26 Study Tips You Can’t Afford To Ignore
Search “study tips” online for long enough, and you will run into a wealth of ideas from some of the greatest minds in education for how you can elevate your grades and test scores. Truthfully, if you spent all day searching, you could probably find 1,000-or-more techniques each with their own degree of validity.
When it comes to finding study tips that work, who’s to say what’s the best and what isn’t? There are so many learning styles and so many different personality types that what is the best method for one could be highly ineffectual for another.
We get that.
However, it didn’t stop us from compiling a list of our favorites, and then narrowing it down to the ones that resonated the most. We tried to keep this thing as short as possible and could only winnow down to 26.
Feel free to use this guide in whichever way best helps. If that means scrolling through all the results and only reading the ones that leave an impact, then so be it. Of course, you’re welcome to go from beginning to end like a detective novel, but the main thing is that you do it in a way that delivers the most usefulness. That said, let’s get started!
Study Tips No. 1: Start early
You may take great pride in your ability to procrastinate and still get good grades, but trust us when we tell you that that gravy train will eventually run out. As you progress through your education—be it in college or a reputable trade school—you’re going to reach a level of difficulty that requires some real effort. Therefore you should start early in all things.
If you have a major test coming up in six weeks, don’t wait until the last couple to wrap your mind around the material. If you’re an upper echelon learner who gets bored easily in class, fight the urge to coast. Do more than whatever it takes to simply “get by.” You can always fill in your down time by challenging yourself with something more constructive within that learning vertical or something completely unrelated.
Study Tips No. 2: Focus on the basics
Many students can make the mistake of trying to do too much too quickly when a strong understanding of the basics will do more to push them along than simply getting all the homework questions correct. A student who pushes himself to really know and understand basic principles will always go further in life making C’s on the homework and A’s on the exam than a student who copies from the smart people to make A’s on all the homework only to pass with a C or D on the exam.
Remember: homework is for practice. The exam is where you really have a chance to shine. Therefore, don’t compare yourself to others on the day-to-day. Get a little bit of tunnel vision if you have to and really take the time to explore and nail down those key concepts.
Study Tips No. 3: Summarize in writing
Writing may be the last thing that you want to do in life. We know because sitting here writing out all these thoughts and knowing there are 24 more items that we still have to sift through is discouraging to us! Nevertheless, it is a powerful way to reinforce what you’ve learned in class or through application.
And when it comes to the best writing techniques for improving your study skills, there is nothing more effective than the act of summarization.
On a recent episode of the Tim Ferriss Podcast, for example, writer Malcolm Glidewell (Outliers) discussed some of his most effective writing processes. We found it interesting that one of the things he embraced was the mundane act of transcribing his own interviews. While transcription is not summarization per se, it is somewhat related in the sense that on paper what you’re doing isn’t exactly difficult mentally.
You’re simply writing (or typing) word-for-word what someone else said to you in an interview. But as you act as conduit between interviewee and the written/typed medium, you are internalizing those words and assigning meaning to them in much the same way that you are when you summarize.
That’s why summarization is so essential to the writing process. You take someone else’s knowledge and you run it through the computer of your mind every time that you summarize. In so doing, you translate in a way that holds the most meaning and builds the strongest connection to the material.
Study Tips No. 4: Learn to revise
Revision is yet another way that you can internalize knowledge in an impactful way. The act of revision must be handled differently than acts of creation. If writers worried about revision as they wrote, nothing would ever get finished. That’s because there is something in the brain that requires uninterrupted flow when creating. It cannot create effectively in other words if some other element is constantly challenging it.
By embracing revision, you teach your brain that it’s okay to make mistakes because those mistakes can be corrected and learned from. They can also help you see perspective—something to which the summarization and creation processes aren’t conducive.
Study Tips No. 5: Embrace repetition
Do you remember back in the day when your grade school teacher would give you a list of spelling words for the week and tell you to write them out exactly as they were on the page three, five, even 10 times? At the time you may have thought to yourself, “This is such baloney! My teacher is just too lazy to teach, so she’s thrusting all this busywork down my throat!”
Whether that was true or not, the act that your teacher was forcing upon you likely drilled those words and their correct spellings into your head to the extent that you became a good speller. (Provided you actually did what she said to do—if you didn’t, that’s on you and not her!)
