Have a Lot to Study in a Limited Time? Evidence-Based Help

Learn more efficiently by spacing, testing, teaching, scheduling, and more.

Posted Mar 16, 2018

Are you facing a big test? Do you need to learn a ton of information in a limited amount of time? Studying for a bar examination? Medical boards? GREs? A cumulative final exam? Here are some evidence-based strategies. 

The best strategy depends on the nature of the material

First, ask you yourself: Is this test mostly about memorization or are you trying to really understand the material?

If it's about memorizing I'd suggest going through things relatively quickly and then coming back to them more often (see below for advice about scheduling). I'd also try to come up with mnemonics where you can, and I'd advise you to use flashcards (paper or digital are both good). Flashcards will lead to spacing and self-testing, both good things.

If it's about understanding, I'd say take it slower. It's always good to think about why things make sense and how concepts connect to other concepts you're learning, but this is especially true if you're trying to understand.

You'll probably find that you need to understand some things and you can just memorize others. If that's the case, choose the best strategy for each piece of material, don't choose one strategy and apply it to everything. 

Study and then do spaced restudy

You should fully read all the material at least once, and as you do so take notes, make flashcards, highlight important parts, etc. Later you can go back through it and focus in on the notes you've taken, etc. (Be aware, though, that highlighting is only effective if you do it well; see my note about pitfalls below.)

When it comes to spaced repetition, spacing is a very effective way to study. If it feels ineffective don't trust your feelings--it usually feels ineffective and it almost always works. The main strategy to keep in mind is that you should try not to do "massed" study, where you study something and then restudy it right away. Try to make sure you allow time to pass before restudying. During that time, of course, you can study other sections. If you're not sure how much time you should let pass, my advice is: there's little chance that you'll let too much time pass, so err on the side of more time, not less. 

Time management: Why you need to make a schedule

If I were you I'd start by creating a schedule. Procrastination and poor time management (see research on the planning fallacy) are like the terminator, they'll never stop hunting you. The best way to fight them is to stick to a schedule.

For example, let's say you have one month to study. You might decide to spend the first 2 weeks reading everything, and taking notes, highlighting, making flashcards, or what have you. But a weekly schedule is not nearly specific enough; you should make a daily schedule. Let's say you have a total of 700 pages to cover; you might promise yourself that you'll cover 50 pages each day for 14 days. Then a day off. Then maybe you'd plan to restudy all of the material again for the next 7 days, at a rate of 100 pages-worth of material per day. This time, since you're now restudying, you'd make sure you were testing yourself and so on (see below). And then a day off, and then go through it all again for the next 7 days. I think aiming to go over things at least three times could work well.

This is just an example, though.  If you don't have that much time, try to find a similar structure but scale it back. For example, if I had five days to study and only one hour per day, I might cover the material thoroughly for the first two days, then restudy for each of the next three days. 

Here's a pitfall to avoid. Sometimes when people do highlighting, etc., and then restudy, they direct their attention to the highlighted parts, or the stuff they took notes on, etc., but in doing so they neglect to restudy parts of the book that they didn't highlight or take notes on. This can be a mistake, because unless your note-taking is perfect, it will probably mean you'll neglect to study some important stuff you missed the first time. So... when you start feeling some mastery of the stuff you did take notes on, go back to the book and look for important stuff that you missed, and learn it, too. 

What should you actually do while you restudy?

First and foremost, avoid passive re-reading. Testing yourself is much more effective. If you have a ready-made set of practice tests, use them! If you've made flashcards, they are an easy way to test yourself. But in other cases, when none of your materials lend themselves to a test (e.g., if you're staring at a page of notes), testing yourself is trickier. 

In this case, here's a technique I recommend: As you restudy, instead of simply re-reading, do this: Each time you get to a new section (of your book, your notes, or whatever it is), look away from the material you're studying and ask yourself what you can recall about that section. Take enough time that you can think of a few things. But don't take too much time, because just making an effort to think of the answers, even if you fail, will help you encode them when you re-read. Then re-read the section and check what you knew, what you didn't, and try to learn both. This technique has dual benefits: It'll give you a sense of how much you know and it'll increase your learning efficiency. Sometimes it'll make you feel like you're doing worse, or that you'd do better if you didn't test yourself, but that's another feeling that you should ignore. Trust the process and persevere. 

Another way to "test" yourself when you don't have a test available is to study as though you are preparing to teach the material to someone else. This attitude alone will enhance your learning, especially if it makes you think about why the material is organized the way it is, what the main points are, and whether you can generate the information in your mind. It's even better if you combine this attitude with actually explaining the material to someone else, which, like self-testing, will help you figure out what you don't know and increase your learning efficiency, all at once. 

The other thing is, let's say you know you're going to have to study intensely, but you can't start yet. Maybe it's March, and the set of materials you're going to study won't be available until April. Or maybe you're going to be taking a tough course load in the Fall semester and you want to start preparing over the summer. Here's what I recommend. First, if there's anything that you're pretty sure will be on the test, start studying it now! Second, if there are overall frameworks for how this kind of stuff works, principles that will help you make sense of what you're going to study later, etc, study them. If it's a course on education, find a couple of good books about education. If it's a bar exam, work on understanding the structure of the justice system, or principles of legal reasoning.

Think of you mind like garden soil; you're going to plant specific ideas later, but for now your job is to make the soil as fertile as possible. Having a framework for understanding your topic, and some background knowledge about it, is the best way to create rich soil so when you plant your ideas, your knowledge will bloom. 

I hope this helps! Get fired up, get out there, get busy, and learn!

If you have questions, comments, suggestions, or corrections on this post, let me know. And if you have another question you want answered, contact me. This post is my response to a question from a Finnish guy who is preparing for a law school entrance exam :)

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References

Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self‐regulated learning: beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 417-444. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143823

Buehler, R., Griffin, D., & Ross, M. (1994). Exploring the" planning fallacy": Why people underestimate their task completion times. Journal of personality and social psychology, 67(3), 366.

Kornell, N. (2009). Optimizing learning using flashcards: Spacing is more effective than cramming. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23, 1297-1317.

Kornell, N., & Vaughn, K. E. (2016). How retrieval attempts affect learning: A review and synthesis. The Psychology of Learning and Motivation (pp. 183–215). http://doi.org/10.1016/bs.plm.2016.03.003

Nestojko, J. F., Bui, D. C., Kornell, N., & Bjork, E. L. (2014). Expecting to teach enhances learning and organization of knowledge in free recall of text passages. Memory & Cognition, 42, 1038-1048. doi:10.3758/s13421-014-0416-z

Vaughn, K. E., Hausman, H., & Kornell, N. (2017). Retrieval attempts enhance learning regardless of time spent trying to retrieve. Memory, 25, 298-316. doi:10.1080/09658211.2016.1170152

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