So many smart and capable students underperform simply because they never learned how to study properly. A common misconception is that you can simply read the material several times, absorb the information like a sponge, and be ready for a test. This couldn’t be further from the truth! This article shares techniques and tips on how to study effectively to ensure that you meet your potential in school and beyond.
Neglecting any one of these five stages could lead to subpar exam scores and disappointing grades. Let’s break these stages down individually.
Have you ever finished reading a page of text and realized you have no idea what you just read? Although you can get away with this if it’s the latest Stephen King thriller, this type of passive reading is disastrous when it comes to schoolwork. Instead, you must read actively by engaging different parts of your brain and interacting with the text.
Two expertly-crafted reading strategies, THIEVES and SQ3R, can help make sure you actively engage with and comprehend the text.
The THIEVES Pre-Reading Strategy aims to get the reader’s mind primed for the information they are about to digest. Most students dive into a reading assignment on page one and slog through, slightly lost, until they eventually emerge at the end. And many times, that doesn’t end well.
The THIEVES Pre-Reading Strategy treats reading as a journey. The strategy prevents that lost feeling by encouraging a deep scan of the text before reading — so you have landmarks, guideposts, and a destination in mind before you begin actually reading.
THIEVES is an acronym for Title, Headings, Introduction, Every first sentence, Visuals/Vocabulary, End of article/chapter questions, and Summary. Effective use of this strategy starts with completing all of the steps before reading the material in its entirety. Here’s what you should be contemplating at each step:
Consider the title of the passage and ask yourself: What will the passage be about? What do I already know about this topic? Does the topic express a point of view, or can I anticipate the author’s point of view?
Skim through all the headings in the material and ask yourself: How does each heading in the material relate to the title? How is the information organized? What might I read about in each section of the material?
Chapters may begin with an introductory paragraph or an introductory passage that’s sometimes in italics. Read this introduction to become acquainted with what the section will cover.
Read the first sentence of each section to get an overview of what you will be reading. Think about how the author has designed the progression of the passage.
Skim the passage for graphs, charts, illustrations, bold type, and unfamiliar terminology. Ask yourself: What do these visual aids add to the discussion? Are there any words or terms that I need to define before I start reading?
Some textbooks include lists of questions at the end of each chapter. It can be very beneficial to review those questions before reading the material so that you can look for answers as you read.
Before you begin reading the material in earnest, summarize the insights you’ve attained from your THIEVES analysis. What will the main point be, and what steps will the author take to get there?
The THIEVES Pre-Reading Strategy gives you a roadmap for your reading journey so that you know what to expect, how long it will take, and how everything connects together.
This effective reading strategy is named for its 5 steps: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review (see what they did there with the three Rs?). The strategy encourages you to actively read by formulating text-based questions before you begin reading, and then striving to answer them all by the time you have finished.
The first step is designed to prime your mind for what you are about to learn.
The second step encourages a proactive, fully-engaged approach to reading.
The third step builds upon the second in aiding you to read in a different way.
The fourth step helps to cement your newly-acquired knowledge in your mind and ensure deep understanding.
The final step is designed to make sure everything comes together and makes sense.
No matter what strategy you use to complete your pre-class reading, it is imperative that you read actively! Take your time and associate the concepts with real-world or personal examples.
As you’re reading, physically engage with the text if you own the written material (whether it’s a handout, book, or other type of hard copy). Write in the margins and jot down summaries, questions, comments, and connections. As you read, underline sentences, circle keywords, and highlight important information.
A great tip is to color code your highlighting and annotations. According to studies, color coding helps you to retain information. Grab an assortment of different colored highlighters and commit to using, for example, yellow for main points, blue for important vocab, green for explanations, etc. Create your own system in accordance with what makes sense for the topic, and be sure to carry these color designations over to any handwritten notes by using colored pens and colored post-it flags.
Reading the material before class must be more than simple passive reading! This first stage of the study cycle sets the foundation for success: read slowly while making mental connections, understand every word, and actively engage with the text using margin notes and color-coded highlighting.
The second stage of the study cycle is taking thorough notes in class. Never rely on the lecture notes that are sometimes provided—you must write your notes yourself to maximize comprehension and retention.