Repetition has a great deal of value to the developing mind, and it continues to be an effective way of studying as you get older. That’s because, as Bob Proctor of the Proctor Gallagher Institute writes, repetition is the mother of all learning.
“Each day, you allocate a portion of your time to certain things. You eat every day. You wash your body. You get dressed,” Proctor writes.
“Well, if you want to improve the quality of your life, start allocating a portion of each day to changing your paradigm. Dedicate some time every day to building a new image in your mind. Read, write, listen to or visualize something that depicts the life you really want. Spending just 15 minutes a day will pay huge dividends. … Become an actor. Write a script that details how you really want to live, and then read it and re-read it. Memorize the script and then internalize it. Become the script. Become emotionally involved with it. And then, you’ll start to live the part.”
Study Tips No. 6:. Question things
One of the first things that any literacy teacher will advise when teaching people how to read—not the physical act, but the intellectual exercises that go on while reading to make us better readers—is to question everything. Making connections—text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world—will set you up to be able to do this naturally.
As you’re reading through any work—fiction or non-fiction—start with two simple questions: Where have I seen this before, and how is it connected? From there you will find yourself trying to get ahead of the author and form conclusions of your own, stopping to ask more meaningful questions geared specifically to the material as the author either confirms, rejects, or redirects your expectations.
Whether right or wrong or completely out-of-the-loop, the act of questioning will lead to a jarring and affirming effect in which truths internalize themselves into the center of your brain that synthesizes information.
And for a little bit of extra help, here are 10 questions you should be asking while reading anything (hat tip to Daily Genius).
Study Tips No. 7: Follow a schedule
Creating a schedule is one of the best ways that you can make sure your study time stays on course. For starters, this act can help you process the scope of a task and plan for the best way to go about handling it without it resulting in you pulling your hair out.
If a certain piece of material or unit of study is going to require more from you intellectually, then you have to know in advance so you’re not spending the night before the exam trying to play catch-up.
Beyond knowing the scope of the material, however, creating a schedule can help you find balance with that and the rest of your life. As Paul Minors says in his excellent piece on the importance of scheduling for productivity, “Recurring tasks are a really handy way of pre-planning the bulk of your week in advance. On specific days I go to the gym and visit family, so these events are set to repeat each week. This will save you loads of time when it comes to planning your week. When you have all of your personal appointments added to your calendar, you can go through your task list and start scheduling time for everything in today and this week. Each task should correspond to a block of time on your calendar so that you know when you’re going to address each task and how long it’s going to take.”
Now take what Minors says here and apply it so that your study time is one of the very first priorities to fall into those slots after the “have-to’s” (i.e. school, work and home life obligations). The more regimented and thorough you are, the more time that you’ll find for studying.
Study Tips No. 8: Get physical
What does lifting weights, running on a treadmill, pedaling an exercise bike or training for a marathon have to do with study tips? A lot more than you would think on the surface! Don’t make the mistake of thinking that those are “jock activities” reserved for jocks. They are just as important to the student trying to get into Harvard on an academic ride or that college graduate gearing up to master the LSAT.
As Harvard Health’s Heidi Godman noted in an April 2014 piece for the university’s website, “Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means.”
“The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells. … Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.”
Quoting neurologist Dr. Scott McGinnis of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, the piece notes that “Even more exciting is the finding that engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions.”
Study Tips No. 9: Rest
The older you get the less time you find for sleep. That’s just a hard truth of living and working in a 24/7 work culture where our phones and other devices ensure that we never truly get to “turn off.” Unfortunately, this destructive cycle often starts in college while we’re doing all-nighters cramming for finals week.
We as students (mistakenly) think that sleep is one of those frivolities that get in the way of us doing what we’re supposed to be doing when, in fact, it is the exact opposite. By getting the sleep that we need—notice: that’s the sleep we “need,” not the sleep we “want”; there is such thing as too much sleep—we’re actually priming the pump and setting ourselves up for success.
It is important to maximize sleep cycles by looking up calculators online that show you when the best time to go to sleep is if you’re awaking at a certain time. As long as you know how long it takes you to fall asleep and the right conditions for getting there, you can get out of bed at the end of those REM cycles feeling refreshed and ready for business.
