Learning is one of the great joys of life. When we learn new things we better understand ourselves and the world around us. Instead of hanging back in our cave and hoping for a better life, we can go out in the world and experience the magic of understanding it better. Then we can use that to create better lives for ourselves and those around us. In many respects, this is what it means to be human.
Sapiens, the wise.
Studying is something that few of us are directly taught, but it is nonetheless something we can learn how to do. If you're headed off to college or destined to hang out in any classroom or high-stakes learning environment, or if you just really want to know about something in a way that you won't forget, then you want to know how to study well.
Luckily, researchers have spent lifetimes studying what works. You can learn from them. As a researcher and educator, I can tell you that they work. A recent student of mine used the top 4 (below) to get a 790 (out of 800) on her Biology SAT subject test. And another student used them all to get one of the top grades in her final year course. The best students use all or some combination of these.
All students deserve this information, so share it if you find it valuable.
Here they are. My top 10 basic study skills, in no particular order.
1. Test yourself
Make flash cards, get friends to ask you questions, come up with questions of your own. The single best predictor of future memory is how often you have had to remember that information in the past. Rereading is useless, even if you took the time to highlight or underline what was important. This doesn't get information into memory with the same efficiency that testing yourself will. Unfortunately, research shows that most students don't believe this and learn less as a result. Don't be one of them. Rereading is passive, testing is active. Test yourself, then correct your mistakes. Repeat.
2. Spread your testing over time
Space it out. Start studying early so you have the time to space out your learning. Studies show that cramming is bad. Cramming causes you to forget what you just learned – stuff you learn five minutes from now interferes with the stuff you're learning now. Interference is the number one reason for forgetting! Cramming doesn't put information into long-term memory. Long-term memory requires protein transcription to build new synapses. That only occurs when neurons expect to keep processing the same information over longer periods of time. Cramming is bad for comprehension because you never understand the information well enough to process it deeply. Cramming interferes with sleep. And cramming stresses you out. There is no shortage of mental health problems for stressed students, but you can avoid many of them by taking it easy on yourself and planning ahead.
The longer you hope to know something and the better you hope to comprehend it, the more spaced you should plan your studying. You can study every day, indeed you should, but make sure to revisit all the material again at a later date. Ten days of studying spaced out over twenty days is better than ten days straight. Scale to fit your own needs. And start early.
3. Do one thing at a time
Don't multitask when you're studying. Find a quiet place to study, without email or phone, and take the time to understand what you're doing. Volumes of studies show that multitasking slows you down, creates interference that blocks learning, and generally ruins your ability to think deeply about what you're learning. What's worse is that it takes longer to do two things if you multi-task. When you multi-task you pay a switching cost, when your brain has to switch over from doing one thing to another. Unless you are trying to keep two children afloat in a swimming pool, then focus on one thing at a time.
Studies show that you can get better at multi-tasking, but multi-tasking is always worse than focusing on one task at a time. As a wise labmate once told me, doing two things at once is the best way to guarantee that you will F@*K one of them up.
Here's a little poem:
Work while you work
Play while you play
One thing at a time
That is the way
All that you do
Do with your might
Things done by halves
Are not done right.
Teach it to your children.
4. Explain things to yourself (and to others)
You know what you can explain. Explain why and how a new concept is related to what you already know. When you explain you dredge up relations from memory and encode new pathways that will help you remember them in the future. Elaboration is what psychologists call thinking deeply about what you know. It is the number one way to build pathways in your mind that will later help you remember. People who say they are bad at learning names are actually bad at thinking about the name they just heard – if they will think about the name, recall someone else they know with that name, rhyme it with an object, or see it tattooed into the person's forehead, they will be more likely to remember it. That's elaboration.
Explain things to others. If you can explain it to people who aren't in your field, so that they understand it, then you truly know it.
If knowledge is a tower, then explanations are the scaffolding that let you build it. Numerous studies show that explaining beats summarizing on grass and clay alike. Summarizing may require nothing more than organizing what's in front of you on the page. Explaining requires you to recall it, like a route to grandma's house. Explanations are stories (or theories) by another name. And stories are the universal medium for making sense of the world. Explanation turns loose facts – the grist of bad dreams – into citadels of understanding.
