How to Study: What Students Don’t Know

Every student has to study whether they like it or not, or whether they’re good at studying or not. I know you have definitely heard the saying: “study smart, not hard” but I just want to address this statement really quickly.

When it comes to studying, there is definitely a factor of quality vs. quantity that comes into play. And the quote implies this by suggesting to study “smart” not “hard”. And it’s definitely true that a lot students waste precious, precious time ‘studying’ in a very ineffective way.

That being said, ‘studying’ is similar to training for an athlete. It requires hard work. And it’s not always easy. You will struggle. This is where the above statement is misleading by suggesting studying “smart” is more important than “studying hard”.

The bottom-line is that you should study hard and smart. Put in both quality and quantity. You can put in the quality through learning how to study effectively and then you can put in the quantity through creating a study habit and putting the hours in.

Anyway, how do you study?

Wait….what is studying?

If you’re looking for a quick definition, this is the closest I would get: Studying is a process in which an individual ponders deeply about content and engages with information.

Studying can be broken down into these stages

When you are ‘studying’ you could be doing either of these three things. But for any topic or subject you learn, you follow these three steps in order.

Learning- You are given content to learn for the first time. This is where you have no current information stored on that topic (or perhaps you have little information stored as a foundation).

Revising- You already covered this content but may find ‘gaps’ in your knowledge as a long enough time has passed since you first learned the topic. You need to go back to this material and address your gaps.

Applying- You know most or all the information- you just need to apply this knowledge in exam-style questions. This is most commonly done through practice/exam questions.

That being said, there is a very important step or rule in studying that we students tend to miss out on. And that’s the fact that studying should always engage your brain. No matter whether you are learning, revising or applying knowledge, always use your brain.

What do you mean use your brain? Aren’t you always using your brain?

Studying is an ‘active’ process not a ‘passive’ one

What do I mean by an ‘active’ studying? Well, I’ll tell you what I mean by ‘passive’ studying.

Passive studying is basically when you are taking information without really engaging your brain. Let me give you a few examples:

  • Watching a video- You’re struggling on Lenz’s law so you find a YouTube video that explains that topic. After watching that 9 minute video, you simply go “alright, I got this”.
  • Listening to a lecture- You spend an hour simply listening to your professor or teacher giving a lecture on a topic. You just simply listen and allow the information to flow into one ear and then pop out the other ear.
  • Reading a textbook- Studying for your test on Electrochemistry, you decide to read the entire chapter in the textbook. After reading 6 pages, you feel like you’re more than prepared.

The problem with these processes is that you aren’t actually struggling or making effort to engage with the information. You aren’t actually thinking about the information that is coming at you- you’re just accepting it.

You can always turn ‘passiveness’ into ‘activeness’ by simply engaging with the information.

So how do I study actively?

  • Make notes- When you make notes (from a textbook, lecture or video) you never-ever write down everything word-for-word. You should always think about the information and then choose what words to write. If you do this, you are studying actively because you are actually using your brain to interact with the information coming at you- your brain has to filter it somehow.
  • Test yourself- You will hear a lot about this later but after all your ‘passive studying’, put away all your resources and simply just test yourself to see how much you really remembered. After watching that video, try to explain it to yourself (or a friend) on a blank piece of paper.
  • Do practice questions- Doing practice questions is an excellent way to study actively, assuming that you aren’t looking at the answers or even your notes. If you do practice questions completely from scratch (no material to help you) you have to force your brain to dig out the required information, this will get you to actively study.

Whenever you are studying just make sure what you are doing is ‘active’. Just think about it this way, whenever you are studying your hand should always be moving (you should always have a piece of paper or pen over say a laptop) if you are stationary and still when studying- it’s probably ‘passive’.

Before you start studying

We (as students) have definitely come across a time where we have so much studying to do and yet we never really start because there’s so much!

Sometimes, it gets really difficult to start studying when you know that there’s so much work to do. That’s why you need to get yourself a plan.

Before you start studying, get out your planner/diary and simply just write down what you want to achieve and how long you’re going to spend doing that. If you don’t write out how much time you’re going to spend doing your work, you’re at a risk of spending too much time completing that task (Parkisons’s law).

If you give yourself 2 hours to do Physics homework then it will take you 2 hours to complete it however if you set 3 hours to complete that task- time will somehow fill up to take all those 3 hours. The bottomline is that you should always set a reasonable deadline for completing your tasks otherwise you could be wasting significant time.