It’s best to handwrite your notes rather than typing them. Of course, laptops are ubiquitous in modern classrooms, and writing by hand is, admittedly, slower and more cumbersome. However, studies have shown that writing your notes may be more beneficial precisely because of those perceived drawbacks. “When people type their notes, they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can,” Pam Mueller of Princeton University says of her landmark Psychological Science study. “The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can’t write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them.”
Don’t worry about being neat at this stage. You’ll be rewriting (or typing, if you prefer) these notes in a more organized and thorough format during the next stage of the study cycle.
Because handwriting notes can be slow, you should adopt and commit to a system of abbreviations for common words. For example, you can use bc instead of because, v instead of very, w/o instead of without, etc. Make use of symbols, too, such as ∴ instead of therefore, → instead of leads to, ≈ instead of approximately. Create your own abbreviations, symbols, and acronyms for commonly used words in your particular area of study.
Within a few days after each class, set aside the time to rewrite the notes you took during class. Your initial notes will probably be messy and disconnected. Break out your colored pens, highlighters,and a dedicated notebook, and rewrite those notes so they make clear and logical sense. Even if your notes weren’t bad the first time around, this process of rewriting helps you remember important concepts. Don’t skip this step!
As you rewrite your notes, consider using the Cornell Notetaking System. This effective notetaking method standardizes your notes for easy reference. For each page, create a title at the top, and then split the majority of the remaining page vertically: a smaller column on the left for keywords and phrases, and a larger column on the right for the actual notes. The notes in the right-hand column can be recorded in outline form or as paragraphs, bullet points, a mind-map—whatever works best for you. The idea here is to have a small column for easily finding what you seek and a large column that fleshes out the details. At the bottom of each page, reserve some space to write a summary of the page’s contents.
You may also want to create some flashcards at this point, which you’ll use later for spaced repetition.
At this stage of your study cycle, you should also reach out to your classmates if there are any gaps in your notes or understanding. Especially when handwriting notes, you may miss a few things. Collaborating with your friends can be mutually beneficial to ensuring that you both have the foundation for attacking the next step: Studying!
Finally, we arrive at the heart of the matter: the actual studying! If you’ve diligently done your pre-class reading, in-class notes, and post-class note organization, you’ll be well prepared to begin. Still, there several small steps you’ll need to take before actually getting started: get set-up, prepare your materials, choose the environment, optimize your mind and body, and explore study techniques. Let’s discuss these factors in detail:
First things first: set a goal for yourself. It may be a grade you hope to achieve on an exam or a specific score on a standardized test. Decide on your goal so that you have something concrete to work toward when motivation lags.
Then, ensure that you’ve given yourself enough time to study before the exam. You’ll want to pace yourself and study a bit every day, as opposed to cramming at the last minute. As one study showed, “long-lasting memories are formed when the stimulus is temporally distributed.” What that means is, in order to remember things for a long time, you are better off giving yourself breaks between learning sessions.
Next, create a study schedule. This schedule should be extremely detailed. Include what topic you’ll study each day. Consider whether or not you’re a morning person when deciding what hours you’ll devote per day. Set a start time and ending time for each session (keep the sessions short and realistic). Decide on a location for each session (Mix it up! More on this later.). And assign the specific activity you’ll tackle (reading the text, reading your notes, making flashcards, reviewing flashcards, etc.).
You should hold some of your study sessions away from home in—cafes, libraries, and even outdoors (weather permitting). However, you don’t want to be forced to end your study session early because you forgot to bring something critical. Make a list of everything you need to pack for a study session.
Some things you may need to pack:
Think about where you want to do your studying. Although the majority of your study time can be in your room, you should also get out and study in public places. Not only will this help stave off boredom, but it will also give you experience focusing amid background noise and slight distractions. Alternate silent study areas with places that have people milling around or talking in lowered voices. Libraries are perfect for this, but quiet cafes and park benches work equally well. Inject a bit of variety into your study locations.
Studies show that listening to music while studying can help your progress as well. However, the type of music is very important. One study found that “only ‘soft fast’ music had a positive influence, whilst ‘loud fast’ as well as ‘soft slow’ or ‘loud slow’ music hindered learning.” Another study found that instrumental music works better than music with lyrics. You can find excellent study playlists on YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, and nearly any music streaming service. Just be sure to stay away from listening to TV or podcasts as background noise—they are far too distracting for studying.
