have. And some give you options – there are different routes to studying effectively, some will be better suited to you than others. You don’t need to do them all at once: experiment, and choose your favourites.
Let’s dive in, and help you on your way to the grades of your dreams:
I. Preparing For Success: Plan & Prioritise
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” – Benjamin Franklin
Success in your studies starts with a clear plan of what you need to do, and how you’re going to fit it all in. Here’s how to study effectively with a plan:
1. How To Plan Your Studying: Have A Map
First things first: what do you actually need to do?
If you’re studying for exams, the first thing you need to be clear on is what’s expected of you.
Have a list of topics / subtopics, and consider a simple tracking system so you can see at-a-glance which topics need more work.
A traffic light system can work great for this: red for “needs works”, amber for “getting there”, green for “got this”.
Start with the “red” topics, and when you’re done with them, move on to amber.
If you’re working towards a big assignment, start by thrashing out the big building blocks of the task.
That could be by content area: what different sub-topics do you need to work on as part of your overall assignment?
And / or planning by phase of work: new reading first, then planning, then writing-up, then proofreading.
Once you’ve made your “map”, do a quick time budget for it. E.g. if there are 11 chapters to study, and you’ve got 25 days before the test, that’s 1 chapter every 2 days, with a couple of days in hand.
Is that feel realistic? If not, how can you prioritise or scale back your ambitions to make the task fit into the time available?
Don’t make your study plan too detailed. You’re looking for a birds-eye view of the road ahead, not a minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow finicky plan that no-one could possibly stick to!
2. Look Ahead: Prepare For Success
Most students spend time learning a topic, then start looking at past paper questions.
Flip that on its head, and you’ll get better results.
Start by looking at real exam questions for that topic – maybe even attempting a few, making educated guesses wherever you need to.
Then when you go back and revise the topic, you’ll have a much deeper sense of what you need to know and why, and how you’ll end up applying it in the exam. That will help the topic “go in” much better – a bit like a farmer ploughing his field before sowing crops.
If you’re working on a project or assignment, can you get any examples of what “good” looks like?
Perhaps some past student projects are available in the library, or your tutors have made some model essays available. The more you understand about what the assessors want to see, the easier it will be for you to deliver.
3. The Power Of No
“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” – Warren Buffet
What are the most important things in your life right now?
Your studies might be at or near the top of the list.
There may be 1 or 2 other things: your sporting or musical commitments, a family, a job or a job hunt.
Work out what the top priorities are. And then be bold about saying “no” to everything that doesn’t help you advance your top priorities.
(Though see also #37 about “having fun”. I’m a huge believer in scheduling some much-needed down-time each week, even if you’re working really hard – perhaps especially if you’re working really hard!)
4. Study Effectively With The Perfect Study Routine
Behind just about every successful student is a great routine.
Your study routine is quite a personal thing, so I can’t give you a one-size-fits-all template timetable that works for everyone. But if you don’t have a regular routine, take some time now to sketch out what an ideal study day might look like.
Here are some points to consider:
- When are your energy levels naturally highest? Do you do your best work in the first half of the morning? Just before lunch? Late afternoon? Schedule study blocks to take advantage of this “biological prime time” (as NY Times bestselling author and past Exam Study Expert guest Chris Bailey calls it)
- Can you add in some regular spaced retrieval practice (see #12 / #13) – e.g. testing yourself on new material from the day first thing in the morning and last thing at night?
- Leave time for YOU: if you’re ambitious, it’s tempting to cram as much work into each day as possible.
- Start sure: if you’re new to your study routine, don’t aim for gold on Day 1. Set your sights conservatively, with a routine you know you can absolutely stick to even on low energy / low motivation days. If you feel you can do more, do more. But better to exceed your expectations than set yourself up for failure and discouragement.
I’ve got a lot to say on the subject of your study routine: read my complete guide here.
5. Stay Consistent
The key to learning how to study effectively (and pretty well everything else in life!) is consistency.
The difference between high-performers and everyone else is often very small.
Two people want to get a book written. One puts in half an hour every single morning to write a page or two. The other doesn’t. A year later, one has a book, the other doesn’t.
Two students want to get into Cambridge. One spends a quarter of an hour a night reading around her subject, the other doesn’t. Six months later, one has lots of interesting things to say in her interview, the other doesn’t.
