How to Study Smarter

Many of you may be familiar with mugging before an exam, but is re-reading textbooks and highlighting notes late into the night really a good way to study? There is a better way for you to learn, if you know how to.

Research shows that students who excel at exams aren’t necessarily those who study longest – it’s studying smart, by planning ahead, quizzing themselves often, and actively seeking help when they don’t understand.

When it comes to studying, many of us often take a passive approach to studying by re-reading textbooks and highlighting the main points, and look for headings to find the big ideas. But this means that you’ve only learned to recognise the material rather than storing it in your memory, meaning it’ll be hard to recall them during an exam.

To recall what you’ve learned, it’s what you do with the information that counts.

Retrieval Practice

Top students spend more time in retrieval practice – basically quizzing themselves, or their peers, or teaching someone else – on what they’ve just learned. This forces them to recall facts and concepts, and leads to deeper learning (in a shorter amount of time) which is referred to as a ‘testing effect’.

Students who formed study groups and quizzed each other weekly on material presented in class posted higher grades than those who used other study techniques, says a 2015 study of 144 students.

By simultaneously teaching someone something you just learned, you are effectively learning to apply what you’ve learned into context. This information sticks in your head much longer.

This ‘active’ approach is self-regulated learning: you hold yourself accountable for reaching goals. College professors expect students to have mastered these skills – not mugging – by the time they’re freshmen.

Short Study Sessions

Contrary to popular belief that studying longer means more information is absorbed, studying tends to be more productive when it’s done in short 45-minute segments, rather than over several hours. This is simply because it’s hard to maintain any interest in something that’s too long – especially so if you’ve been accused of being attention deficit.

Students tend to exert more energy right after a study session begins, and again when they know it’s about to end. So if the period in between stretches too long, the energy that’s present in the beginning of the session may not be enough to keep them motivated.

Because of this, it’s therefore difficult to pace your study sessions the night before an exam – in short, mugging does you no good. Even if you do find yourself performing well after mugging, you could do much better (and with less effort) if you planned ahead.

Start Early

Some of you take practice tests to help recall facts, but it does more than help you recall your memory. It also eases anxiety during test days – and works best when you practice recalling the facts at intervals of a few minutes to several days, research shows.

The best time to start taking practice tests is 7 to 10 days before an exam – students who do so (because they could anticipate what would be on the test, name the resources, and explain how and when they’d use them) had better performances compared to those who didn’t do the exercise, according to a 2017 study of 361 college students led by Patricia Chen, an assistant professor of psychology at the National University of Singapore.