How To Study Properly: 10 Highly Effective Study Techniques Everyone Should Know

How To Study Properly - 10 Highly Effective Study Techniques Everyone Should Know

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Want better grades and test scores? 

Stick with me here for just 15 – 20 minutes, and I guarantee you’ll discover amazing new study techniques you can use to get the results you want!

Start Using These Successful Study Techniques For A Huge Advantage

Whether it’s a college class or standardized test, your results are the name of the game. When I was in high school, I rarely studied outside of school and had no trouble getting good grades. Many students have the same experience, then get to college and quickly find out the amount of work they have to put in for their grades! 

Don’t worry though, I’ve created this guide on the best study techniques to help you out with your studying!

What you’ll find here is an organized list of 10 research-based study techniques that I’ve gathered from well-renowned experts, best selling books, scientific journals, and my own experience.

To make your journey towards academic success as easy as possible, I’ve created clear-cut, detailed descriptions for exactly how you can apply each of the 10 study techniques into your routine.

Also, you’ll find straightforward, painless action steps to get you started with each study method.

On top of this, I’ve included examples to illustrate the practical applications of each study technique throughout. 

I know that some especially ambitious readers will want to know more about these study techniques, so I’ve recommended books of interest throughout just for them!

Now let’s get started!

1. How to Study Without Forgetting What You Have Studied: Relate New Material to What you Already Know 

Whenever your goal is to learn something new, one of the fastest ways to make it stick is to connect it to what you already know.

Why does this work? To answer this, let’s take a look at the basic science of memory. This is crucial for understanding how to study and learn. There are different classifications of memory based on how long each kind lasts.

The 3 Classes of Memory

The first class of memory is called immediate memory. Immediate memory can only retain experiences in the mind for an instant. The second class of memory is the working aka short-term memory. Short-term memory can only hold information for a time span of seconds to minutes.

Since clearly you’ll need to retain things for longer than a few minutes to ace your tests, there must be another type of memory – and there is. It’s called the long-term memory. Memories stored in long-term memory can persist for a virtually unlimited period of time—days, weeks, months, etc.—as long as the information is used.

The name of the game for effective learning is to transfer memories from immediate memory and short-term memory into long-term memory, where they can be stored and applied on exams. However, the fact is that much of the info we process daily doesn’t make it to the long-term memory. It doesn’t even get past the short-term memory.

So how do you effectively store knowledge in the long-term memory?  

You guessed it. One of the best ways is to somehow connect what you’re trying to learn to what you already know!

What Chess Masters can teach us About Memory Consolidation

Studies have been done with both master and beginner chess players. The groups were both shown the positions of pieces on a chessboard during an actual game, and were then asked to reconstruct the locations of the pieces on the board entirely by memory.

The study results showed that the chess masters are much better at this than the novice players. Why?

The master players possess much more comprehensive knowledge of chess formations than the beginners. The masters are thus able to view a random assortment of chess pieces and relate the positions to a similar formation they’ve long since committed to memory. By creating this mental association between what they already know and what they want to memorize, the masters excelled at the task where the novices couldn’t.

How can I apply this to my studying?

Next time you want to learn something new, ask yourself if and how it’s related to what you already know.

By forming associations and spotting connections, you’ll make certain that the information is consolidated into long-term memory more efficiently.

Using Metaphors and Similes

One great way to learn complex things fast is to come up with metaphors or similes about the material.

Metaphors are expressions that draw a comparison between two unlike things that have some similarities.

Similes are also expressions that draw comparisons between two unlike things.

The main difference between metaphors and similes is that similes use the words like and/or as, whereas metaphors do not.

An example of using metaphors and similes

Here’s an example. Let’s suppose you’re learning about the parts of the brain in a psychology or biology class. There’s a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which plays a key role in regulating the body’s temperature.

What’s a metaphor or simile we can make to help us remember this?

Let’s think of something we’re very familiar with that is unlike the hypothalamus, but has some kind of similarity. A thermostat is a device that controls the temperature inside of houses and buildings. To make a metaphor, we could say something like: the hypothalamus is the body’s thermostat. Alternatively, we could make a simile by saying something like: the hypothalamus controls the body’s temperature, like a thermostat does in a house. 