You’re probably getting my point by now, but one final example: two students are ambitious for exam success. One spends ten minutes a night memory journaling, the other doesn’t. Come the end of the year, one has a decent memory for lots of the course, and goes on to do really well in the exams.
Change your daily habits – even by just a bit – and you can change your life.
Provided you stay consistent.
II. Getting Productive: Building Superhuman Focus
You’ve got your plan. Now you need to execute it.
Here’s how to get productive, and start getting things DONE!
6. One Thing At A Time: “Monotasking”
It’s tempting to think you can get more done by “multi-tasking”.
But actually, each time your concentration breaks or you switch to something else, you’ll lose valuable minutes re-finding your focus on whatever you were trying to do.
So practice mono-tasking: being disciplined about giving your full attention to the task at hand: it’s the best way to study effectively.
Control external distractions as much as you can.
Start by taking control of your phone. Put airplane mode ON (or better yet, switch it off). Then get the phone OFF your desk, and OUT of sight.
Having it out while you’re studying will play all kinds of havoc with your ability to concentrate.
Even if you’re making an effort to ignore the ting or buzz every time someone messages you on Snapchat, WhatsApp or whatever, you’ll need an iron will to stop your mind wandering off to wonder what’s going on social media today.
7. Managing Internal Distractions
It’s normal for other thoughts to drift into your head when you sit down to work: worrying about other subjects, ideas or plans, things you need to do. But you aren’t in the right mindset to study effectively.
You can train your mind to have better focus through meditation. Read more about the benefits and how to get started here.
Alternatively, why not try maintaining a “distractions list”?
Keep a notepad to hand so you can write thoughts down and get them out of your head as soon as they occur. You can then come back to them later when you have time to give them the attention they need.
8. Take Quality Study Breaks
Depending on the intensity of your work focus, and your concentration span, take time out every 25-50 minutes to rest and reset.
Pausing between study sessions is one of the best ways to keep your energy and focus up over the long haul so that you can remain effective. Studying is a marathon, not a sprint!
Best practice is to avoid turning on the TV, opening a phone game, checking messages / emails or doing anything else that will break your focus. Save these activities for a longer break.
Good things to do in your 10-minute breathers include:
- Making a cup of tea
- Looking out at the garden
- Taking a short walk
- Doing some light exercise: stretches, yoga, a few push-ups
Anything that lets your mind rest and reset, without being pulled into a new world of distraction.
9. The Pomodoro Technique
Bit of a marmite technique this. Some people love it, some hate it.
The basic idea is that set a timer for, say, 30 minutes, and work while it’s counting down.
When the timer goes off, stop work and take a short break (5-10 mins).
Then rinse and repeat – with a longer break after 3-4 cycles of working and a shorter break.
Fans of the Pomodoro technique like:
- The focus and motivation that comes when you set a ticking clock in the background
- Having the structure of more intense bursts of work, with short breaks to recharge
Creator of the technique Francesco Cirillo is incredibly specific about the specifics for using this technique in practice: for the full guide to the Pomodoro technique, see here. This includes my take on which bits of Francesco’s advice you should follow, and which you can be a bit more flexible on!
10. Study Effectively With The Perfect Study Environment
Your study space can have a big impact on your ability to get things done.
Here are some pro-level considerations when choosing and setting up the perfect study environment:
- What resources do you need? This includes resources for your studies, like access to books, or somewhere comfortable to type.
- What kind of vibe? Do you want library-reading-room silence or coffee-shop buzz? The solitude of your room or the camaraderie of a study room?
- A space that improves your focus:
- A space that helps your memory: “context-dependent recall” is a very well-studied psychological effect that offers a secret study advantage to students in the know. It basically says that if you do your learning in Environment A and later have to recall in Environment B, the more similar the two environments are, the easier it will be to recall! If you’re sitting your tests in a big exam hall, can you do at least some of your studying in a space that feels a bit like an exam hall – like a big, silent, intimidating university library reading room?
- How can you make you personalise your space? Your space can give you motivation, offer you calm, and lift your spirits. See below for a few ideas!
You may find that different spaces work better for you on different days.
