Do you ever feel like your study method isn’t working very well?
Maybe it takes you way longer than you think it should. Or maybe no matter how much you study, you still struggle to remember the most important information.
Don’t you wish you could take that magic pill Bradley Cooper took in the movie Limitless that turned him into a crazy genius who could process ridiculous amounts of information?
Unfortunately, we don’t have any magic pills to give you.
…we do have some pretty powerful study tips that can help you study more effectively. These study tips won’t turn you into Bradley Cooper, but they might just help you ace that next test.
Read on to learn proven methods for improving your study skills.
1. Go beyond just reading and reviewing notes
Simply re-reading notes does not actively engage your brain enough to retain the information. You need to find a way to go beyond that. There’s more to studying than just reading the material assigned by your professor. In order to truly comprehend a text, you must read it and then actively engage with it to fully absorb its content.
As you study, ask questions, make connections between the material and your own thoughts on it, relate what you’re learning to your own life, and form concrete examples for yourself.
Active engagement goes well beyond simply re-reading and highlighting the text, although these things can be useful in keeping you engaged. Active learning requires truly wrestling with an idea or concept until you fully understand it.
Here are some simple study tips for active learning:
- Create an in-depth study guide for each subject
- Create individual study cards for subtopics
- Find a fellow student study buddy, or study group
- Use flashcards to engage with the material in an active manner.
- Take practice tests
- Write down key words and phrases from your readings on index cards so that you can better remember them later
2. Utilize the stages of the Study Cycle
The Study Cycle, developed by Frank Christ, is a proven five-step process for effective class learning and studying. The five steps are:
Step 1 – Preview
Prepare for class by previewing the course materials. Begin by looking at headings, subheadings, and words in bold to get an idea of what you’ll be covering. Note any initial questions that you have. Set out to build your “big picture” of the topic before going into details.
Step 2 – Attend
This may seem obvious, but it should be stated. Missing even a few classes can be detrimental to your ability to grasp concepts and learn material. To further maximize the learning process for courses, you should attend lectures, pay close attention, and take notes in order to better understand the information presented.
Step 3 – Review
After each class, take at least 10 minutes to review the main points from that day’s lesson. This will help strengthen what you’ve learned in each subject as well as keeping it fresh for when you return to class the next day.
Step 4 – Study
To make sure you understand the content taught during class, review your notes, read your textbook, work through practice problems, and utilize the active learning techniques mentioned above. If needed, form a study group to clarify any misconceptions.
Step 5 – Assess
Reflect on and evaluate your understanding of the class material you learned. One way to assess your progress during studying is to determine whether you could teach someone else the concepts you’ve been studying. In fact, you may even want to do this with a fellow student (or a sympathetic family member willing to listen!). If you can clearly explain the concepts in your own words, it’s a good sign that you have a firm grasp on the subject.
3. Avoid marathon sessions
As much as possible, avoid marathon study sessions the night before a test and instead try to space out your studying over time.
The best way to study is by completing small chunks of work for all your classes each day. Instead of trying to cram all your studying into one session, break up time into smaller periods that will still result in the same (or less) total amount of study time but allow for deeper understanding and retention of information.
This is particularly important if you’re trying to memorize large amounts of information. Research has shown that “spaced repetition“, where you memorize large amounts of information in small sections, is more effective than repeatedly going over all the information at once.
In addition to helping you learn more deeply, spacing out your work helps reduce the temptation to procrastinate. It’s much easier to motivate yourself to study or work on a project for 30 minutes per day than to do a six hour marathon session.
4. Work in short, intense bursts
This is related to the above point, but from a slightly different angle. While studying, work in ultra-focused bursts where you don’t allow yourself to be distracted by anything else. Then take a brief break.
For example, over the course of an hour, you might work for 40 minutes at full intensity and then take a 15-minute break. If you’re familiar with the Pomodoro Technique and the concept of “Deep Work“, you know how effective this can be, especially if you struggle with a short attention span.
This strategy is much more productive than working continuously over the course of several hours as it gives your brain time to recharge. You’ll be able to work more productively during study sessions and more efficiently retain the information you learn.
One key thing here is that during your focus sessions, you absolutely must eliminate distractions. No phone, no social media, etc. If you need help with this, consider using Freedom to block temptations.
5. Use focus music and sounds to block out noise
Another way to study more effectively is by listening to music or sounds that will help you focus.
Ideally, focus music should be instrumental, without lyrics to distract you. This type of music blocks out other noises (like your roommates playing video games) so it’s easier to concentrate on what you’re studying.
If you’re not sure where to get this kind of music or sounds, check out the free focus playlist on YouTube or the Focus Sounds on the Freedom dashboard.
