Studying 101: Study Smarter Not Harder

Kornell compares our memory to water in a bucket that has a small leak. Try to refill the bucket while it’s still full, and you can’t add much more water. Allow time between study sessions, and some of the material may drip out of your memory. But then you’ll be able to relearn it and learn more in your next study session. And you’ll remember it better, next time, he notes.

 a diagram of a neuron

How to study effectively

The year was 1993 and, aged 16, I was about to sit my Geography GCSE exam. This was an ‘old school’ style public examination, held in the school’s gymnasium. A stifling odour of floor wax and dust hung heavy in the air. Victorian-era single desks featuring ink wells that had been utterly redundant for about three generations were arranged into rows with unerring precision. The silence was so unnatural and oppressive, it seemed to have a tangible density.

Nonetheless, I had crammed for this exam like a champion and was feeling confident. I took a deep breath, opened my examination booklet and glanced over the first page of questions. A gut-wrenching realisation quickly dawned on me, captured perfectly by a single piece of graffiti etched into the haggard surface of my desk. It read: ‘Oh Sh*t! There goes college, 1992.’

Clearly, I hadn’t been the only one whose confidence in their exam preparation was misplaced. However, it wouldn’t be until I started teaching psychology some 12 years later that I fully understood why. Here’s the bad news: research from psychology indicates that our ability to accurately monitor and evaluate our level of knowledge or skill (referred to as metacognitive ability) is often flawed. These flaws tend to give us an inflated perception of our knowledge and understanding, encouraging us to persevere with ineffective methods of studying that quietly, but persistently, undermine our efforts to learn. It’s easy to demonstrate this by examining some preferred study practices and considering the misconceptions about learning that they reflect. Let’s kick off things by looking at that perennial favourite: cramming.

Cramming seeks to stamp things in by intense application immediately before the ordeal. But a thing thus learned can form but few associations.
– from Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (1899) by William James

We’ve probably all done it at some point. The evening before the big exam, source materials sprawled out on the desk, a stockpile of energy drinks substituting for the intravenous caffeine line that would be so much more efficient (patent pending). Productivity is the order of the day, after all; it’s cramming time. Sure enough, research confirms that cramming is a go-to strategy for many students. However, since the late 19th century, research in psychology has demonstrated that distributing your study time over a number of shorter sessions works better than cramming all the work into one marathon session. This is known as ‘the spacing effect’. It’s one of those rare findings in psychology that goes pretty much uncontested, which makes it even more perplexing that more of us don’t take advantage of it.

Another routine approach to study is to repeatedly reread sources. It’s not difficult to explain why students rely on this approach. If you read a piece of text repeatedly, that text will start to feel familiar. You will likely interpret this feeling of familiarity as progress. Unfortunately, this perception of progress is often illusory. It reflects a failure to consider a vital difference between study and exam conditions: things always seem easy when you have the answers in front of you. Inconveniently, most exams don’t allow you that luxury.

A reliance on passively rereading material when studying also reflects a more fundamental misconception about the nature of memory. We often view memory as being akin to a somewhat unreliable camera; not so much an SLR, more one of those Victorian jobbies – the kind that required 30 minutes of exposure to capture a portrait, during which time the subjects had to remain utterly still or else the photo would be ruined. This reproductive notion of memory lulls us into thinking that successfully remembering a source boils down to the amount of exposure we give it and that interacting with that source will likely only ‘interfere with the shot’. However, thinking of memory as if it worked like a recalcitrant camera is misleading and really unhelpful when you’re studying.

Our memory doesn’t passively reproduce a source: it actively reconstructs it according to our previous knowledge, experience and expectations. To stick with the photographic analogy, the workings of memory are more like the filters on a photo-editing suite than a camera. Using our memory effectively is less about maximising exposure to a new source than figuring out how to use our prior knowledge, experience and expectation filters to integrate that source with what we already know.