Maybe the silence of a library is brilliant for structuring an essay, but you enjoy the buzz of a coffee shop when you’re working on a graphic design project.
Picking an environment that suits your studying needs is a great way to ensure you’ll have an effective session.
11. Can I Listen To Music While Studying?
Short answer: sometimes!
It all depends on whether the music is distracting you from the task at hand, or not.
That partly depends on the choice of music. It’s a personal thing, but you’re more likely to be distracted by music that has lyrics, and / or is unfamiliar to you. You definitely won’t be studying effectively if you’re singing along!
But it also depends on the task at hand.
The more cognitively demanding the task, the lower your threshold for being distracted by music. Music will rarely put you off your stride when folding laundry or filing. However, it might when you’re straining to get your head around a complex new calculus technique or marshal your research into an elegant multi-layered essay argument.
For more, see my full article on does music help you study.
III. Learn How To Study Effectively With Memory Science
Go back as little as a single generation of students, and you’ll find most advice about studying well was basically little more than guesswork and intuition.
Trouble is, psychology is littered with examples where our human intuition turns out to be RUBBISH.
How to learn effectively seems to be no exception: what many people THINK is working well for them actually ISN’T working well at all (e.g. Roediger & Karpicke, 2006).
But the prize for getting your learning strategy right is huge!
Under lab conditions, test-score improvements equivalent to 1 or 2 whole grade boundaries (10-20 percentage points) are routinely seen in some of the most widely-cited experimental studies.
And from my own experience, I’ve seen student’s performance TRANSFORMED, time and again, when they start to apply the principles of learning science to their studies.
So without further ado, here are the absolute most important things you need to know about the psychology of memory, and what it tells about the smartest ways to learn:
12. Pull It Out, Don’t Push It In
If you only take one thing away from this article, it’s this:
The best learning happens when you’re trying to recall information. This is the best way to study effectively.
The moment where you’re pulling a piece of information out of your memory is the magic moment in which your memory for the information gets strengthened.
It’s a principle known to psychologists as “retrieval practice”, sometimes known as “active recall”.
So don’t just push the information IN over and over again by re-reading, highlighting or taking notes. It might feel as though you’re learning, but you’ll quickly forget what you studied.
Focus on pulling information OUT of memory: test yourself on what you know.
13. The Power of Spaced Repetition
Even if you’re learning with recall practice, your memory will fade over time, per the “forgetting curve” first developed by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus:
The solution is to space out your retrieval practice. Don’t do it all on one day, but spread it out, with intervals in between.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to put in more time overall on a given topic. But it does mean spacing out the topic’s allotted study time over different days.
So rather than spending an hour on one subtopic all on the same day, do half an hour the first day. Then do 10 minutes after a day or two, 10 minutes a week or so later, 10 minutes the week before the exam.
14. The Best Way To Build Your Memory
When you combine spacing with retrieval practice, you get spaced retrieval practice.
I.e. test yourself repeatedly on the topic, at time intervals.
When you start doing this, the real memory magic happens.
When you practise spaced retrieval practice, what you’re really doing is “interrupting forgetting”. Your brain is lazy and naturally WANTS to forget information that’s not important.
But each time you leave a time delay then try and recall it, it sends a powerful signal that this information matters, and your memory responds by storing it away much more strongly.
The key is to build regular opportunities for spaced retrieval practice into your study routine.
There are lots of ways to do this – this example is the spacing schedule I used when studying for my psychology final exams at uni:
15. How To Study Effectively … In The Goldilocks Zone
When you’re doing retrieval practice, it should feel tough, but not impossibly so.
If you’re struggling to remember more than half of the topic you’re studying, you probably need to back up a step. Re-read your notes again, or break the topic down into smaller chunks and practise one section at a time.
But it shouldn’t feel too easy either.
If you’re getting 95%+ right, space it out more, and leave a longer delay to make it harder. The best learning happens in the “Goldilocks zone” when it’s tough to remember the information, but not impossibly so. Not too hard, not too easy, but just right.
You vary the amount of spacing in order to make sure you’re landing right in the Goldilocks Zone.
If it feels too easy, space it out more by leaving a longer delay before re-testing. If it feels too easy, leave a shorter delay and space it out less.