Last, but by no means least, don’t let your phone distract you. Instagram and Twitter notifications are sometimes irresistible. At the very least, put your phone on Airplane Mode so you don’t receive alerts. Even better, download an app designed to restrict you from predefined internet sites for a set amount of time—forcing you to stay focused on the task at hand.
Keeping your mind and body healthy before and during studying has a bigger impact than you may think.
Exercise is proven to increase alertness and assist in memorization. In fact, it doesn’t matter if you hit the gym before or after a study session—both have proven benefits. Engaging in moderately strenuous activity just before or after studying can help cement concepts in the mind. According to an article in Scientific American, “in a variety of experiments, people who biked, did leg presses or even simply squeezed a handgrip shortly after or before learning did better on tests of recall in the hours, days or weeks that followed.” Moreover, studies show that even exercising several hours after studying can have incredibly beneficial effects.
The bottom line is that getting the blood pumping helps the brain function at its peak, regardless of whether the physical activity is performed before, just after, or hours after studying.
What you eat also has an enormous impact on how well your brain is able to retain and process new information. Adopt healthy eating habits well in advance of study time, but also choose brain-boosting snacks while hitting the books. Excellent choices include foods high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Stay hydrated. Every day, aim to drink at least half an ounce of water for every pound you weigh. So if you weigh 150 pounds, drink at least 75 ounces (or about half a gallon) of water per day. This includes tea, coffee, and other non-caloric liquids. Dehydration can impair short-term memory and the ability to recall from long-term memory.
Even drinking water during the exam itself has great benefits. In one study, those who brought water into a test were able to achieve grades up to 10% higher than predicted. The increase may come from water-sipping’s ability to relieve anxiety during stressful moments. In any case, the brain is 75% water, and keeping the brain happy and healthy is always beneficial for mental function.
Finally, ensure that you get enough sleep during study marathons. Late-night cramming may seem effective because the concepts, so recently reviewed, will feel familiar when you see them again. However, familiarity is not comprehension, and as psychologist Tom Stafford explained, “being able to recognize something is not the same as being able to recall it.”
Regardless, one study showed that sleep deprivation, even of only a few hours every night, is terrible for memory, attention, and vigilance. The study showed that, after two weeks of sleeping six hours or less a night, students felt as bad and performed as poorly as someone having gone without sleep for 48 hours. It’s critical to get those zzzs!
Many people believe that they have a particular “learning style.” That is, they swear that they are visual, auditory, reading, or kinesthetic learners, and that they only learn well via one particular medium. However, the idea of “learning styles” has been widely debunked.
The idea of “learning styles” was created in the 1990s and was based on a questionnaire called VARK, which sought, through a series of real-world questions, to determine which way you prefer to receive and transmit information. The questionnaire presents questions like “I want to assemble a wooden table that came in parts. I would learn best from (A) diagrams, (B) advice from someone who has done it before, (C) written instructions, or (D) watching a video.”
Although the idea itself isn’t particularly flawed, the test only determines what the test-taker prefers, not what actually works best for him or her. In fact, study after study has shown that a student’s “learning style” has no impact on their ability to remember and process information presented in any format.
Every student can and does learn in a multitude of ways. Study techniques that combine several formats and engage different parts of the brain tend to work well for all students.
Let’s take a detailed look at some of the most popular study techniques and compare their strategies.
Created by Richard Feynman (fīn’mən), a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, the Feynman technique allows a learner to more easily understand confusing concepts, study efficiently, and remember things with greater speed and accuracy. The technique is based on the idea that if you can explain it, then you understand it.
Feynman once said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” In essence, Feynman understood that people often deceive themselves into believing that they understand a topic when, in actuality, they are only able to parrot explanations that have been given to them. This technique, which implores a learner to test his or her understanding by explaining the concept in their own words, forces a learner to become a teacher, thereby exposing any underlying gaps in understanding.
The Feynman Technique consists of 4 steps:
Once you are able to thoroughly teach a concept from memory, you can feel confident that you have learned the topic in a deep way. Rote memorization leads to a superficial understanding, but the Feynman Technique demands a true understanding of the ideas at hand.
The Memory Palace Technique, also called the Method of Loci or Roman Room Method, is a memorization tool that weds the new with the familiar, using physical space to organize and compartmentalize information. This technique has been in use since Greek and Roman times and has been used by world-record holders in their feats of recalling 65,000 digits of pi, cards in eight shuffled decks, and more.