As you can see, then, the most common approaches to studying are often not what psychologists would recommend. I’m painfully aware that even when faced with evidence that study methods such as cramming and rereading are relatively ineffective, you’ll probably still harbour an inclination to fall back on these habits. You might argue: ‘Cramming has got me this far, so it can’t be completely ineffectual.’ You’d be right; it isn’t completely ineffectual. However, there are far superior alternatives, especially if your goal is to retain what you’re studying for any length of time. Had I studied properly for my geography exam all those years ago, I might now be able to remember more than just the names of four of the mechanisms of coastal erosion. (Not that this doesn’t make me a blast to sit next to at dinner, you understand.)

What to do

As noted above, it’s better to distribute the time you have available to study over a greater number of shorter sessions than it is to cram your studying into a single marathon session. In thinking about exploiting this ‘spacing effect’ in your own studying, you might wonder whether there is an optimal method of spacing out your study sessions. Is there an ideal number of sessions? Is there an optimal interval between sessions?

The good news is that simple guidelines on scheduling your study sessions are sufficient. In terms of the number of sessions you use, too few is more of a problem than too many. If you have 12 hours to dedicate to a topic, it’s better to study over six two-hour-long sessions than it is to study over a couple of six-hour-long sessions. In terms of the length of intervals between your sessions, research indicates that longer intervals tend to be associated (up to a point) with better retention. However, since studying often takes place in a limited timeframe, you should prioritise the number of sessions over getting the longest possible inter-session intervals.

We often believe that it’s best to ‘block’ topics when studying – to allocate a period of time for one topic, and to conclude a review of it before moving on to the next one. However, contemporary research has consistently indicated that alternating between different topics (referred to as ‘interleaving’) can be more effective, especially for topics that are similar in nature and might otherwise be easily conflated.

As an example, if you were learning about psychoactive drugs (for a friend, of course), you’d probably want to look at different classes of drugs: eg, stimulants, depressants and hallucinogens. Broadly speaking, you could deal with these topics in one of two ways: blocking or interleaving. The blocking approach would involve studying each class of drug sequentially; you would conclude your review of stimulants in their entirety before moving on to depressants and then hallucinogens. Alternatively, you could interleave the classes of drugs by organising your studying around categories of information within them. For example, their definitions, exemplars, mechanism of action and profile of psychological effects. Interleaving would involve first looking at a definition for each class of drug, before moving on to an example from each class, followed by their respective mechanisms of action, and then finally their profiles of psychological effects.

Here’s a general rule of thumb you can follow in figuring out whether it might be better to block or interleave your study efforts. Research indicates that interleaving seems to bias your attention towards looking for differences between topics. Therefore, it’s most effective when you’re studying topics that are similar (and require more effort to distinguish from each other). It’s also effective under conditions where you have discretion about assigning information to a category, as might be the case if you were classifying works of art. In contrast, blocking seems to focus your attention on looking for similarities between topics. Therefore, it’s best used for topics that can be easily distinguished and/or when category membership has been predetermined, such as would be the case if you were learning about elements of the periodic table.

In the ‘Need to Know’ section above, we noted that memory is fundamentally reconstructive, as opposed to reproductive, in nature. If you rely on passively rereading your course materials, you’ll tend to end up using your memory to try to reproduce the author’s understanding of the subject rather than generating your own. So, what is the best catalyst for generating your own understanding of what you read? The answer is to question what you read as you’re reading it. By responding to your own questions, you are forcing yourself to think about how to explain the subject matter in your own words and with reference to your previous knowledge and experience.

You can use an approach called elaborative interrogation to systematically incorporate the process of questioning into your reading. This technique involves annotating your sources with questions that require an explanatory response from you. You can provide this response verbally, initially using your sources for assistance. Do this iteratively with the aim of eventually not needing to consult your sources at all during the process of responding to your questions.

In using elaborative interrogation, try to focus on explanation as much as you can; your aim is to make the information as meaningful to you as possible. Phrasing your questions so they begin with ‘why’ or ‘how’ will help you do this, as will thinking about concrete examples of more abstract concepts. For example, you might annotate this section with the question: ‘Why is responding to your own questions conducive to the reconstructive nature of memory?’

Reading is not studying

Simply reading and re-reading texts or notes is not actively engaging in the material. It is simply re-reading your notes. Only ‘doing’ the readings for class is not studying. It is simply doing the reading for class. Re-reading leads to quick forgetting.

