How to Study Effectively, According to Science

Stop highlighting text and start studying properly with these 5 science-backed learning methods.

Mar 7, 2019

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How many times have you stayed up all night, reading and re-reading your notes before an exam, only to forget everything the next day? Well, that’s because you’ve been doing it all wrong.

Wouldn’t you like to know the best ways to study effectively, once and for all? How do you get yourself ready for a test? Do you scan your notes over and over in an attempt to memorize them?

Highlight all the key points? Try to get a mental image to whatever it is you learn?

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again – according the researchers of the Association for Psychological Science. They examined ten different learning tactics and discovered that the most common strategies, like highlighting or underlining, are actually not effective at all.

So, what is effective? Well, stick around for the five best learning methods known to science.

5. Self-explanation

Don’t just mindlessly repeat what you learn, try to understand it. Whether it’s a grammar rule of a new language you picked up, or the basics of quantum mechanics, try to describe it with different words.

Instead of saying “the Moon is tidally locked to the Earth,” say “the same side of the Moon is always facing the Earth.” Pretend you’re a teacher and you have a whole class of students to explain this material to.

A study of how expecting to teach enhances learning shows that this makes you more engaged with the material.

4. Concrete examples

Find a link between what you study and yourself. Turn “The exoplanet is 40 light years away” into “it would take me 40 years to travel to this planet if my spaceship moved at the speed of light”. Such examples will help you connect new information to something you already know.

But don’t get too carried away. Just like visualizing the information, this method may make you focus on details that aren’t that important.

3. Interleaving

Most of us study one topic very thoroughly before we move on to another one. Well, this is another place we get it wrong. One study of interleaved vs. blocked learning suggests that we do better when we mix related subjects in one learning session.

Compare a few math formulas at a time, or two foreign words with a similar spelling – and you’re less likely to mix any of them up.

2. Practice testing

Now, let’s move on to the two most effective learning strategies. Number two – test your knowledge.

I know, tests are stressful. But not if you do them for practice before the real one. Make your brain retrieve the information you’ve learned. And don’t look at your notes.

According to a study on the benefits of testing, practice tests make it easier for your mind to recall new information during an exam. Make it fun – use flash cards and turn the learning process into a game.

1. Distributed practice

Finally, don’t try to learn everything overnight. Packing up your brain with loads of information may get you through an exam the next day. But none of that information will make it to your long-term memory.

The most effective way to really learn something is to space out your studying over time. Hour-long sessions throughout the week are much better than 7 hours of non-stop cramming.

And don’t worry if you forget some information and have to re-learn it again. It’s a good thing – it forces you to find that lost information in your memory and makes future retrieval easier.

Oh, almost forgot. If you’re struggling to concentrate when studying, try listening to some video game music in the background. Classical music is just as good. Just don’t choose anything that has lyrics in it. That’s a little tip from me to you.

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