Study Skills to Break the Vicious Cycle

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Raise your hand if you’d like to spend less time studying and get better grades. No, no, not both hands, and stop jumping up and down! Seriously, though… if you’re like most of my students, you might feel trapped in a bit of a vicious cycle right about now: you stay up late to get your work done for the next day, but then you don’t get enough sleep, so you’re tired in class and maybe don’t learn everything you should have, so you need to spend a little longer doing your homework that night, and then you’re up late again, and the cycle repeats the next day, and then the next, with no end in sight.

I applaud your effort in wanting to get all your work done – that sort of determination will certainly take you much further in life than a silly SAT score ever could. But I want you to stop and consider the idea that maybe you shouldn’t simply be working harder, you should be working smarter. In their book, Make It Stick, several cognitive scientists explain that the most popular study methods—re-reading notes and textbooks, cramming right before the test—are actually the least productive ones. Efficient studying requires you to plan effectively, genuinely engage with the material, and challenge how you’re thinking about what you’re learning. So here are a few ideas for you to incorporate into your own study habits. Give them a try. You might just have time to get to Netflix YouTube Fortnite bed early!  

Spaced repetition is your friend.

Spaced repetition is the idea that your brain remembers best what it thinks is most important—that is, the things you see repeatedly. So if you’re going to spend five hours studying for an exam, you’re much better off spending an hour every other day for a week and a half than you are cramming for five hours the night before the test. You might be thinking, “But wait a minute, I won’t even know I have an exam in ten days from now.” That’s no problem if you make reviewing your notes a regular part of your study schedule. It might seem like you don’t have time to do that on a regular basis, but you’ll find that if you look at your notes for the chapter or unit every few days, you’ll need far less time to study when you do know the test is coming up. Both rewriting your notes and making use of the Cornell method mentioned in our last blog inherently take advantage of spaced repetition.

Active learning is efficient learning

Active learning is simply learning by doing something. Studies and surveys have shown that the most popular study technique among students is rereading the textbook. That likely doesn’t surprise you. What might surprise you is that it’s quite possibly the least effective way to learn. Please do anything else. Want some suggestions? Make and use flashcards—either physical ones and/or digital ones, using an app like Anki (with built in spaced-repetition!) or Quizlet. Make a study guide. Do a mind map. Get yourself a whiteboard and fill it; then erase it and do it again. Talk to yourself as if you’re explaining a concept to someone else. Better yet, find a study partner and actually explain a concept to someone else.

Use metacognition to take your learning to the next level.

Metacognition is, quite simply, thinking about your thinking. Good questions to ask yourself throughout your studying process shouldn’t just be about the content. They should also be about your process.

  • When starting a new unit: What do I already know about this stuff? How is this going to relate to the last unit? How does this information actually impact my life and why should I care?
  • While you’re studying: What do I know best? What am I most confused about? What do I understand now that I didn’t before?
  • After the test: What did I know well and what did I struggle with? Did I study those things differently? Was I confused about the big picture or did I miss some details?