How to Study Efficiently

One of the most valuable lessons I learned from my 8th-grade science teacher had nothing at all to do with science. We were allowed a cheat sheet for a test: a single 3×5 index card with anything we wanted written on it. Thinking myself terribly clever, I found a very fine-point pen and proceeded to cover both sides of the index card in tiny, tiny handwriting. I managed to more or less summarize weeks of classes on a single index card. I showed it to my teacher before the test, and he grinned at me and said, “So, you spent hours going over the material, thinking what you would want to include and how to organize it, and carefully copied it all over from your notes? Gosh, you sure showed me!”

I’d fallen for his trap. It wasn’t about cutting us a break by giving us a cheat sheet: it was about tricking us into studying via the act of creating the cheat sheet in the first place. It was such an effective study tool that, as it turned out, I didn’t really need the darned thing much to actually do the test. All that work wasted! … but not really, because it was precisely the act of making the cheat sheet that made it so I didn’t need it.

Since 8th grade, making a cheat sheet (regardless of whether we were allowed one) has been one of my favorite methods of studying. The acts of going over my notes, assignments, and previous exams, thinking about what the key points are, and deciding how to summarize them to make a useful resource with a limited space is hugely useful for me. By organizing the material for a cheat sheet, I’m organizing it in my head.

Whatever your approach to studying, there are a few key points to consider:

In the end, studying is a skill like any other, and like any skill, it improves with practice. Find what works for you and go with it.