And just so you don’t think the sleep-as-necessity thing is an old wives’ tale, the University of Michigan notes that the “amount of sleep that a college student gets is one of the strongest predictors of academic success,” remarking that sleep “plays a key role in helping students fix and consolidate memories, plus prevent decay of memories.”
“Without sleep,” the site continued, “people work harder and but don’t do as well.”
The University website also shared a few tips courtesy the Student Health Advisory Council.
“Encourage students to adjust wake-up time, because it is may be easier to adjust than bedtime. … Emphasize behavioral changes to improve sleep. Medicine is rarely necessary. Students can practice relaxation techniques before bed to increase quality of sleep, avoid doing homework immediately before (or in) bed, and avoid TV and computer use before bed. Encourage napping. Most students don’t get a full night’s sleep every night, and naps help them make up the difference. Research shows that napping 10-45 minutes (before entering REM sleep) can increase performance. … Advise students to avoid caffeine, especially later in the afternoon/night.”
Study Tips No. 10: Eat right
A proper diet is always something you should aspire to, but it can be particularly important during times of intense focus like what you’ll experience in the wake of a major academic or professional exam. While there are different ideas out there about what is healthy and what isn’t—and science isn’t always so sure itself—there are certain foods that are considered “brain foods” capable of helping you function better from an educational standpoint.
One of the most important things to remember: eat only as needed. Start your day with food to get something on your stomach so your brain can start working. Try to keep it light and not over-consume. Then, eat frequent meals in lower calorie offerings. Some people eat as much as six times per day, but they are careful not to exceed their body’s calorie maintenance-plus-added exercise level. This is a good practice, but you don’t have to go to the extreme of six meals. Three or four is just as effective providing that you’re not letting blood-sugar levels sink too far.
Also, try to ensure your body is getting all the nutrients that it needs through proper channels (i.e. the foods themselves instead of supplements). And if you need any more help than that, check out Start Cooking’s look at 10 tips for healthy eating during exams.
Study Tips No. 11: Bookend your days with repetition
We’ve already touched a little on the importance of repetition as one of your key study tips, so we won’t continue at length on this. However, it does deserve a little more space here because the WHEN of your repetition techniques can play an important role for internalization.
That’s why we’re recommending that you do some sort of repetitive learning drill when you wake up as well as one before you go to bed. That way you’re powering through that learning skill as your brain gets going and then again as it winds down. Highly beneficial!
Study Tips No. 12: Prioritize what you must learn
Setting your priorities is always a good idea whether you are studying for a major exam or just living your life. When it comes to managing a vast amount of material over a set amount of time, prioritization is crucial.
For major exams, we recommend taking inventory of what you are comfortable with and what you have difficulties with; from there, try to allot the most time to concepts on which you feel shaky. Be careful not to fall behind on areas where you’re comfortable, though. Sometimes we are not quite as good at something as we think we are. But do try to allot the most time to the most challenging aspects of a unit of study.
Study Tips No. 13: Learn how to read
We have already touched a little on this aspect in the question-asking study tip. Still, it bears repeating that learning how to read should be a priority even if you feel that you are strong in this area. Learning how to read is about more than simply following along. It’s about breaking through what a writer is saying and coming to your own conclusions and judgments based on life experience, other works, and intuition. It’s about finding the “truth” of the material, or at least finding your own personal truth.
As far as specific tactics for learning how to read, we recommend checking out material on deep reading, or the “active process of thoughtful and deliberate reading carried out to enhance one’s comprehension and enjoyment of a text,” per About Grammar. This is much different from skimming or superficial reading for enjoyment.
Study Tips No. 14: Schedule study time during your prime hours
In another aspect of the scheduling process for studying, it’s important that the time for studies isn’t falling in the cracks of that schedule you should have created in No. 7 on this list of study tips. Rather than relegating studying to the corners of your life, it’s important that you allow it to take center stage.
That doesn’t mean neglecting the things on your itinerary of recurring importance, but it does mean shuffling around those tasks and duties that you can. By this, we mean the things that don’t require the best of your mental juices.