This technique is best for memorizing large lists of new information—like foreign language vocabulary, historical dates and events, the periodic table of elements, etc. However, once mastered, the technique can be modified to commit to memory any type of subject matter.
First, think of a place you know very well. Most often, people choose their current home, but you could also choose your workplace, your jogging route, or your childhood home. It cannot be an imaginary place though—it must be a real location, and one that you know like the back of your hand.
Then, create a route through that place. For example, if you chose your home, imagine waking up in bed, then walking from your bed to your closet. Imagine opening the closet door, reaching in, and selecting a shirt from a hanger. Imagine turning around and placing the shirt on the bed before walking to the bathroom. Imagine turning on the shower, opening the shower curtain, stepping in, and reaching for the soap—you get the idea.
You must construct an incredibly detailed imaginary route through the house that makes sense to you because you’ve done it a thousand times. Don’t simply imagine getting up and taking a shower—dissect the movements and locations involved in each step of the route. Every time you review the terms you’ve memorized, you’ll review them in the same order, so ensure that the route makes logical sense.
Next, get your list of things to memorize and begin associating them with a place in your home along the imagined route. For example, let’s say the first item in your list of Spanish vocabulary is “pantalón” (Spanish for “pants”). Imagine waking up in bed and seeing a pair of cartoon pants running across the blanket. The pants are lagging behind in a race of cartoon clothes, and they are doubled over “panting alone.”
Now imagine walking over to your closet and opening the door. There, you place your next item for memorization: “duro” (Spanish for “hard”). Perhaps, to your surprise, when you open the closet door there is a Duracell battery being chiseled by a set of hands. The chiseling is ineffective because the Duracell is so hard.
These examples may sound ridiculous, but you want your associations to be absurd! In fact, the stranger the better. Funny, silly, or even vulgar associations are more likely to stick in your memory, so let loose and have fun with it. Imagine the term, or something that phonetically sounds like the term, fully animated and actually doing something—preferably something related to the meaning of the term. Initially, this stage can be difficult, but it becomes easier with practice.
Finally, walk through your Memory Palace a few times to cement the imagery and associations in your mind. Even try walking the route backward to be sure it’s completely memorized. This technique is incredibly effective, and perfecting it will enable you to memorize an impressive number of things in great detail without error.
Created by German scientist Sebastian Leitner, the Leitner System, or Leitner Study Method, uses flashcards and spaced repetition to overcome the brain’s natural tendency to exponentially forget newly acquired information. Research shows that spaced repetition is incredibly effective. In spaced repetition, newly acquired material is encountered more frequently than mastered material, and less time is allowed to lapse between instances of encountering it.
To use this method, you’ll need to first transcribe all the material onto flashcards with a prompt on the front and the correct answer on the back. Then, have three dedicated boxes into which you’ll eventually sort the cards.
Decide on a schedule for reviewing the cards in each box, with the interval between study time larger for box #2 than box #1, and larger still for box #3 than box #2. For example, you might study the cards in box #1 every day, the cards in box #2 every 3 days, and the cards in box #3 every 6 days. (Every third day you’ll be working from two boxes, and every sixth day you’ll be working from all three boxes.)
Here’s what the process might look like once you have all your flashcards made and placed in box #1:
On Day 7, return to the steps for Day 1 and repeat the process until all the cards are in box #3. Once every card is in box #3, you can rest assured that you have memorized all of the information.
Sometimes, studying solitary just isn’t enough. When there are concepts you simply can’t seem to understand, re-reading the text is unlikely to help. Instead, you need a fresh perspective. Seek outside help in one of the following ways:
Study groups are a fantastic way to take your studies to the next level. An interactive approach eases boredom, encourages deeper understanding, and provides the opportunity for differing perspectives on the material.
Scheduled meeting times for the study groups helps keep everyone stay on track and motivated. Besides, a little commiseration is always a great stress reliever!
At the very least, you can create a Facebook Group, Slack Channel, or Discord Channel for students in your class to share notes, ask questions, and post resources.
There are so many people out there who love helping others learn something they’ve mastered. Whether in person or online, a private tutor can be just the boost you need to break through a stall in your studies. Good tutors range from a relatively affordable $15 an hour to a whopping $300 an hour, so be sure to do your research and check references before investing in outside help.