16. Feedback And Learning From Your Mistakes
As you do your retrieval practice, it’s worth underlining that it doesn’t really matter if you get a given question right or wrong.
The point of testing yourself on a fact isn’t to “check whether you’ve learned it”: the testing is the learning itself. It really is a great way to study effectively!
If you’re getting lots of questions wrong, consider shortening your spacing interval next time (see The Goldilocks Effect above). But also bear in mind that you’re doing something good for learning whether you get an individual question right OR wrong!
17. Are You A “Visual Learner” or “Auditory”? (Spoiler Alert: it doesn’t matter!)
There used to be this really popular idea in education theory that everyone was either:
- A “visual” learner, who learns best by looking at stuff,
- An “auditory” learner who learns best by hearing stuff,
- Or a “kinaesthetic” learner who learns through movement and models.
It’s an alluring idea because it seems to make so much sense. It appeals to the inner satisfaction we get when discovering a scientific label that so beautifully seems to describe what we’d always suspected about ourselves.
The bad news is it’s simply not true.
A whole generation of experimental psychologists has looked for evidence that learning in your preferred “learning style” (visual / auditory / etc) actually helps you learn faster and remember more.
The results are conclusive: there is no evidence for this idea at all.
It’s true that many of us have preferences when it comes to a learning style, but there’s simply no experimental evidence that pandering to your preference helps you learn.
We’re all basically “spaced retrieval practice” learners. As we’ve already discovered, we learn best when we’re pulling information out of memory, not cramming it in. And even better, doing that at intervals spaced out over time.
18. Structuring Information In Memory
When we learn new information, it’s much easier to make sense of (and easier to remember!) if we can figure out how it relates to things we already know.
So if a topic doesn’t make sense, try sketching out the big building blocks on paper, using a spider diagram or mindmap to see how it inter-relates. Or if the topic is about a process that goes in order from start to finish, try a flow diagram.
If you’re learning a language, think about how new words relate to words you already know in your own language.
This principle is the basis of how many mnemonic strategies work – see #28.
IV. What Are Effective Study Strategies?
It’s one thing to talk about the theory behind ways to study effectively.
But it’s a whole other challenge to actually start USING these effective learning techniques in practice. Especially using them with confidence, competence and consistency.
This section is deliberately more “meaty” in terms of detail than other sections. Because details matter when it comes to making sure you’re studying effectively and not wasting your time.
The good news is you don’t need to read every item in this section. There are different ways to be an effective student.
Through years of experience coaching students in how to study smarter, I’ve learned that the best approach to finding a more efficient way to study is to make the smallest possible change to what you’re doing already.
I’d encourage you to browse this section to find the study methods you already use today. And then make the recommended adjustments to your strategy to VASTLY maximise its effectiveness.
- If you like flashcards (and quiz apps like Anki / Quizlet): see #19.
- If you like making notes: see #20.
- For better ways to read: see #22.
- If you like mind maps / spider diagrams: see #23.
- If you like study groups or testing with friends / family: see #24 / #25.
- For those interested in mnemonic strategies: see #26.
- And if you have problems to practice more than knowledge to learn, e.g. math(s) style problems in Math(s), Science and Engineering: see #27 and #28.
19. How To Study Effectively… With Flashcards
My personal favourite!
Flashcards can be a FABULOUS way to study: they are literally MADE for retrieval practice.
But you’ve got to use them properly.
Here are my top DOs and DONTs to get the most out of this powerful technique:
- DO have a clear question on the front, a clear answer on the back
- DON’T put too much information on either side. Less is more, and note form is fine (in fact, heartily encouraged). Some of the most effective flashcards use just a very few words on the question side, and have a single word, name, date or number on the back.
- DO add a note on the front of the card about what it is you’re trying to remember. If it’s a list of 5 things, write the number “5” on the front of the card.
- DON’T spend too much time writing the cards. Make them quick: go, go, go! Remember that the real benefit comes when you test yourself on the cards. So…
- … DO test yourself on the cards at intervals, spaced out over time. And…
- … DON’T be tempted to “refresh your memory” by flicking through the cards before you re-test yourself. That’s cheating, and completely messes with the benefits of the spacing effect (see “The Goldilocks Zone” above).
