For better or worse, studying is part of college life. It is also a technique that requires patience, practice, and trial and error. As you think about studying methods that are right for you, consider the tips below. You might find techniques that will help you get the most out of your college classes (both the engaging and the not-so-engaging ones).
Set Yourself up for Success
One of the most beneficial ways to begin the studying process is to set yourself up for success from the start. Consider the following tips.
1. Stick to Print
Tablets and other eLearning media are convenient and portable, but research suggests that traditional print materials still have the upper hand when it comes to studying. Some researchers argue that adopting interactive habits like scrolling, clicking, and pointing enhances the academic experience, but more than 90% of students polled said they prefer a hard copy or print over a digital device when it comes to studying and school work. Furthermore, a psychology lecturer finds that students required more repetition to learn new material if they were reading on a computer screen versus reading printed material.
While some experts argue the ability to concentrate during silence or listening to music while studying is left up to personal preference, many agree that playing certain types of music, such as “obscure 18th century composers,” can help students engage parts of their brain that help them pay attention and make predictions. Not to mention, listening to music may improve your mood and change your whole outlook about studying in general.
The benefits of exercise on the brain have been well established in the fields of health, fitness, and psychology. Studies show our brainpower gets a boost following even a short workout, as our bodies are pumping oxygen and nutrients to the brain. According to Dr. Douglas B. McKeag, breaking a sweat shortly before cracking the books can make you more alert, open, and able to learn new information during your post-workout study session.
Stress hinders learning. UC Irvine researchers find that stress lasting as briefly as a couple of hours can engage corticotropin-releasing hormones that disrupt the process of creating and storing memories. Taking study breaks to exercise or drawing a few deep breaths will help your studying if they lower your stress level.
When and Where to Study
While you might think late-night study sessions are disadvantageous to your academic success, research suggests they are not necessarily a bad idea. Additionally, some psychologists even encourage students to break with their daily college-life routines, especially when it comes to studying for a midterm or final exam.
Studying at your tiredest can help your brain retain higher concentrations of new skills, such as speaking a foreign language or playing an instrument. There’s even a term for it: sleep-learning. As the memory-consolidation process does its best work during slow-wave sleep, your brain could be getting both the restoration and reactivation it needs during its time of rest. All of this means that reviewing study materials before bed can help you brain learn, even in your sleep.
A change of scenery impacts learning and concentration abilities. Psychologist Robert Bjork suggests that simply moving to a different room to study (or going a step further and learning amongst the great outdoors) could increase both your concentration and retention levels.
Scientists have been investigating information retention and the studying process for decades. The best way to find the most effective study method for you is to test various tips, such as the ones listed below.
Scientists started exploring the “curve of forgetting” in 1885, but the concept remains useful to today’s study habits. The gist of the “curve of forgetting” is this: The first time you hear a lecture or study something new, you retain up to 80% of what you’ve just learned — if you review the material within 24 hours. Fortunately, this effect is cumulative; so after a week, you may retain 100% of the same information after only five minutes of review. Generally, psychologists agree this type of interval studying — as opposed to “cramming” — is best, and that students should study closer to the day they learned the material than the day of the test.
This controversial method of studying was a hot topic in 2009, when a psychology professor published an article advising students against reading and rereading textbooks — which, he argued, merely lead students to thinking they know the material better than they do since it is right in front of them. Conversely, he suggested students use active recall: closing the book and reciting everything they can remember up to that point to practice long-term memorization.
9. Use the Leitner System
Named for its originator, German scientist Sebastian Leitner, the study method forces students to learn, through repetition, the material they know least well. The system involves moving cards with correctly answered questions further down a line of boxes and moving incorrectly answered cards back to the first box. Thus, the cards in the first box are studied most frequently and the interval becomes greater as the student proceeds down the line, forcing her to review again and again the information she doesn’t know.
As you would with the ACT, SAT, or GMAT, take advantage of professors and instructors who make old exams available as practice tests. You can get a sense of the instructor’s testing style and a become familiar with how the information might be presented on the real test day. A 2011 study finds students who tested themselves with a practice test after learning the material retained 50% more of the information a week later than their peers who did not take a practice test.
11. Make Connections
Experts argue that the difference between “slow learners” and “quick studiers” is the way they study; for example, instead of memorizing, “quick learners” make connections between ideas. Known as contextual learning, this process requires students to customize their own methods of learning, thus making connections that inspire all of the information to fall into place and make sense for them individually. Some students find that recording all information visually in one place (such as on a sheet of paper or chalkboard) can help to paint a fuller picture and aid their connections within the learning process.
Physicist Robert Fenyman created this organization-based learning method by writing on the title page of an empty notebook, notebook of things I don’t know about. From there, he developed a technique of deconstruction and reconstruction of ideas, in an effort to understand even the most complicated of concepts. To use this method and learn how to study effectively, first identify what you want to learn. Then, try explaining it as you would to a five-year-old. The Fenyman method is ideal for using analogies to further illustrate your concept (e.g., a bonsai tree is just like a big tree, but smaller).
Research shows that students have better memory and recall abilities when they learn new information with the expectation of having to teach it to someone else. This makes sense, as teachers are charged with not only learning information for themselves, but also with organizing key elements of said information to explain it clearly to others. Studies also suggest that students are more engaged and will instinctively seek out methods of recall and organization when expected to take on a “teacher” role. This can be especially effective with subjects like reading comprehension and science, though part of the magic involves working out how you’d “teach” each subject on a case-by-case basis.
Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, thrives on self-awareness. To achieve this, students need to be able to assess their level of skill and where they are in their studies, as well as monitor their emotional well-being around potentially stressful studying activities.
What Not to Do When Studying
While the studying methods included above are strategic and focused, the tips below remind us that we can, in fact, “overdo it” when it comes to studying.
15. Don’t Overlearn
Once you’ve been able to cycle through your flashcards without making a single mistake, you may feel a sense of satisfaction and call it a day, or you may feel a charge of adrenaline and be tempted to continue studying. When you come to this fork in the road, keep in mind that a sharp onset of diminishing returns during “overlearning.” With a limited amount of time to study each topic, you’re better served moving on to something else.
Multitasking is a myth. You may think you’re killing two birds with one stone by texting while studying, for example, but you’re actually forming poor study habits. According to researchers, so-called “multitasking” extends your study time and ultimately may damage your grades.
Researchers and learning experts debate the concept of learning styles, some even go so far as to say they don’t exist. Our conclusion is this: Despite the amount of work on the subject, scientists have found “virtually no evidence” to support the concept of learning styles, though they left the possibility open to further investigation in years to come. We recommend you don’t go out of your way to try to make your material fit a specific style because it may not be worth the time or effort.
Bonus Tip: Don’t Focus on One Subject for Too Long
If you’ve never felt “burned out” from repeatedly studying pages of history notes, scrutinizing chemistry formulas, or practicing music scales, consider yourself lucky. But know that the threat is real. It’s best to vary your material rather than zeroing in persistently on one area. (It is acceptable to join related or similar subject areas together; for example, instead of only memorizing vocabulary, mix in reading as well. If doing math, tackle several concepts together instead of just one.)