Can you see how much easier the hypothalamus’s function is to remember now?

Action Step:

Take out the new material you need to master for your next exam and ask yourself the following four questions:

  1. Is this material related to anything I’ve learned before in this class? If so, how?
  2. Is this material related to anything I’ve learned before in another class or somewhere else? If so, how?
  3. How is this material different than what I’ve learned before? (This question will make more sense after you read about interleaving below)
  4. What’s a metaphor and/or simile I can come up with to connect this information to something I’m already familiar with?

If you can make a metaphor/simile comparing something new to something else you’ve learned before in the class, that’s great! You don’t have to though! You can simply come up with one like we did above with the thermostat example.

Now, take your answers to 1, 2, and 3, and make a list of all of the ways the new material is similar and different to what you’ve learned before. 

2. Use Spaced-Repetition

Who else wants to learn how to study better? If you’re reading this—right now—this is a great time to follow along closely, because this one may just be the key difference maker for you!

There’s an old Latin proverb that reads repetitio mater studiorum est. This literally translates to repetition is the mother of learning. [bctt tweet=”Repetition is the mother of learning.” username=”testprepchamps”]

How true this statement is! Repetition is an essential component of learning that cannot be overlooked. Regardless of which study techniques you use, spaced-repetition should be the backbone of your efforts to retain information in the long-term.

You see, as we said above, most of the mundane info we process daily is not important enough to get consolidated into long-term memory.

Think about it.

Can you remember every single outfit you wore on every day of your life?

I’m sure if you think hard about some particularly meaningful events—first days of school, graduations, weddings, etc.—you’ll find you can vividly recall what you were wearing on those days.

However, for the average day, there’s simply no good reason to store this information! Therefore, it does not get consolidated into long-term memory, but is instead forgotten!

Forgetting is a good thing

Believe it or not, forgetting is actually a good thing! You might be thinking well, whenever I go into a test and forget what I studied, it doesn’t feel good!

Fair enough, I think we can all agree forgetting is not a good thing when you have to take an exam! However, there are two reasons why forgetting in general is beneficial.

Why forgetting is beneficial

The first reason is that the brain has a limited amount of storage space!

There is a finite, maximum capacity to what the brain can hold.

According to this Scientific American article about the human brain’s memory capacity, our brains can store about a quadrillion bytes worth of data. What exactly does this mean for us?

To put this into context, a quadrillion bytes is approximately equal to 1 million gigabytes. To help illustrate the vast magnitude, let’s relate this value to something we already know about: the Apple iPhone.

How many iPhones would it take to hold our memory? 

For the record, this is by no means a plug for Apple products. The reason I’m using iPhones to demonstrate this is simply because we’re all familiar with them. Even if you don’t have an iPhone, I’m sure you know many people who do.

Now, I’m no mathematician, but if I crunched these numbers right, then it turns out the brain’s storage capacity is roughly equivalent to the storage capacity of 62,500 16GB iPhones.

If we instead use 32GB iPhones for the comparison, we see that the brain’s storage capacity is roughly equal to that of 31,250 32GB iPhones.

If we go further still and use 64 GB iPhones, we’ll find that the brain’s storage capacity is approximately equal to that of 15,625 64GB iPhones.

Is it possible to run out of memory space?

For 99.9% of the human population, there’s absolutely zero chance of ever even coming close to filling the brain’s capacity. Forgetting trivial things like what time you brushed your teeth on September 14th three years ago is imperative for ensuring you never approach full-capacity.

An Evolutionary Perspective

The second reason why forgetting is vital for learning is best explained by looking at it from an evolutionary perspective. Stop and imagine a bear out in the wild.

Suppose that everyday for months, the bear drinks from a stream in the forest. Then, one day, the bear comes along to find that the stream has dried up. The bear’s very survival depends on forgetting that it can drink from this particular stream. It needs to find another one.

Fortunately, we don’t have to go out and look for streams to drink (most of us anyway), but the basic principles of forgetting in learning holds true. Forgetting is essential for learning so that we don’t fill our brain’s storage capacity, so that we forget non-helpful information, and for another reason as well.

Each time we retrieve information, we strengthen the memories with each repetition.