A timetable is essential

Even if it’s not exam season, a timetable is highly useful whenever you are studying. You should have all your courses/subjects/topics listed out in your timetable because that makes it very easy to see how your studying fits in the ‘big picture’.

It’s easier to create and organize your study sessions when you have a timetable that is focused on topics and chapters rather than time itself. I recommend using spreadsheet software to create an easy timetable that structures your academics. You can check out the full guide I made here.

Eliminating distractions and the Pomodoro technique

When it comes to studying, you have to eliminate distractions. Completely! I like to use FocusMe, an application and website blocker (on both my phone and laptop) in order to prevent me from visiting distracting websites while I am studying.

I would highly recommend that you download and install an application similar to FocusMe. Some are free whilst others will allow you a free-trial to check out the software.

FocusMe has definitely changed my study behaviors and allowed me to spend less time procrastinating. Whenever I am working, there is no chance of me going on YouTube and wasting precious minutes (maybe hours?) of study time.

This software combined with the Pomodoro technique will definitely allow you to achieve a focused study session. If you are unfamiliar with the Pomodoro technique: it’s basically where you set yourself a 25-minute timer and start working without any distractions at all.

After doing 25 minutes of work, take a 5 minute break. After 4 25-minute sessions, have a longer (1 hour) break.

Remaining on this topic, another common question to consider is: how long should I study?

While the Pomodoro technique has 25-minute sessions, you can do several of those at a time. If you feel 25 minutes is too short (or long?) then you can always adjust this value. However, 25 minutes were chosen because it’s not a very long time so you can keep your focus for the whole/majority of this time.

On the other hand, if you are doing a practice paper and want to complete it under timed conditions (highly recommended of course) then you have to study for up to 2 or 3 hours straight (hopefully not more) to imitate exam conditions.

This is often quite difficult to get through especially if you don’t study for extended periods of time or have too many distractions but it reflects what you will go up against in your exams so you have to be prepared.

Students are different; some study for extended periods of time while others don’t. This is highly dependent on you as a person but you should always remember these two things:

  • When it comes to studying, hard work and technique is important but if you are putting lots of time into ‘passive’ studying or studying with poor techniques then you aren’t maximizing your time
  • Studying for long periods of time may be great for you but you are at risk of burn-out. You don’t want to achieve a point in which you feel completely burned out by doing way too much than you can handle. At the same time, this shouldn’t really be an excuse for not working hard!

Work for as long as you possibly can and remember to always take breaks to prevent yourself burning out.

Mastering the study techniques

Important to note: When researching about effective techniques, I came across several successful techniques that have worked well for me (and lots of other people) but they were considered as being “low-utility”. I have used this study to highlight some points.

People are different which means that we are more inclined towards certain study techniques. The best thing you can do is to try out all the different study techniques and choose what works for you. You may already use a technique that works for you- but you could always try something different.

Spaced repetition- the ultimate study hack

A very useful study technique to use is called “spaced repetition”. We as humans, forget information just after a few days. Imagine learning a new concept or topic from school. When you go home that day you have probably forgot some of that information. About a day later, you could have forgot half of the initial information. And in two days, you most likely don’t remember most of it. As you can see, day by day, you retain less information as memory.

In order to solve this, we need to review information. If you came home that first day (after learning that new concept) and reviewed what you learned; you have essentially shifted your ‘forgetting curve’ meaning that you can retain this information for a longer time. What you then need to do is review that information two days later, then one week later. This will solidify the information in your brain.

It is vital that you start your revision early if you want to use spaced repetition. There is little point in using this technique a few days before your exam, if you start your revision early then you can revise topics over and over again. It all comes down to planning what topics you need to cover and when you should cover them. 

If you like using flashcards then perhaps you should check out this thing below….

Spaced repetition software- Anki

Anki is a great application that you can download on Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android and even use on a web browser.

Anki allows you to create flashcards which you can use to constantly test yourself. The best part is, it’s programmed to include spaced repetition in the software itself. This means that Anki will know when to test you next- it may be in an hour, in a day or in a week- depending on how confidently you answer the question. This is an amazing tool for revision and you should totally try it it out.

Anki also offers online decks (decks created and shared by other people) which you can use in your study sessions. This is extremely useful for some students (especially for language students who need to cover grammar and vocabulary).

Want to know more about using flashcards? Check out my full article here.