To follow this tip, you’re going to need to know when your “prime hours” are. It will be different for most everyone. Some of you are morning people. Some are night owls. Even among the morning people and night owls, some of you define those descriptors differently.
One night owl may work best from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., while another does better from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Similarly, the “morning people” may want to get up at 4 a.m. to do their best work between 4:30 and 6:30, or they may get up at 6:30 a.m. to do their best work between 7 and 9.
Study Tips No. 15: Choose the right environment
Environment is another thing that plays an important role in the study process. You’re not going to do as well in front of a television as you will in the quiet of your bedroom with classical music humming from your headphones. You may disagree, but study after study has proven we’re right.
One such piece of research—published by the University of Southern California—found that “music put students in a heightened emotional state, making them more receptive to information,” adding that “listening benefits the brain, sleep patterns, the immune system and stress levels—all helpful when facing those all-important end-of-semester tests.”
Again, the right environment will be different for everyone as will tolerance for sounds and music; but it’s a universal fact that music and television that follow some sort of narrative are damaging to your study health, so keep away.
Study Tips No. 16: Engage in interleaving
Interleaving may be one of the study tips on this list that seem new to you, but we’re actually not the first people to write about it, nor is this recently published research from the Scientific American, though the site does a fine job of painting how relevant the concept is (or should be) to you, the student.
The site notes that studying “related skills or concepts in parallel is a surprisingly effective way to train your brain.”
To back up this claim, Steven C. Pan writes that over the past 40-or-so years, “a small but growing body of research has found that interleaving often outperforms blocking for a variety of subjects, including sports and category learning.”
On studies, new research in schools found it “produces dramatic and long-lasting benefits for an essential skill: math.”
Pan continued: “Not only does this finding have the potential to transform how math is taught, it may also change how people learn more generally.”
You really should read the full piece (linked above) to get a feel for the ways that could prove true in your own study life. In our own studies, we’ve found this “parallel learning” principle to be invaluable. Just compare it to a really in-depth magazine article. There will be related “side bars” that can be looked at separately from the main article, but if you take the time to read them, it will further enhance your understanding about what the article is talking about. That’s why magazines have included them for centuries, and it works for the brain as well.
Study Tips No. 17: Borrow other minds
Study groups can be your best friends in the world as you move from high school to college, specifically into those difficult upper level courses. By borrowing from one another’s intellect, you can learn from those who are further along and teach those who are further behind (in turn reaffirming and clarifying core principles that may, at one time, not have been so clear in your mind).
The key to getting the most out of a study group, of course, is to have the right people in your ranks. Two things that you want to always, always, always adhere to on this front: 1) gathering a study group of no more than five and no less than three; and 2) making sure the people in your group are at varying mastery levels.
If all of you are in a position to teach or learn from each other, you stay focused on the material instead of egos, and that can only enhance your outcomes.
Study Tips No. 18: Never take a day off
This sounds more horrible than it actually is. When you’re gearing up for a big exam, never take a full day off. By staying “plugged in” to the material, you never give your systems a chance to power down, thus ensuring that you are working towards understanding at all times.
Now, with that said, your “work days” do not have to be particularly difficult. As with working out, you can get a tremendous amount of long-term benefit through simply showing up and putting in a little time each day.
Most fitness experts recommend around two and a half hours of rigorous exercise a week to stay in peak shape. Two and a half hours—out of 168! That amounts to under 22 minutes per day. Apply that same principle to studying, keeping in mind the word “rigorous” along with the fact that you have to know how far ahead or behind that you are, and the no-days-off school of thought can work wonders!
Plus, as alluded to above, it cuts down the amount of adjustment time that you have to make when stepping away from the material. Think of it like taking a vacation and then going back to work. After 7 days away, you always feel like you’re drowning when you come back to work. That feeling is completely avoidable if you’re doing a little each day.
Study Tips No. 19: Game detox
What could we possibly mean by game detox? We mean use games to detoxify your system of information overload. Games, in this case, could mean anything from card games to video games. Don’t let the naysayers convince you that playing during times of work is a bad thing. You need to be able to step away from material frequently and recharge your batteries.