All of this works great for paper flash cards: I like these ones* because they’re small (encouraging you to keep your notes brief), and they’re bound (helping you keep your material in order).
But it applies equally well to most digital flashcard systems, like Anki and Quizlet.
20. How To Make Effective Study Notes
Do you like to write notes?
They’re incredibly popular with students at high school, college, university and just about anywhere else you need to study for exams.
The problem is that note-making or writing summaries are pretty terrible ways to get information into memory.
It’s “feel-good” learning rather than a true method to help you study effectively.
You might feel all good and productive while you’re making the notes, but you’re not making much progress on actually LEARNING the stuff – as measured by how much you can remember a week or two later.
Sure, some of the information might stick for a short time. But I’ve heard many students look back on their weeks-old notes and say that they may as well have been written by someone else for all they recognise them.
So what should you do if you like to study with notes?
The good news is there’s a small tweak to your technique that will transform your note strategy into something that’s a really, seriously effective technique for efficient studying:
Divide the page in two, and write questions in the left-hand column, answers in the right-hand column.
I call it “Q&A Notes”, and they work in two ways:
- “Memory is the residue of thought” (Daniel Willingham), and by splitting up your notes into questions and answer pairs, it forces you to engage with the material in more depth.
- But the best bit is you’ve now got a ready-made study resource to do retrieval practice with. Simply cover up the “answers” column and test yourself on each question in turn.
Done well, this technique actually ends up being extremely similar to flashcards, the main difference being the size of the paper you’re using! So follow all the DOs and DONTs above for best results with flashcards.
21. How To Study Effectively… With Blank Page Retrieval
“Blank page retrieval” – sounds fancy!
But it’s actually really simple.
Here’s how it works:
- Put your books away, then scribble down everything you can remember about a topic.
- After you’ve squeezed out as much as you can from memory, go back to your books and add in any missing details and correct anything you mis-remembered with a different coloured pen.
- Rinse and repeat: see “the power of spaced repetition”. Next time you train yourself on this topic, aim to have fewer missing details – until you have none at all come the week before the exam!
A plain sheet of paper is an under-rated study tool. Try it!
22. Reading For Learning: How To Study And Remember What You Read
If you’ve ever been told anything even remotely helpful about how to study for exams, you’ve probably been told that re-reading your books or notes is a pretty unhelpful thing to do.
As a way to learn efficiently, reading SUCKS. It’s definitely not one of my top “how to study effectively” recommendations.
So you should avoid all reading then?
Reading can have its place in your overall study system, often near the start of the process. For example, if you intend to use a different technique (e.g. flashcards, Q&A notes) but it’s your first time looking at the material, and you want some initial familiarity with it first.
So if you want to make reading more effective as a study technique, here are my tips:
- Slightly Better: highlight or underline key words as you go, which helps you stay focused and avoid missing key information. It makes reading slightly less suck-y as a study strategy, though still not great. Just highlight / underline the key words and phrases, there’s no point highlighting vast chunks of text at a time.
- Much Better A: Read (with highlighting / underlining), then challenge yourself to a round of blank page retrieval right after the reading. This will massively help the information to start to “stick” through retrieval practice, plus helping you structure and organise the information in memory.
- Much Better B: If you’ve seen the material before, try pre-testing yourself on it BEFORE doing any reading at all. Do some blank page retrieval first, and challenge yourself to see what you can remember about the topic – however little it is!
You can, of course, do all three of the above at once: pre-test yourself with blank page retrieval, read (with highlighting / underlining), then do another blank page retrieval afterwards. This will be vastly most effective than just reading, especially if you follow up with subsequent rounds of spaced retrieval practice by attempting the blank page retrieval exercise on other days.
23. How To Study Effectively… With Mindmaps
Ah, mindmaps. (Also called “spider diagrams”).
Me and mindmaps go way back: I remember the hours and hours and hours happily spent in my room in my (high) school days merrily producing neat mind maps of all the information I needed to know for my exams.
There was a belief – which you may also have heard – that mindmaps carried some almost-magical ability to get knowledge into your memory.
What’s true is that it DOES help to get information organised in your memory:
It’s useful to understand the overall structure of a topic. Rather than trying to learn a random jumble of disconnected facts, it’s much easier to learn a topic when you appreciate how the details are organised into their major sub-categories, and how specific points relate to each other.