Think of reading as an important part of pre-studying, but learning information requires actively engaging in the material (Edwards, 2014). Active engagement is the process of constructing meaning from text that involves making connections to lectures, forming examples, and regulating your own learning (Davis, 2007). Active studying does not mean highlighting or underlining text, re-reading, or rote memorization. Though these activities may help to keep you engaged in the task, they are not considered active studying techniques and are weakly related to improved learning (Mackenzie, 1994).

  • Create a study guide by topic. Formulate questions and problems and write complete answers. Create your own quiz.
  • Become a teacher. Say the information aloud in your own words as if you are the instructor and teaching the concepts to a class.
  • Derive examples that relate to your own experiences.
  • Create concept maps or diagrams that explain the material.
  • Develop symbols that represent concepts.
  • For non-technical classes (e.g., English, History, Psychology), figure out the big ideas so you can explain, contrast, and re-evaluate them.
  • For technical classes, work the problems and explain the steps and why they work.
  • Study in terms of question, evidence, and conclusion: What is the question posed by the instructor/author? What is the evidence that they present? What is the conclusion?

Organization and planning will help you to actively study for your courses. When studying for a test, organize your materials first and then begin your active reviewing by topic (Newport, 2007). Often professors provide subtopics on the syllabi. Use them as a guide to help organize your materials. For example, gather all of the materials for one topic (e.g., PowerPoint notes, text book notes, articles, homework, etc.) and put them together in a pile. Label each pile with the topic and study by topics.

Understand the Study Cycle

The Study Cycle, developed by Frank Christ, breaks down the different parts of studying: previewing, attending class, reviewing, studying, and checking your understanding. Although each step may seem obvious at a glance, all too often students try to take shortcuts and miss opportunities for good learning. For example, you may skip a reading before class because the professor covers the same material in class; doing so misses a key opportunity to learn in different modes (reading and listening) and to benefit from the repetition and distributed practice (see #3 below) that you’ll get from both reading ahead and attending class. Understanding the importance of all stages of this cycle will help make sure you don’t miss opportunities to learn effectively.

One of the most impactful learning strategies is “distributed practice”—spacing out your studying over several short periods of time over several days and weeks (Newport, 2007). The most effective practice is to work a short time on each class every day. The total amount of time spent studying will be the same (or less) than one or two marathon library sessions, but you will learn the information more deeply and retain much more for the long term—which will help get you an A on the final. The important thing is how you use your study time, not how long you study. Long study sessions lead to a lack of concentration and thus a lack of learning and retention.

In order to spread out studying over short periods of time across several days and weeks, you need control over your schedule. Keeping a list of tasks to complete on a daily basis will help you to include regular active studying sessions for each class. Try to do something for each class each day. Be specific and realistic regarding how long you plan to spend on each task—you should not have more tasks on your list than you can reasonably complete during the day.

For example, you may do a few problems per day in math rather than all of them the hour before class. In history, you can spend 15-20 minutes each day actively studying your class notes. Thus, your studying time may still be the same length, but rather than only preparing for one class, you will be preparing for all of your classes in short stretches. This will help focus, stay on top of your work, and retain information.

In addition to learning the material more deeply, spacing out your work helps stave off procrastination. Rather than having to face the dreaded project for four hours on Monday, you can face the dreaded project for 30 minutes each day. The shorter, more consistent time to work on a dreaded project is likely to be more acceptable and less likely to be delayed to the last minute. Finally, if you have to memorize material for class (names, dates, formulas), it is best to make flashcards for this material and review periodically throughout the day rather than one long, memorization session (Wissman and Rawson, 2012). See our handout on memorization strategies to learn more.

Power Words

abstract: Something that exists as an idea or thought but not concrete or tangible (touchable) in the real world. Beauty, love and memory are abstractions; cars, trees and water are concrete and tangible. (in publishing) A short summary of a scientific paper, a poster or a scientist’s talk. Abstracts are useful to determine whether delving into the details of the whole scientific paper will yield the information you seek.

attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: (ADHD) This is a disorder characterized by not being able to focus or pay attention, being physically overactive, not being able to control behavior, or a combination of these.

