Studying: You're doing it wrong

Posted: January 24, 2015

It's midnight. You have a final tomorrow that covers every bit of information in your class going back to the beginning of the semester. What do you do? There are as many ways to study as there are students. Some students insist the key is to study in the room where you'll be taking the exam; "the things you look at while studying will jog your memory when you're taking the test," they say. Other students swear by pulling all nighters ("I do my best work in crisis mode") or sleeping with the text book under their pillow (Really!). Obviously, none of these methods work any better than the average old wives' tale, but there is one study technique that actually makes you less prepared afterward than you would have been if you never studied at all, and it's the approach most commonly used by students of all ages.

What's this terrible study process? Re-reading.

Yes, more than 95% of all students simply re-read their notes or textbooks and think they have "studied." Instead, they've done something far worse. They've become familiar with the material without actually having learned it. Cognitive science has shown that when we re-read information, the brain begins to check out. "I've seen all this info on the krebs cycle before. I got this. I wonder if there's any more pizza? Did Megan text me back yet?" says your brain, while your eyes are studiously following down the page. (Eyes are always better students than brains. Jerks.) This lack of focus leads to that "tip of the tongue" feeling where you know you know something about a familiar word or phrase, but you can't describe or define it. How many times have you heard "I know it, but I can't explain it"? Sorry to say but if you can't explain something, you don't know it. It's just that the term or phrase is familiar to you. Familiar is the enemy of knowledge.

Sorry to say but if you can't explain something, you don't know it.
So what should you do to make your studying time really count? Study actively. Active studying is work, and it's the effort you put in that makes it better. Incorporate as many pathways into your brain as you can, by rewriting notes, drawing diagrams or writing questions you can use to quiz yourself later.  
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Sleeping is not studying, even when books are involved.
  • Grouping ideas together makes recall of every part of the group stronger through word association. 
  • Use a timeline to keep events in chronological order. 
  • Use a technique like SQ3R to work through a textbook chapter instead of just reading it. 
  • Make a ring of flashcards you can flip through while waiting for the bus or for class to start. 
  • Recite your notes as you walk around the room. Reciting involves all of your learning modalities: you see the notes, you hear yourself saying them and you are physically producing the information with your lips and tongue. 
Keep your brain guessing about how the information is going to come in and you'll be much more engaged, and understand and remember better what you study. Which means you'll have to study less to get better grades. They call this working smarter, not harder.


A final tip for you for next semester: The absolute best time to study is immediately after class. No, really, walk out of class, sit down in the lobby or under a campus tree and rewrite those notes immediately, reorganizing and making connections as you go. The second exposure to the material will strengthen the new neuron connections that were created in class while they're still young and strong. Spending 15 minutes right after class will save you at least 45 minutes of wondering what you thought "THE LAW OF THE JUNGLE!" had to do with the Panama Canal.

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