What’s not true is that this process alone will magically etch all the information into your memory.
So here’s my 3-step process to make learning with mind maps into an effective study strategy that will actually work:
- First, stop making them pretty. You don’t need a beautifully-illustrated picture in the middle. You don’t need every word written on a curvy line. Make them fast, make them rough. It’s the process of making them that counts, not having the finished product.
- Second, make them from memory. Shut your books, and sketch as much as you can from memory. Once you’ve squeezed your memory as much as you can, grab a second colour of pen and correct any mistakes
- Third, throw them away. Yes, you heard me. Knowing that you’ll throw them away will encourage you to make them quick, and focus on what matters: the exercise itself. And when you’ve done it once, do it again: do our usual spaced retrieval practice thing, and leave a time gap, then repeat the whole exercise of scribbling out the mind map from memory.
(If you’re thinking to yourself “but that just describes blank page retrieval” – well, you’re completely right. You got me. They’re basically the same thing. But, shhh, keep your voice down, because for people that love mind maps, it may feel like an easier mental leap to think in terms of “starting to draw your mind maps from memory” rather than having to adopt some whole other study technique!)
24. How To Study Effectively… With Study Groups
Getting together with others in a study group can be a great idea for many reasons:
- It mixes things up for you, helping you stay interested and engaged.
- If you’re studying a more “arts” style subject where opinions matter, discussing things as a group can be a great way to uncover new angles and a fresh take that your examiners will love.
- Sometimes, your friends will have figured things out that you haven’t, and you can learn from them.
- Or you might have figured out something your friends haven’t, in which case you’ll do a lovely bit of spaced retrieval practice as you teach them.
“Explaining something to others” is a legit great idea for learning, so much so that some people even go around explaining things to an empty room or a stuffed animal.
25. How To Get Friends / Family Member To Test You Effectively
Getting friends or family members to test you is also a good way to study and learn your stuff effectively: it’s retrieval practice, after all!
There are some secrets to making “getting someone to test you” work as an effective study method. Here are some quick tips for whoever is playing the role of “tester”:
- Identify what they need to know: what are the facts, dates, formulas, grammar points they need to know? Be sure to agree this with your testee first.
- Ask questions to check they know each piece of information (OK, step ii is kind of obvious…).
- Give feedback if they get a question wrong, tell them the right answer! I thought this was obvious, but I’ve seen high-school students testing each other and just saying “no!” if the answer was wrong, and not actually giving the right information. They need to know what they should have said if they get anything wrong.
- Be patient: give them a few moments to rummage in their mind for the information. It’s not a race. Try not to let them give up before you’ve seen them squeeze their memory for at least a good few seconds – encourage them to make an educated guess if you need to.
- If they can’t remember (or get it wrong): note this down as a missed attempt, either in your head, or on the page. Let a question or two go by, then re-test this question. If they still don’t remember, keep coming back to this question every couple of questions until they get it right for the first time.
- Re-test mistakes more than once (even after they’ve got it right once): it’s easy to remember things for a minute or two. So if they initially got a piece of information wrong, but passed one of your re-tests, make sure you come back to it at least once more after a much longer delay. If they pass the second re-test, great. If they don’t, keep re-testing until they can reliably get it right after a good delay.
- Let them know where their weak points are: keep a note of the biggest trouble spots, and make sure they re-test themselves on these a day or two later (or even have a follow-up session and do it yourself!)
Make your study buddy read these seven steps, and look forward to spectacularly improved pair-testing results!
26. How To Study Effectively… With Mnemonic Strategies
If you spending any time researching memory strategies, you might come across advice on mnemonic strategies. Method of Loci / Memory Palace, the Major System, the Pegword Method, Chunking and more…
These techniques have been honed by “memory champions”, who perform astonishing feats of memory like memorising four thousand six hundred and twenty (4620..!!!!!) digits in an hour, or a pack of cards in 12.74 seconds (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Memory_Championships).
But many mnemonic strategies, frankly, simply aren’t worth the time they take to master when it comes to learning information in an academic context.
Here’s my take on some of the popular ones:
- Chunking: this is really a whole category of tricks! It corporates techniques like acronyms and acrostics, and looking for patterns in lists and numbers to make them easier to remember. Flexible, helpful and highly recommended: I’ve written at length about chunking for memory here.