Practice testing

The key to revision is simple: always test yourself.

Whenever you study material, take a few seconds to test yourself, you will be surprised to see how effective this is. You will significantly increase your test performance. You see, your brain will always trick you. Whenever you study material and come back to it later, your brain will make you think that you know all the information. In actual fact, you may not know all the facts or concepts perfectly well. So you fall into the trap of just re-reading notes. That is why you must test yourself.

Take for example reading a textbook (remember it’s a passive form of studying). After you read pages of information how much do you actually remember? Your brain will say “I know all of this” but if you simply close the book and write down what you remember, you may encounter difficulties. Which is why you must test yourself.

How you can use practice testing

Practice testing is very easy to implement. There are several ways you can use practice testing in your study or revision, this includes:

  • Flashcards- You can create flashcards yourself but I have already told you about Anki; which is a great flashcard software. Flashcards are quick and easy to use but try your best to work your mind; don’t fall in the trap of giving up too easily and checking the answer. Make your brain struggle because that is were you make those connections in your head.
  • Cornell note taking- In this note taking system, you must leave a little space at the bottom of the page for questions and key terms. You have to then recall concepts and facts based upon your keywords and questions- not by reading your notes. This will force you to recall as much information as you possibly can from an initial prompt.
  • Teaching- Teaching somebody else is a highly effective revision technique. If you can explain a concept to somebody else flawlessly then you know your stuff. But if you struggle to teach other people then you know that your understanding is lacking. I often hear people say “I know this but I don’t know how to explain it…” which really makes me question whether they truly understand the topic.
  • Practice questions and past exam papers- This is arguably the best strategy to use in your revision. By doing practice questions you are forcing yourself to not only recall knowledge but to apply it into context. Just remember to attempt the question fully- do not look at the answer (on the mark scheme) and pretend that you had known the answer. First, go through the full process of answering questions without any help. Then try to use your notes to help you. If there is no negative marking then always give an answer.
  • “Scribbling method”- Now I made this name up but I call this the “Scribbling” method. All you do is get yourself a piece of paper and write everything you know about a certain topic- do not refer to any revision sources- use your memory. You can even make a mind map from scratch about a topic and then you can use a different colour to add any information you forgot.
  • Feynman method- This is a combination of the “Scribbling method” as well as teaching. It involves explaining a topic to another person in the simplest possible language. If you don’t have another person to teach, try going through a whole topic by writing down all the information on a blank piece of paper.

Techniques considered “Low utility” in revision

The study done by Mr.Dunlosky and his team, considers spaced/distributed practice and practice testing as being “high utility” methods for study. But what about methods that are considered to be of “low utility”.

Now of course, experiments do have limitations and there are always conflicting views from different studies done. However, these are a few “low utility” study techniques which students tend to use. And I know that there are successful students out there who do use techniques, but at the same time, there are students who struggle massively due to using these poor study techniques.

Re-reading

This methods is probably the most popular amongst students and unfortunately its regarded as an ineffective technique for studying. But don’t I need to read information before I understand it? Well yes but when you have an exam/test coming up, do not just read your textbook or your notes.

If you are initially reading about a new topic then it’s fine. Just remember that reading over text does not lead to memorising it. Whenever you read over academic content that you have studied before- your brain goes like “yeah…I had already known that….it makes sense. I know all this”. In actual fact, your brain is being lazy and tricking you. You don’t actually know everything and that’s why you must constantly test yourself over and over again.

If you ever decide to use re-reading as a method (not recommended but lots of people will move to this as a last resort) then you can maximize the benefit through simply testing yourself.

After you have read through that textbook page, close the book and get yourself a piece of paper. Now summaries everything you have just read, include facts, concepts and diagrams (this is the “scribbling method” I talked about above).

If you struggle to summarise or even remember what you just read, then you know that reading that textbook page wasn’t beneficial to your studying. Try it out for yourself.

Hopefully, after several re-visits, you should be able to explain a the topic, in high detail, without checking your textbook or notes.

Highlighting

The study emphasises that “most studies have shown no benefit of highlighting”. Now, a lot of students just highlight or underline lines and lines of text but this is no different from re-reading. What you should do is highlight a few key words and then recall information based upon those words. Remember to always test yourself on what you are highlighting. 

So after you have done your highlighting, write down all the keywords and phrases you highlighted (remember these shouldn’t paragaprahs or lines of text). Now, try to recall as much as you can from those keywords alone. You can go one step further and use no keywords to help you (just your brain) to recall the information.