Forgetting then Recalling Builds Memories

The graph below illustrates the forgetting curve hypothesis. We see that memories decline in strength over time. This can be prevented by practicing information recall using spaced-repetition. 

The forgetting curve in spaced-repetition study techniques
The forgetting curve shows that memories decline over time unless they are rehearsed

By allowing some forgetting to occur between study sessions, you’ll be building stronger memories the next time you attempt to recall the information.

For this reason, repetition is crucial for learning. However, not all repetitions are equally valuable.

Massed-Repetition vs Spaced-Repetition

When it comes to using repetition in your studying, there are two different kinds to be aware of: massed-repetition and spaced-repetition.

Massed-repetition involves reviewing the same material multiple times in immediate succession after it’s been first learned. On the other hand, spaced-repetition involves reviewing the same information multiple times over a period of time rather than all at once.

Spacing Study Sessions Over Long Periods of Time with Breaks in Between is Called Spaced Repetition – a.k.a  The Spacing Effect

Many studies demonstrate that spacing is a much more effective way of learning and retaining information than massing. This finding alone proves spacing is one of the best study techniques for memorization.

This is known as the spacing effect — the finding that spacing learning events out over time instead of massing them together in immediate succession boosts learning and long-term memory. If you’re interested in learning more about the spacing effect, please read my blog post Get Straight A’s With The Spacing Effect.

How to apply spaced-repetition to your studying

There are two ways to apply spaced-repetition to your learning.

In Peter C. Brown’s Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Brown discusses the optimal length of time to wait between study sessions. Note that this link and the one below to the same book are both affiliate links, meaning I’ll get a small commission if you buy it using either link.

Brown says it’s best to wait just long enough between study sessions that you’ve forgetting some of the material, but not so long that you’ve forgetting the material entirely.

Challenge is Good, Struggle is Bad

In other words, recalling the information should be challenging, but not a struggle. If you can rattle everything off with no difficulty, then you haven’t allowed enough time to pass since you first learned the information.

If you’re completely stuck and can’t recall anything, then you waited too long! Once you find the proper balance, you’ll be able to study more effectively!

Defining Spacing Intervals

In addition to this more intuitive, gut-feeling way of doing it, you can also define set intervals between your study sessions. A good general way to do this is to commit to reviewing the material 1 day after it’s first presented, then 2 days after this study session, then in another 4 days, then in another 6 days, then review it again a day or 2 before your exam.

Keep in mind that this is just a general way to define your review intervals. You’ll want to modify this to meet your own needs. 

It’s also worth pointing out that there are systems out there like Anki, SuperMemo, and Quizlet Long-term learning that will approximate the intervals for you. This way, all you have to do is review the content when the system you’re using tells you to!

Action Step:

Take 5 to 10 minutes and come up with a plan for when you’re going to review the material from each lecture.

By reviewing the material incrementally rather than trying to cram your review into a single session before the test, your grades will surely improve! 

Here’s another quick pitch for you to read Brown’s Make It Stick. It’s a fast and enjoyable read that will give any dedicated life-long learner tremendously valuable insight. It covers several of the study techniques that I’ve included in this post such as spacing, testing, and interleaving. I included it on my big list of the best books on study skills, time management, and college success. Affiliate link below. 

 

3. Take Practice Tests and Quizzes

Here’s a big secret for learning how to study effectively for a test: don’t let the actual exam be the first time you test yourself on the material!

[bctt tweet=”Never let a real exam be the first time you’ve tested yourself!” username=”testprepchamps”]

Testing is one of many really good study strategies that should be part of everyone’s test prep repertoire. Studies on the testing effect show that testing yourself on material after you’ve studied it strengthens your learning and your retention more than simply re-studying it.

How to apply testing to your studying

Does your professor provide practice tests or actual tests from previous years?

If so, make sure to take advantage of them! If not, try making your own! All you have to do is go through your notes and turn the most important facts into questions to test yourself with! 

Action Step:

Find out if your professor provides practice tests, or if you can track down tests from previous years.

If you know for sure you’ll have practice tests available, schedule time in the near future to work through them! If not, then schedule time to make and take your own!

4. Practice 

Have you ever heard the phrase practice makes perfect?