- Peg Word Method: sometimeshelpful for remembering lists, especially when they’re lists of concrete objects. Details on how to use it here.
- Major System: if you’ve got lots of numbers, this might be worth it. But not worth the effort for most of us, as it takes time to learn a code for turning numbers (hard to remember) into words (easier to remember).
- Method of Loci / Memory Palace: very powerful strategy for many memory champions that works by “storing” memories in specific locations around a well-known environment, like your home. Takes some getting used to. I rarely meet students who’s found it helpful as a learning strategy for academic material.
By all means dive into the world of mnemonics. Just make sure the time you spend learning the more complex techniques is actually worth it!
27. Using Practice Tests To Study Effectively
Practice questions are yet another way to do retrieval practice. They get my seal of approval – provided you’re following the steps below.
For some subjects that are more about applying knowledge (e.g. to writing essays) or practising solving problems (e.g. maths), you’ll want to be doing plenty of practice questions right from the beginning.
For more knowledge-based subjects, you might rely less on practice questions, perhaps sprinkling in a few early on to give you a good sense of how you’ll be tested, and a few closer to the test, once you’ve finished all your work with e.g. flashcards / Q&A notes.
I recommend the following 2-phase process for effective practice-question study sessions:
First, do as much as you can from memory, preferably under timed conditions (see “take a pressure vaccine”). It’s OK to guess if you’re not sure.
Second, check carefully, and give yourself feedback. Once you’ve given your best shot at a string of questions, or better still, a whole exam paper, check your answers. Consult your notes or books to see what you got right and what you missed. Or if you’ve got access to a mark scheme, put your examiners’ hat on, and diligently check what scored you marks and where you dropped marks. This is a crucial part of the process, and one many students skimp on – a bad mistake, as there’s so much to be learned from it!
Advanced tip: set aside any questions that totally foxed you, and have another crack at them tomorrow to check you learned something!
28. How To Study Effectively… With Interleaving
This one’s for you if you have math(s) style problems to practice, for example in science, engineering, and of course, math(s).
It may also be helpful for grammar exercises in languages, and even practising physical skills.
Interleaving works by breaking up “blocks” of practice questions. For example, rather than doing a whole long stretch of practice on Problem Type A before doing another whole long stretch on Type B, you jumble them up.
Switch between Problem Type A and B – a couple of each, continually switching between the two. The graphic uses integration and differentiation problems to illustrate the concept, but it works with any type of problem. For best results, use interleaving with two types of problems that are quite closely related and potentially confused:
In the classic study, Rohrer & Taylor (2007) saw test score improvements from 49% for students who did blocking to 74% for students who did interleaving. Both had groups had identical study time.
That’s a mindblowing improvement in my book!
V. Champions’ Mindset: Unleash The Power of Peak Performance
An often-neglected but crucial key to the puzzle of how to study effectively comes in making sure you yourself are well. You have to think of yourself as an athlete – an elite, exam-taking athlete. And you cannot possibly perform at your best unless you are taking good care of your mind and body.
29. Keep Going
Some study advisors recommend setting goals about what you want to achieve in your exams.
That’s fine, but I want you to go a level deeper and decide what kind of student you want to be. Are you going to decide to identify as a high-performing student or not?
Once you do decide you’re a high-performer, you’ll behave accordingly! That might only mean a small tweak to your habits each day. Working three hours instead of two. Using retrieval practice not just re-reading.
Small changes sustained each day over weeks and months add up to a massive difference in end result: little by little you’ll find you CAN study efficently and effectively!
And if you struggle to associate with that new identity as a high performer today: then PRETEND. Ask yourself what a high performer would do in this situation? How would they tackle this assignment, this tricky exam question? Act accordingly.
With a bit of practice and time, you’ll turn round and realise you don’t need to pretend any more. You ARE the high performer you’ve been pretending to be all this time.
30. Keep Growing
Oh, so you don’t believe you have what it takes to be a high-performer?
Not smart enough?
Not clever enough?
You don’t have to settle with where you’re performing today. With deliberate, sustained practice, you can level up your brain and improve.
