The science of how to study effectively has uncovered some gems in the last decade or two. Any one of these tips on their own could give you a pretty handy edge in studying well for your exams: together, they add up to a very powerful combination.
There are five areas you need to get right if you want to perfect the art of studying well, so you’ll find the 19 tips grouped under five broad section headings:
- How good navigation helps you to study well
- Learn how to study effectively with learning science
- Develop superhuman focus
- Unleash the power of peak performance
- Know when to take it easy
Let’s dive in, and help you on your way to the grades of your dreams:
I. How good navigation helps you to study well
1. Have a map:
Know where you’re going. Some students like to plan every revision slot into a calendar – that’s fine if that works for you, just keep it light-touch so you don’t spend hours drawing and editing elaborate tables. Others find a simple checklist of topics on the exam is sufficient. Keep track of where you are on each topic with a traffic light system: red dot for “needs works”, amber for “getting there”, green for “got this”.
2. Look ahead
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.
II. Learn how to study effectively with learning science
3. Pull it out
The best learning happens when you’re trying to recall information. 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. “Recall practice”, let’s call it – see recent article on memorisation techniques for more on this.
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.
4. Space it out
Even if you’re learning with recall practice, your memory will fade over time (the “Ebbinghaus forgetting curve“). The solution is to space out your recall practice: don’t do it all on one day, but spread it out, with intervals in between.
That doesn’t mean putting in more hours, it means spacing them out: so rather than spending an hour on one subtopic all on the same day, do half an hour the first day, 10 minutes after a day or two, 10 minutes a week or so later, 10 minutes the week before the exam.
5. Don’t flip
… too early, that is. Flashcards are a great way to do recall practice, with a question on one side, the answer on the back. If at first you don’t know – or think you know, make sure you give yourself a good few moments to rummage through your memory before committing to your final answer, and flipping to find out if you were right.
Same applies to other ways to practise recalling, like doing practice questions: put the notes away, and see how much you can get right even if you’re not sure.
Having given a set of practice questions your best shot, switch to examiner mode. Take a different pen and mark your work. Learn to use the mark schemes if you have access to them. Figure out where you picked up marks, where you fell short.
Many students skimp on this step, but it’s a brilliant way to learn what the examiner wants to see, and therefore how you can write answers that will make him or her giddily happy, and have no choice other than to award you full marks!
7. The Goldilocks zone
When you’re doing recall 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.
III. Develop superhuman focus
A key part of the answer to the question of how to study effectively lies in keeping your mind on the job. Now you’re an expert in the science of learning, from the previous section, we need to make sure that you’re motivated, productive and focused. It’s all about making sure you get enough quality time at your study desk to put all those good learning techniques into practice!
8. 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.
9. Keep growing
Oh, so you don’t believe you have what it takes to be a high-performer? Not smart enough? Not clever enough? Sure, we’re not all destined for Harvard doctorates, but 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”! Keep studying, keep growing.
10. One thing at a time
Each time your concentration breaks, you’ll lose valuable minutes re-finding your focus on whatever you were trying to do. 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.
Keep a notepad to hand so you can write them down and get them out of your head as soon as they occur, and come back to them later when you have time to give them the attention they need.
11. Put it down
Your phone, that is. 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 the notification was all about.
Do yourself a favour: put airplane mode ON, and get the phone OFF your desk.
12. Quality breaks
Depending on the intensity of your work focus, and your concentration span, take time out every 25-50 minutes to rest and reset. Don’t turn on the TV, open a game, check your emails or do anything else that will break your focus – save it for a longer break.
Good things to do in your 10-minute breathers include making a cup of tea, looking out at the garden, doing a few push-ups. Anything that lets your mind rest, without being pulled into a new world of distraction.
IV. Unleash the power of peak performance
An often-neglected but crucial key to the puzzle of how to study well comes in making sure you yourself are well. You have to think of yourself as an athlete – an elite, exam-taking athlete – you cannot possibly perform at your best unless you are taking good care of mind and body.
13. 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”, not only resetting your focus, but also boosting your creativity!
14. 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.
15. 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.
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.
16. Take a pressure vaccine
Immunise yourself against the pressures of 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!
17. Sleep on it
If you’re skimping on sleep, your brain won’t function as well. 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 revising?
No-one. Get a decent night’s sleep.
And if you’re struggling despite best intentions, read this.
V. Know when to take it easy
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.
I know some of you have NO trouble making time for rest – if you’re problem is getting motivated in the first place, check this out.
18. Stop and unplug
Just as important as working hard, you must rest hard. In your quest for exam glory, do not forget the ancient but treasured art of Stopping For The Day, or the time-honoured practice of The Day Off.
Decide when you’re stopping for the day in advance, and plan in the occasional day off to fully unplug and recharge. And when the time comes to put your pen down, enjoy it: guilt-free.
19. Have fun
When you’re working, 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. Play sport. Sing. Hike. Kick back. Have fun.
You’ve earned it.