This phrase is at least partly true. Practice does make perfect, but only a certain kind of practice – deliberate practice.

What is Deliberate Practice?

Deliberate practice is the hard work we do that stretches us beyond our abilities. It can be applied in virtually any domain, including academics.

You might be wondering, what about IQ? Aren’t some people just better at certain subjects than others? Aren’t some people just naturally smarter?

Well, it’s true that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, but it’s also true that anyone can dramatically improve their skills at anything with enough focused practice and patience. Much of it all comes down to your methods to study with!

The research finds that in many fields the relation between intelligence and performance is weak or nonexistent.

-Geoffrey Colvin in Talent is Overrated

I highly recommend Colvin’s book (affiliate link below)! 

In order to reap the benefits of deliberate practice in your study routine, these three components should be present:

  1. Your routine should be designed specifically to improve your performance
  2. Instant feedback should be available
  3. Your progress should be measurable over time

One of the clearest examples of how deliberate practice can be applied to learning is chemistry.

An Example of Deliberate Practice

I remember back in undergrad when I was taking organic chemistry, there were many different skills to master for the first test. These included things like drawing Lewis Dot Structures, writing nomenclature, learning mechanisms, etc. By treating these as different skills to master, and doing plenty of repetitions with challenging practice problems, I was able to get them down for the test.

How to apply Deliberate Practice to your studying

Regardless of the subject, one of the most effective ways to improve your performance is to schedule goal-oriented study sessions with exercises to work on the skills you need to master.

For math and chemistry classes (as I mentioned above), the tried and true way of doing this is to work through practice problems with the solutions nearby to compare your work with. You can certainly apply deliberate practice to any subject you want, you just might have to be creative.

Action Step:

Make a list of all of the skills you’ll need to excel in your chosen field of study.

This may require you to do some research! Once you’ve identified them, make a plan to incorporate the means to develop them into your study plan!

5. Teaching-Based Study Techniques

The “teach it” method may in fact be the best way to study out of all of the study techniques on this list.

Let me clarify what I mean. There is no one study technique that will always work for everyone in every class. That being said, this is the one I would pick if I had to name what I think the most efficient way to study is!

One of the fastest and most effective ways to learn anything new is to teach it! If you’ve ever worked as a teaching assistant or tutor, you likely found this is true from firsthand experience.

How to apply this to your studying:

When you study in groups, take turns explaining key concepts to each other.

If you prefer to study by yourself (like me), go somewhere quiet, put away all of your notes, and talk to the wall. Simply pretend you’re giving a lecture to an imaginary class on the topic! Feel free to let your imagination run wild with this one.

One of the best aspects of this method is that it forces you to confront any gaps in your knowledge of the material rather than just glossing over them.

The Feynman Technique

Entrepreneur and blogger Scott Young recommends a very similar idea called the Feynman technique from the famous scientist Richard Feynman.

Scott says:

You can use this technique in 20 minutes to deeply understand an idea that will stick with you for years

I couldn’t agree with him more!

Action Step:

The next time you want to learn something new, go somewhere quiet, pull out a sheet of paper, and use the Feynman Technique!

6. Incorporate Interleaving 

Interleaving may not be one of the most well known study techniques, but it really should be. It’s one of the better ways to study!

What is interleaving?

Interleaving is all about incorporating multiple topics into your study sessions and then alternating between them as opposed to blocking out a longer period of time to work on just one topic.

Interleaving can be applied for learning in all areas, but for ease of demonstration, let’s look at how it can be applied to Physics.

An Interleaving Example – With Physics

On a Physics test, you’re never going to get 5 questions in a row on the same topic- let’s say Work-Energy Theorem.

Now, you very well may get 5 questions on this theorum on your test, but it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll get them all in a row. 

What Does Interleaving Do for You?

By switching between different topics during your studying, you’re training your brain to be able to distinguish between the different strategies required for each type of problem.

You’re also training your brain to form new memory associations. Both of these factors make interleaving without a doubt one of the best study methods out there!

How to Incorporate Interleaving Into your Studying

Interleaving is very simple to start using.

Rather than sticking with one aspect of a subject until you’ve mastered it, switch it up and move on to another part of the subject. This is very counterintuitive, but it will help you learn the material much faster and will strengthen your understanding.

