Studying. What a simple word, yet what a daunting feeling most students get overwhelmed by. Simply at the mere idea of having to do what appears to be quite an innocent task. With the fast-paced world, we live in today, we are, quite literally, always swarmed with a million distractions. They are in all directions that make it devastatingly difficult for us to get anything done – including study effectively.
With so many different studying techniques constantly being shoved in our faces along with the traditional expectations of what a hard working student should look like, more often than not, these poor students (you poor student) are basically glued to your desk with all your study material spinning around and around your head but never quite being absorbed.
So what are you supposed to do? Accept your fate and your barely passing grades or just drop out of school all together?
Well, that won’t be necessary anymore.
This is the perfect (and the only) guide you will ever need when it comes to finding ways to study effectively so that not only can you reduce your long hours of being attached to a chair all day, but so that you can also actually understand what the heck is going on!
Before we talk about what to do. Let’s talk about what not to do. It’s important for us to understand the ways in which our brains work and why our current studying methods might not be working for us. The better we understand why something doesn’t work the better we can adapt it into making it work. This will help you study effectively especially in the long term.
1. Rereading notes
To put it blatantly. It is a complete waste of time. Your chances of actually absorbing all of those lines and lines of text are very little, yet alone being able to remember and recall them for future tests? Close to basically none. By just reading something over and over again, you’re not engaging your brain.
For you to learn something – actually learn something – it is vital that you are constantly forming new connections and reestablishing neurological pathways that already exist in your brain. And rereading your notes does none of that. Hence not helping you study effectively.
This is the version of rereading notes that makes you feel more productive since now you have all these bright and pretty colours on your key words and key phrases that are supposed to help you memorize them.
But to be very honest with you. They’re not doing very much…at all. It’s basically the exact same as rereading your notes only more rewarding for you to look at and feel accomplished, but again. It doesn’t reinforce any of the connections made in your brain. Unless you have a partially photographic memory, this won’t help you study effectively.
3. Summarizing + Making notes
For a lot of students out there, their favourite form of studying is making notes. And I get it. I really do. It feels like everything that you’re getting down on paper is also being written in your brain and for anyone who is organized and likes to beautify their notes, this doesn’t just feel productive it also feels incredibly rewarding.
But it’s not exactly helping you remember or learn anything.
As mentioned before, for you to be able to learn new information it is vital for the neurological pathways in your brain to be constantly activated to allow for them to be strengthened. The brain stores new information by linking it to patterns of related information already stored in neural circuits of existing memory. These clusters of related information stored together in memory are what psychologist Jean Piaget (1957) described as cognitive frameworks, or schemas.
Now that all of that is cleared up. What exactly should you do?
Active recall is the process of remembering information in such an effective way that it allows for information to move from the areas of your brain responsible for short term memory to the areas responsible for long term memory so that you can easily draw on it again when you need it most, such as for an assessment or exam.
It is basically constantly exposing your brain to a certain piece of information over predetermined intervals of time to strengthen the neurological connections in your brain associated with the memory of that particular piece of information until it basically just becomes engrained. Now THAT will help you study effectively.
1. Anki App (or any other active recallation app)
This app basically helps you memorize just about anything. Medical students often use this to help them really solidify their knowledge of their overwhelming amount of thesis based information to remember.
You set yourself questions and answers and set timers and it will give you quick little quizzes based on your questions to do throughout the day/week/month.
The more you frequently you’re exposed to something the better you remember it.
2. Make notes with book closed
- Pick a topic that you want to study
- Close your book/notes and on a blank paper write down absolutely everything that you can remember. Take your time with this.
- When you’re done, open the textbook and in a different coloured pen, check everything that you wrote down, correct it, add things you missed etc.
- Do this again and again for the same topic however many times you need to, you’ll start to see less and less of the different coloured ink which means you’re getting a lot better at that topic.
- If you’re more of a visual learner, do this with a spider diagram so that you can tailor an effective studying method that works best for you.
3. Write questions for yourself during class/lectures to answer later
To put it simply, when you’re learning a unit in class or at a lecture, instead of taking your usual notes, write down questions based on whatever you’re learning.
- E.g. you’re learning about female reproductive organs, write questions like: “What is the function of the Luteinizing hormone?”
Then when it is time to study, look at your list of questions and attempt to answer them (written or verbally, as long as you understand what is going on, that is the key.)
This is a great alternative method to replace “rereading notes” with.
Just think about it for a second. Would you learn more from simply reading off “The Luteinizing hormone triggers the release of an egg from the ovary.” over and over and over again like a broken record.