5. Take notes by hand
One thing 100 years of memory research has taught us is that you remember things you process more deeply. If you want to remember something that isn't already interesting for reasons of its own, then you have to invite it into your mind by thinking about it, connecting it to things you know, saying it in your own words, and creating a few well-designed associations. As you learn more about a topic, these will start to come more easily, but at first you will have to slug away at it, taking each concept in turn. Typing notes on a computer has been shown to be less effective than handwritten notes; you type more, but you process and therefore remember less. Handwritten notes allow you to draw pictures, label things, and draw arrows to the questions that inevitably come to mind, and which you should ask. You already know that the internet is great for distracting you (and others around you), so stick with a paper notebook and be an artist.
When you get home later, go over your notes and fill in what you can recall from memory (helping it stick). Highlight what isn't clear, and then ask your lecturer about it. Lecturers are human and they care about and often actively want to help interested students. By asking questions during class or office hours, you're showing interest in the lecturer's work. People enjoy it when other people care about their life's work.
Read so you can understand the big picture and see how ideas go together. Read to excite yourself. Read to teach yourself the language of your subject and how people talk about it. Underline or highlight so you can find important ideas later. Write in your books to make ideas easier to find and to document questions you had along the way. Don't expect any of this to get the material into your long-term memory. Underlining and highlighting are not how information goes from books to memory – it is how you mark what you will later process more deeply through explanation and testing. But reading, often and widely, is how you become a master of your domain.
7. Find the smart kids and make them your friends
If you really want to learn something well, make friends with other people who share your ambition. Find the smart students and ask them if they'd like to be in your study group. Stalk them if you must. Learning alone can be fine, if that's your strength. But what all students must eventually face is the decision to follow the devil-may-care crowd to the pub or get down to business. Friends who play it fast and loose will tempt you to do the same, just as our social networks facilitate our drinking, smoking, and motley-collared crime. The best students will insulate themselves with a support group who play the long game. These friends will keep you feeling socially hip. They will also teach you how to study.
8. Take it offline
Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows, provides a fantastic panorama of all the reasons that the computer age has made us more shallow, vacuumed out our identities, and left us feeling less like whole persons and more like puppets, dancing from one idea to another, from one link to the next. He also describes an iceberg of research showing that reading online is a fool's gambit. If we can muster online reading at all, we don't read for long. There are too many distractions – blinking advertisements, Facebook updates, incoming emails, newsfeeds, the temptation to go shopping, and on and on. Research also shows that we remember less of what we read online. Distraction is a huge part of the modern world. But you can and should take actions to prevent it from ruling you. Read offline. Study offline. Take your mind back and everything will get easier.
9. Decide you're going to like it
You don't have to be a scientist to realize that people learn more about things they like and they like things they learn more about. Find ways to like what you hope to learn and you stand a better chance of succeeding. There are popular science and nonfiction books on almost every topic. Find some and read them. Watch TED talks about the subject or documentaries about the history of the subject. If you can't find a way in, no matter how hard you try, then look for the human side. Every subject has a human story underneath it. Newton was a jerk. Marie Curie poisoned herself by accident. I'm sure there are even heroes of accounting. There is no reason to slog through anything you hate, if you can avoid it, just so you can come out the other side with some merit badge of learning. People who endure a substandard existence in hopes of a glorious future eventually learn that the best predictor of tomorrow is today. So learn how to like what you're learning and your life will improve.
10. Trust yourself
Consider what you've accomplished so far and realize that it's not an accident. You can do great things. And, given the right environment and the right motivation, you can learn whatever can be learned. If you've read this far, then you already know the lion's share of what people who study studying have learned. If you do all that, then what remains is all the other pesky decisions you will have to make.
You know the difference between right and wrong and, if you let it, that will keep you on the good side of your better judgment. The science frowns on the shortcut takers. One of my favorite research findings is about desirable difficulties, the enhanced resilience of learning in proportion to the effort it takes to achieve it. Think of how easy the GPS has made traveling, and how feeble it's made our learning of our surroundings. Think of how easy it is to read the definition of a word online if you Google it, and how much more likely you are to remember it later if you just think about it for a minute.
You may not always come out ahead by playing it straight, but that isn't what life is about. However, you will still be able to enjoy your own company: that IS what life is about! You will make mistakes, but don't be afraid to make them. Fear is a pathetic companion. Trust your better self and it will always be there for you when you need it.
10 and 1/2. Reread this list and think about it
If you are interested in the research underlying this list, I've provided references below. Enjoy.
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Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.
Putnam, A. L., & Sungkhasettee, V. W. (2016). Optimizing Learning in College: Tips From Cognitive Psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(5), 652-660.