COVID-19: A name given the coronavirus that caused a massive outbreak of potentially lethal disease, beginning in December 2019. Symptoms included pneumonia, fever, headaches and trouble breathing.

data: Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

distraction: Any event or situation that draws someone’s attention away from whatever had been his or her main focus. Distractions can be external events, such as sounds or sights; or they can be internal events, such as thoughts or emotions.

journal: (in science) A publication in which scientists share their research findings with experts (and sometimes even the public). Some journals publish papers from all fields of science, technology, engineering and math, while others are specific to a single subject. The best journals are peer-reviewed: They send all submitted articles to outside experts to be read and critiqued. The goal, here, is to prevent the publication of mistakes, fraud or sloppy work.

model: A simulation of a real-world event (usually using a computer) that has been developed to portray something or to predict one or more likely outcomes. Or an individual or thing that is meant to display how something would work in or look on others.

stress: (in biology) A factor — such as unusual temperatures, movements, moisture or pollution — that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance (stressor) that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative.

superficial: Something that is on the surface (hence, not deep), such as the skin of the body. Or, something that appears important until, looked at more closely, there is little substance to the claim.

10 Study Methods & Tips That Actually Work

1. The SQ3R Method

SQ3R method

The SQ3R method is a reading comprehension technique that helps students identify important facts and retain information within their textbook. SQ3R (or SQRRR) is an acronym that stands for the five steps of the reading comprehension process. Try these steps for a more efficient and effective study session:

  • Survey: Instead of reading the entire book, start by skimming the first chapter and taking notes on any headings, subheadings, images, or other standout features like charts.
  • Question: Formulate questions around the chapter’s content, such as, What is this chapter about? What do I already know about this subject?
  • Read: Begin reading the full chapter and look for answers to the questions you formulated.
  • Recite: After reading a section, summarize in your own words what you just read. Try recalling and identifying major points and answering any questions from the second step.
  • Review: Once you have finished the chapter, it’s important to review the material to fully understand it. Quiz yourself on the questions you created and re-read any portions you need to.

2. Retrieval Practice

retrieval practice

Retrieval practice is based on the concept of remembering at a later time. Recalling an answer to a question improves learning more than looking for the answer in your textbook. And, remembering and writing down the answer to a flashcard is a lot more effective than thinking you know the answer and flipping the card over early.

3. Spaced Practice

spaced practice

Spaced practice (also known as “distributed practice”) encourages students to study over a longer period of time instead of cramming the night before. When our brains almost forget something, they work harder to recall that information. Spacing out your studying allows your mind to make connections between ideas and build upon the knowledge that can be easily recalled later.

It’s important to start planning early. At the beginning of each semester, schedule some time each day just for studying and reviewing the material. Even if your exams are months away, this will help you hold yourself accountable.

4. The PQ4R Method

PQ4R method

This method takes an active approach to learning that improves memorization and understanding of the topic. Similar to the SQ3R method above, PQ4R is an acronym that stands for the six steps in the process.

  • Preview: Preview the information before you start reading to get an idea of the subject. Skim the material and read only the headers, subheadings, and highlighted text.
  • Question: Ask yourself questions related to the topic, such as, What do I expect to learn? What do I already know about this topic?
  • Read: Read the information one section at a time and try to identify answers to your questions.
  • Reflect: Did you answer all of your questions? If not, go back and see if you can find the answer.
  • Recite: In your own words, either speak or write down a summary of the information you just read.
  • Review: Look over the material one more time and answer any questions that have not yet been answered.

5. The Feynman Technique

The Feynman Technique

The Feynman Technique is an efficient method of learning a concept quickly by explaining it in plain and simple terms. It’s based on the idea, “If you want to understand something well, try to explain it simply.” What that means is, by attempting to explain a concept in our own words, we are likely to understand it a lot faster.

6. Leitner System

Leitner System

The Leitner System is a learning technique based on flashcards. Ideally, you keep your cards in several different boxes to track when you need to study each set. Every card starts in Box 1. If you get a card right, you move it to the next box. If you get a card wrong, you either move it down a box or keep it in Box 1 (if it’s already there).


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