Certain websites specialize in connecting students with online tutors and allow you to check out the profiles and qualifications of several options. For language, Italki is a great choice. For academic subjects and entrance exams like the SAT, GRE, and GMAT, check out Wyzant or Varsity Tutors.
When it comes to college and graduate school entrance exams, it is always a good idea to seek a professionally designed course that will help you achieve your score potential. Several course options, both online and in person, are available for every standardized exam. Although these courses can be pricey, they are a solid investment toward your future.
However, not every course is created equal. Research to determine which courses are highly rated, within your price ramge, and compatible with your schedule and goals.
If you are studying for the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) in order to apply to college, check out this well-researched and thorough article containing expert recommendations about the best SAT prep courses.
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel—nearly every topic has a plethora of books and study guides written about it. Check out Amazon for a wide selection of used and new resources. These study guides are especially critical when preparing for standardized tests and entrance exams.
The final stage in the study cycle is just as important as the previous four. Although you’ve taken the time to compile thorough notes and commit information to memory, you need to continue visiting the information in order to combat the “forgetting curve” and to ensure the concepts are fully understood. .
In 1885, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus theorized a “forgetting curve” which uses a mathematical equation to determine the rate at which people tend to forget information. His theory has since been replicated and confirmed: rates of retention conform to a curvilinear graph as a function of time; that is, newly-acquired information suffers a steep retention decline in the days and weeks after which it is learned, and will continue to decline to zero unless repeatedly boosted by refamiliarization.
So, even after you are confident that you’ve memorized and understand the material, it remains important to revisit it every few days so that your hard work doesn’t fall victim to the forgetting curve.
You can achieve this by periodically working with any flashcards you may have created, by skimming the materials a few times per week, or by regularly practicing the previously described Feynman Technique whereby you lecture aloud to an imaginary inquisitive student.
In the case where your upcoming exam is a standardized one, you should absolutely undertake several practice exams to ensure that your diligence translates to higher scores. When preparing for a standardized exam by using practice tests, be sure to properly review each test you take before moving on to another. A proper review should include looking up online explanations for every question you answered incorrectly and understanding why each incorrect answer choice is, in fact, incorrect. Counterintuitively, many gains in understanding come from analyzing wrong answer choices.
The big day has arrived and it is time to put all your studying to the test, quite literally. A few important tips will help make sure the day goes smoothly.
Know well in advance when and where you need to be, what you are allowed to bring, and what documentation you may need. Standardized entrance exams, for example, can be held on unfamiliar college campuses or in hotel conference rooms in another city. Know how to get there, where you can park, and which building you’ll be in. Arrive at least an hour early as a buffer for the unexpected—and to allow yourself to get in the right mindset for the exam.
In addition, you may need certain printed documents or forms of identification. Double-check these requirements a couple of days before the test and gather everything you’ll need in one pile. Stress minimization is key.
Resist the temptation to have sugary cereals, candy, or soda on the morning of the test. Though these foods and drinks provide an energy boost and leave you highly susceptible to a sugar crash a few hours later at the most inopportune time. Instead, eat a well-balanced meal of complex carbohydrates (like oatmeal, granola, or fruit) and protein (like turkey bacon, eggs, nuts, or yogurt) for long-lasting, quality energy.
Undoubtedly, the best way to mitigate test anxiety is to be well prepared for the test. Once you master the study techniques in this article, you will inevitably be less anxious when sitting for any exam.
Still, test anxiety is sometimes unavoidable. Learn the Progressive Muscle Relaxation Technique to help conquer test anxiety. It consists of systematically tensing and relaxing certain muscle groups in a specific order so that you release physical tension. The technique also serves to give your mind something to focus on in those anxious moments before an important exam.
If your test anxiety seems unmanageable or worse than that of your peers, talk to a mental health professional about a potential anxiety disorder. Your doctor or psychologist will be able to suggest practices or prescribe medications that may be able to help. Moreover, in the event that an official diagnosis of anxiety disorder is made, you will be able to apply for test accommodations, including increased testing time, extended breaks, or a separate testing room, as required by the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. There is no shame in receiving the accommodations necessary to allow you to achieve your true potential.
By steadfastly adhering to the five stages of the study cycle, you will be more efficient and effective in your studying. You will learn faster, deeper, and with better retention, enabling you to achieve fantastic scores on your tests. And these techniques will not only serve you well in school—the proper mindset and mastery of study techniques will continue to reap benefits in your professional life and beyond.