Whether that means playing a game related to what you’re studying—i.e. educationally-themed games—or simply blowing away ninjas in a first-person shooter, you’re doing something to keep your mental and physical reflexes sharp, and that isn’t a bad thing.
Just stay away from the types of games that engage the addictive side of your personality because too much of anything can become bad for you in a hurry.
Study Tips No. 20: Make the most of your class time
Still, one of the most effective study tips is to actually pay attention in class. Regardless of what you think of an instructor, the truth is he or she is the most knowledgeable person in the class on whatever subject they’re teaching, and you can learn a lot from them if you set aside your prejudices and come prepared to learn.
Listen first. Take good notes. Ask questions. That’s all there is to it.
Study Tips No. 21: Know yourself
Know what you know. Know what you don’t know. And know all the things that fall between those two spectrums of your educational profile. In other words, have honesty about your strengths and weaknesses, and always be working towards improvement.
This is some of the simplest advice that we can give you when it comes to improving your educational outcome, but it can also be the most overlooked and the most effective for incorporating into your lifestyle.
Most people don’t like to be honest about their weaknesses, and they don’t like to challenge their assurances. This creates a difficult situation when it’s time for growth.
Study Tips No. 22: Build connections
We’ve already discussed the importance of connections when reading; now we’re going to talk about the people connection.
As you move through your career, you’re going to find that “who you know” matters when it comes to things like getting jobs, getting promotions, and welcoming new opportunities.
You already know how to start connections through things like social networks, but do you know how to nurture those connections into useful relationships? In another context, how many of your Facebook “friends” would actually want to hire you or trust that you could help them with a problem?
If your friend totals are 1,000, but you’re having difficulty coming up with one or 10 people that trust you that much, then it’s time to learn the how-to of building deeper connections because the deeper those connections are, the more likely they will be to join your study group or help you with a difficult problem in your studies.
Study Tips No. 23: Incorporate osmosis
Osmosis is in the worlds of biology and chemistry “a process by which molecules of a solvent tend to pass through a semipermeable membrane from a less concentrated solution into a more concentrated one, thus equalizing the concentrations on each side of the membrane.” (Hat tip Google.)
In the learning world, osmosis can occur as well. It happens by simply exposing yourself to foreign content as much as possible. You can expose yourself on a surface level or on a deeper level. It doesn’t matter. The fact that you’re “around” the material and open to what it’s trying to tell you will inch you closer to a deeper understanding.
That’s why we like to listen to podcasts in between moments of deep work on a topic that we’re trying to better understand. We might only hear what someone has to say and retain 5 percent of it, but at the end of the day, that means we’re 5 percent smarter on the topic than we were before. Try it!
Study Tips No. 24: Take breaks
Breaks are important because they give you a chance to relax your brain muscles and get ready to learn again. They also give you something to look forward to when moving through a particularly monotonous piece of material. Besides, the human brain, when there isn’t a built-in passionate interest, can only hold intense focus on something for around 20 to 30 minutes. Getting up and moving around helps you to get the most out of those periods of focus.
Study Tips No. 25: Try multiple learning techniques
Never close the door on one learning style because you feel that you are stronger at this-or-that way of learning. So what if you’re a visual learner! You’re not always going to have the opportunity to learn visually, so you need to be working on honing your other abilities.
As Christian Jarrett shares in his piece for Wired, quoting Scott Lilienfeld and colleagues in 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, “the approach ‘encourages teachers to teach to students’ intellectual strengths rather than their weaknesses.’ Yet, they add: ‘students need to correct and compensate for their shortcomings, not avoid them.'”
Study Tips No. 26: Become a note-taking god
Note taking is an art form, and that becomes more and more apparent as you move up the educational ladder. It’s important that you reject the notion that taking good notes means writing down everything the teacher says word-for-word. That’s actually the worst! A far better way of doing things: actively listen, asking questions and writing out the main ideas of what your teacher is communicating.
If you still need the word-for-word safety net, then record each class session and transcribe the teacher’s words later.
There are no right ways and wrong ways to truly learn a piece of material. If you’re looking for study tips to improve your game, feel free to take what makes sense in the list above and leave out the rest. But always be working towards what works best for you. Now, with that said, what are some study tips that you recommend which we have not yet covered? Sound off in the comments section!
[Image via Gurl]