Imagery use for text learning?

In the study done, imagery use of learning for text learning, is considered “low utility”. However I want to bring your attention to the following few lines taken from this study (I put the important parts in bold):

“The majority of studies have examined the influence of imagery by using relatively brief instructions that encouraged students to generate images of text content while studying.”

How much training would be required to ensure that students consistently and effectively use imagery under the appropriate conditions is unknown.”

You see, the students in this research did not know how to actually use imagery in their study. This is where I believe this study is flawed. However they do say that “Imagery can improve students’ learning of text materials”. 

It is very possible to learn how to use imagery to memorize content- however this does require practice and instructions which the students in this study did not receive.

In conclusion, when you come to revise information it is important to space out your revision and to always  test yourself. Avoid re-reading your notes or highlighting a textbook. If you know how to imagery in your revision then go ahead and memorise content but once again don’t forget to test yourself; the best way is to do practice questions (also know as exam questions or past paper questions).

Remember, choose what works for you!

How to use teachers and tutors

If you are struggling with a specific course or subject who should you ask for help first? The answer is your teacher/professor/tutor.

I believe that teachers are a highly under-utilised resource that you may have. Teachers are there to help you, you just need to ask for the help.

If you don’t know what you should be aiming for in your study sessions, ask a teacher (or professor or tutor). These people are experienced and have worked with so many students in the past- they know what is required to do well in a certain subject or course.

How to study in a group

I have a full comprehensive article on how to study in a group right here.

Studying in a group could end up two ways. A total success or a total fail. Sometimes it works and at other times, it doesn’t. The key is to study with people who will give you value and they can gain value from you as well.

Studying with other people has its benefits such as:

  • You can share notes and ideas
  • You can ask questions and clarify confusion
  • You can gain motivation and study on a consistent basis (through the power of accountability)

You should always try to study with somebody who excels in a subject so they can teach and walk you through a topic. Or someone who struggles at a subject might want to study with you- in which case the power of teaching will solidify your understanding.

Bonus tip: I have to give a shout-out to my friend at High School (Thanks Talhah!). He basically created these chat groups on WhatsApp (of course, you can use whatever chat platform you like). But my friend here, created a chat group that was strictly about our subjects.

We had a “Strictly Chemistry” group, “Strictly Physics” and “Strictly Maths”. Essentially, it’s a like a class group chat but highly focused on helping each other. It was close to exam season when this group was created, but we asked and answered so many questions within our group chat- and it was super useful!

All you have to do is create a chat/discussion group and then invite people. You can then ask questions, take pictures of questions and send them on the group chat. You will then be able to get feedback from your peers and classmates. And if people do mess about, you can always kick them from the group!

The different learning styles- is it true?

I remember when I was in primary school (year 6 to be precise), we were tasked with finding out our learning style. You know, whether you are a kinesthetic, auditory or visual learner (also known as VARK). Now this concept has still remained to this present day but is this actually true?

A lot of us are a combination of these learning styles. But is there a single solution for everyone?

Through performing research and after checking a few studies done on this topic, there still seems to be some controversy over these learning styles students have.

According to the research I did, I found three different sources that showed no convincing evidence for these different learning styles (you can find the studies listed at the end of this article, in the ‘Sources’ section).

You may still believe in learning styles as opposed to the research that had been conducted. I understand that these studies do have a flaw but these ‘learning styles’ don’t mean much to a student until they actually go out there and use their strengths to achieve results.

Whether you believe in a learning style or not, you have to adapt yourself. If your academic goal is to achieve a certain grade or percentage in a test/exam then the strategy is simple. It comes in three over-simplified steps:

  1. Initial exposure to material (you first learn about a topic)
  2. Understand and memorise the information
  3. Apply it to exam questions

Regardless of what type of learner you are (if that even exists) you need to get information (from a textbook, lecture or notes) into your brain then use that information to answer questions. If you already have techniques that work then it’s fine but what if you tried a new one that worked even better?

Happy studying!

Sources

Study for effective study techniques: “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology”- John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan, and Daniel T. Willingham

Studies to prove whether learning styles are true:

“Another Nail in the Coffin for Learning Styles?”

“Learning Style, judgements of learning, and learning of verbal and visual information”

“Matching Learning Style to Instructional Method: Effects on Comprehension”

 

 

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