There’s no such thing as not being “good at something” – you’re just not good at it “yet”! (Just like how you’re currently learning how to study effectively!)
Keep studying, keep growing.
31. Keep Walking
Make sure you’re getting a regular bout of exercise in. Ideally, building something into your daily routine that gets your heart rate up: walk, swim, run, cycle, play sport.
A brisk walk is a great way to take a “quality break”. It will not only reset your focus, but also boost your creativity! People often find a good idea often pops into their head while out on a walk, and psychologists have good evidence for the relationship between walking and creativity.
32. Keep Talking
Don’t neglect those around you.
Cultivate a support network among your friends and family so they are there when you need them. That’s best done by talking: sharing what’s going well and not well regularly.
Getting struggles off your chest by discussing them with someone is also a great way to avoid stress building up and make sure that you’re in the right mindset to study effectively.
33. Keep Breathing
Taking slow, calm breaths from deep in your belly is a great tonic to soothe jittery nerves. Get in the habit of practising regularly. It’s another great way to find the right mindset to study effectively.
And if you struggle with anxiety, consider practising meditation: it’s not woo-woo or religious any more, it’s mainstream, and it just teaches how to focus your mind in the present and stop it racing with worries about the future.
I’ve compiled LOADS of the latest research on the benefits of meditation for students in this great article.
If you’re looking for a technique that:
- improves your concetration, focus, stress levels, social interactions, memory, and overall well-being…
Then mindful meditation might be for you!
34. Take A Pressure Vaccine
Immunise yourself against the pressures of final exam day by practising regularly under exam conditions:
- Silent room (preferably surrounded by other people working silently)
- Timed paper
- No notes
- No phone
- Exam stationery
You could even commit to telling someone the results of the mock paper to simulate the pressure to deliver.
The more you get used to it now, the easier it will be on exam day! It’s one of my TOP methods for how to study effectively for exams.
VI. Knowing When To Stop
If you’re having trouble getting fired up to work, try these study motivation tricks.
But for a lot of the Exam Study Expert family, you’re conscientious and committed. So, if anything, I will serve your long-term interests best not by urging you to work (even) harder, but by reminding you not to work too hard and burn yourself out!
You are not a machine. You need to pull yourself away from your books to rest and recharge from time to time.
Relax: you know how to study effectively now, so you don’t need to burn the midnight oil any more. Far better to adopt a sustainable, healthy routine, keeping work and play in balance.
35. Sleep On It
If you’re getting fewer hours of sleep than you need, your brain function will suffer. Typically, adults need 7-8 hours, and it’s more for teenagers. Without proper sleep you’ll be:
- Worse at paying attention
- Worse at remembering things
- Less able to solve problems
- Not so creative
- Less able to form new memories
Who wants that horrific set of disadvantages when studying?
No-one. Get a decent night’s sleep and you’ll have a better chance of studying effectively.
And if sleep doesn’t come easy, start with this checklist.
If it’s the day before a big test, set a clear “quit time” for the night, so that you stop studying at least an hour before bed time. That gives you chance to wind down before bed.
36. Stop & Unplug
Just as important as working hard, you must rest hard. In your quest for exam glory and effective study sessions, do not forget the ancient but treasured art of Stopping For The Day, or the time-honoured practice of The Day Off.
I believe there are four types of “unplugging” we all need:
- A few minutes off an hour, to maintain focus.
- A few hours off each day, for wellbeing activities like exercise, and at least a little daily “me” time.
- A day off each week, for a bigger refresh, indulging in things that make your soul happy:
- walking in nature, playing competitive sport, making fine music, hanging out with friends, or simply curling up with Netflix or a book.
If you need to hear this, then you might like this little pep talk on the importance of time off:
37. Have Fun
When the time comes to put your pen down, enjoy it: guilt-free.
When you’re working, study effectively and study hard.
But when you stop, make it quality time.
Don’t fritter away your hard-earned rest-hours on low-value activities. Make it things you really enjoy.
If you enjoy socialising, hang out with your mates. If you’re really into that new season on Netflix, this is the time to binge an episode or two.
Kick back. Have fun.
You’ve earned it.
And when it’s time to study again, you’ll be return refreshed, revived, and be all the more effective for it.
Wishing you every success in your studies!
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