Other great places to find focus music and sounds are:
- Brain.fm – Music scientifically proven to help you focus, relax, or sleep
- Portal app – Beautifully designed, immersive app that features nature sounds
- Focus@will – Scientifically optimized music for focus
- Deep Focus playlist on Spotify – A collection of instrumental tracks that aren’t distracting
6. Never multitask during study sessions
It’s impossible to study well when you’re doing other things at the same time and it doesn’t work for any activity, let alone something as brain intensive as studying.
Resist the temptation to multitask while studying. Don’t check your social media feeds or text messages every few minutes. Don’t study while watching TV, listening to music, or using the phone (unless you’re discussing the material with someone).
Yes, it can be hard to put away your phone or not have Netflix going in the background. But the benefits of study time without distraction are significant. Is it really worth getting a lower grade just so you can be able to check Instagram every few minutes?
7. Study in different locations
Studying in different locations is another effective study tip that can improve your focus and retention.
Depending on the time of day, one location might be better than another in terms of the optimal study environment. For example, you might study at a coffee shop in the morning when you’re still waking up and not totally engaged. You can sip on your coffee and do some light review as your brain starts to wake up.
In the afternoon, you might work on a paper in your dorm or apartment while it’s quiet and your roommates are at class. In the evening, when it’s noisy and distracting, you could head over to the library.
The key is knowing when and where you work best and then finding those study spaces.
8. Rephrase material in your own words
We touched on this earlier, but it’s worth expanding upon. It can be extremely helpful to take the material you’re studying and rephrase it in your own words, as if you were explaining the concepts to someone else.
If you’ve ever visited the subreddit r/explainlikeimfive (explain it to me like I’m five), you know why this works. Before you can explain something in simple terms, you have to truly master the subject yourself.
Using this strategy will help you fully grasp what you’re studying since you have to take the concepts, understand how the ideas relate to each other, and then explain it in your own words.
9. Manage your calendar
This may sound like an odd study tip, but your calendar and daily schedule are two of your most important tools for studying effectively. You need to know when you have exams, quizzes, and projects coming up, and you need to use your calendar to determine when you need to start studying for these things.
Look at when a test is happening and then work backward on your calendar to see when you should start studying. Remember, you want to space out your studying so that you’re not doing marathon sessions the night before. Try to calculate how much total time you think you need to study and then use that number to determine how many days in advance you need to start.
For example, let’s say you have a test in two weeks and you think you need to spend seven hours studying for it. That means you need to study 30 minutes every day for that test. Obviously, there may be days when you study more, but this provides you with a good buffer.
10. Take advantage of light weeks
During light weeks when you don’t have much due, it can be tempting to pull back on studying. Don’t do this. Light weeks are the perfect time to study for upcoming exams, review material you learned earlier in the semester, or work on bigger projects that aren’t due for some time.
When you do this, you end up in a much better position at test time or when a project is due. Instead of feeling that surge of panic that comes with knowing you only have a few hours left to cram, you feel confident and sure of your knowledge. If you have to submit a project, the quality will be significantly better because you didn’t have to rush the process at the last minute.
11. Vocalize what you’re learning
This may sound odd, but speaking out loud is an effective study tip that can improve your focus and retention. Vocalizing what you’re studying forces you to articulate the concepts, which requires understanding the subject to the degree where you can speak clearly about it.
Additionally, hearing yourself speak out loud can help you remember things more effectively than if you read them silently. Called “the production effect“, researchers think that the act of speaking and hearing together lead to information being stored more effectively in the brain.
So don’t be afraid to talk to yourself as you work your way through your study materials, although people might look at you oddly if you do it in public.
12. Use mnemonics to improve your memory
A mnemonic is a study strategy that uses association, imagery, and imagination to make complex information easier to remember.
Some common mnemonics are acronyms, where each letter stands for something, like “HOMES” for all of the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior).
Others are memorable phrases like “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” for the order of operations in mathematics (parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction).
Still others are associating memorable images with abstract concepts to help you remember them. For example, you might use the image of Pluto the Dog (from Disney) wearing an American flag to remember that in the periodic table of elements, plutonium is followed by americium.
If you have to memorize a significant amount of information, try creating some mnemonics.
13. Take notes in class by hand
While it’s common to take class notes on a laptop, research has shown that writing notes by hand improves memory and retention. The reason might surprise you: it’s easier to take more notes on a laptop than writing them by hand.
As researchers Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer note:
In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.
In other words, when you type your notes on a laptop, you’re much more likely to try to capture as much as possible without necessarily processing what you’re hearing. When you take notes by hand, you’re forced to process and reframe what you’re hearing in a more concise manner.
Practice Makes Perfect
These study tips won’t make you a genius overnight. But the more you do them, the more you’ll find yourself retaining more material for longer periods of time. And instead of experiencing Sunday night panic for an assignment due Monday, you’ll feel relaxed and in control.
At the risk of being a massive cliche, it’s time to start studying smarter, not harder.