Or, would answering that question for yourself, however wrong you may be the first try, it will be a more beneficial method for you to actually understand and learn what you’re supposed to be studying.
Spaced repetition is a technique that comes hand in hand with the technique of active recalling. To put it simply, instead of just trying to restudy something every hour for a week, you give your brain some credit for being one of the most complex and phenomenal things to ever exist in our world, and make it harder for yourself.
4. Gradually increase intervals
So instead of studying your unit/topic every 3 hours, you gradually increase the intervals. So lets start with you studying a topic for an hour.
Use one of the active recalling methods to try and remember everything you learned after 3 hours. Then instead of doing it after another 3 hours, do it the next day. Then 2 days after. And then 4 days after. And then a week after and so on.
You can alter this however you’d like to suit your own needs and learning pace but the key is to gradually increase the length of the intervals between your sessions of active recalling.
5. Switch topics
Revise 1 topic for about an hour, then move on and revise another topic. After a couple of hours, go back to the first topic that you studied and do some of the “Active Recalling” exercises with those units. This way not only will you learn more, but you will also be making it harder for your brain to recall.
That sounds bad doesn’t it. Why would you want to make it harder? Well to put it simply, the harder it is to remember, the stronger the connections formed through your neurological pathways will be. So it’ll be hard to remember the first time but after that it’ll come to you like second nature. Which personally, worth it.
6. Flash cards
Super helpful way to help you revise. Try to write just questions on your flashcards (maybe the questions you wrote from your lessons/lectures) and then a few bullet-pointed notes on the other side of the card that indicate answers.
You should try to answer them out loud because when you’re saying stuff out loud you’re less likely to get away with it making no sense.
7. Past Paper Questions (duh)
Do the questions with a closed book even if you get it completely wrong and can’t remember the difference between something as simple as numbers and letters, that’s okay!! Just mark and correct yourself in a different coloured pen and then make sure you come back to the same question after a couple of days/weeks.
Remember, you learn far more from mistakes than you do from successes.
8. Write down all topics/subjects areas on a spreadsheet
Mark the date you actively recalled and colour code according to how well you did to track your progress.
- Green – really great, almost remembered everything
- Orange/yellow – did pretty well, could remember the majority of things but still needs some work
- Red – sucked so bad you wanted to set yourself on fire, needs a lot of urgent work
The goal is to have all of them as greens eventually. This will basically just help keep track so you’re never behind on what you need to do and don’t accidentally forget an entire section of a unit. This will help you plan out more productive sessions to study effectively.
9. Start with stuff you don’t know
Pretty self explanatory. It’s gonna suck and it’ll be hard but it’s okay you can nurse your wounded ego by doing all the topics you’re already good at towards the end of studying sessions to regain confidence.
10. Do a bit, recall a bit, move on
Don’t study an entire unit in one go.
Split it up into little sections and then switch around. So study a little bit of one topic, then actively recall, then go on to the next one.
Bulk studying is actually pretty ineffective and overwhelming and your brain will likely just get tired and want to give into those distractions we mentioned earlier. You’re not gonna absorb much so just take baby steps.
Keep things interesting by always changing around the topics so that you’re never unbearably bored and if you do start to feel too overwhelmed, take a quick break, get some fresh air or a nourishing snack and then get back to it.
11. Teach someone!
This is an absolutely amazing technique to really get you to have an unbreakable grasp with the concepts you are trying to understand. Whether it’s a friend or a sibling or another family member, sit someone down and try to teach them the unit you just learned.
Use a whiteboard or drawings to explain if you have to. But genuinely try to make sure that they understand it. This will force you to simplify some of the more complex concepts you are trying to learn and that will help really ground your understanding of them. This is definitely a way to study more effectively.
If you don’t have anyone at your disposal, you can use stuffed animals or even make your own stick man to talk to.
Now on an ending note. Remember that as complex and astonishing the organ inside our skull is, it is also completely unique to every single individual on Earth. What works for you, might not work for everyone. Or what works for everyone, might not seem to be working with you.
This in no way makes you any less intelligent or capable. We all perceive the world around us differently and some of us are more connected to particular senses over the others. What seems to work for everyone else doesn’t have to work for you. You just have to find a way that works best for you and adapt and innovate it so that it stays working for you.
I am very hopeful that you were able to find at least a few of the pointers handy when it comes to your own time of knowing how to study effectively. As this article was based off the generalized knowledge we are aware of when it comes to the brain.
If you want to learn more about setting goals, read our article on 11 tips to set goals that you will always achieve, to make sure that you are seeing all the results that you want and are always setting yourself up for success.