Action Step:

Identify how you can incorporate interleaving into your studying, and then try it out as soon as you can!

7. Utilize Mnemonic  Study Techniques

Mnemonics are highly effective memory techniques.

Mnemonic study methods are ideal for memorizing lists. They’re proof that anyone can use successful study techniques – you’ve probably used them before whether you know it or not!

Common Mnemonic Examples

Here are some common mnemonic examples:

1. PEMDAS

PEMDAS, or Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, is a mnemonic device used to remember the order of operations rules for math – Parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, additition, subtraction.

2. ROYGBIV

Remembering the colors of the rainbow—Red, Organge, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet—is as simple as remembering this fictional person’s name: Roy G. Biv

Did these bring back any memories?

How to apply mnemonics study techniques into your study routine

You won’t be able to apply mnemonic study techniques to everything you try to learn. As I said above, they work great for lists!

I recommend running a google search for the the subject/concept you want to learn + mnemonics. The more specific the better! For example, Biology taxonomy + mnemonics.

If you can’t find any, then go ahead and make your own! The more outrageous yours are, the easier they’ll be to remember! This is a general theme with all study techniques that involve creating your own memory aides. More on this below when we talk about study techniques like the Memory Palace.

Action Step:

Run a google search on the topic you’re studying + mnemonics, and/or make up some of your own.

Once you’ve got a few picked out, practice reciting them, space it out, and you’ll have them down in no time!

8. Study with Cloze Tests

Cloze tests (aka cloze deletions) are exercises that involve recalling parts of a sentence that have been removed. SumperMemo and Anki users popularized this method.

An example of cloze deletions

An example best illustrates cloze deletions. Let’s say I’m taking a physiology class, and I have the following written down in my notes:

The kidneys regulate the body’s salt and potassium levels.

I see three good ways to turn this sentence into a cloze test. Here they are:

1. The ______ regulate the body’s salt and potassium levels.

2. The kidneys regulate the body’s _____ and potassium levels.

3. The kidneys regulate the body’s salt and ______ levels.

Are you getting this? Yes, it’s really as simple as it looks.

How to incorporate cloze tests into your studying

Imagine: You make a flashcard deck in which you take every sentence in your notes, make several different cloze deletions to each sentence, mix the cards up, and study by recalling the missing words.

This is essentially how you apply the technique!

Using Cloze Deletions With Lecture Slides

You can also use cloze deletions to help you memorize images on power point slides. The picture below shows the parts of the human kidney with one of the labels covered up in red. You can do this easily by opening your professor’s lecture slides in PowerPoint or Google Slides and using the shape tool to cover words with rectangles.

A diagram of the human kidney with the label of one of the parts covered up to show how to study with cloze deletions on lecture slides. Action Step:

Rather than using the typical question and answer style format when you make flashcards to study from, switch it up and use cloze deletions instead!

This way you’ll cover everything you need to know multiple times, in multiple ways!

9. Visual Mapping Study Techniques

Visual, or mind mapping is a learning technique developed by Tony Buzan in the 1970s.

Tony Buzan has a highly-regarded book on mind mapping published, but believe it or not I still haven’t read it (although I’m planning to soon). I highly encourage you to look for Buzan’s book, but I can’t in good conscience give you an affiliate link to it. This is because my policy is to only make affiliate recommendations for books I’ve actually read!

Instead, if you want to learn more about mind maps, I recommend reading How to Study with Mind Maps by Toni Krasnic (affiliate link).

Krasnic teaches you everything you need to know about mind maps, and also provides a lot of valuable advice on effective study techniques in general. Plus, the $1.99 price tag makes this one a steal!

Why does mind mapping work?

There are many different applications for mind mapping. In my post on how to take notes, I discussed how to use visual mapping as a note taking method. Most noteworthy, just the process of creating a mind map alone is a powerful learning exercise.

Mind mapping involves connecting related topics to a central topic, and to each other.

As we already learned, identifying relationships and connections enhances learning.

Creating a mind map is an active, engaging process that requires decision making. The process of formatting the information into a mind map and choosing what to include involves critical thinking and decision making. This kind of effort makes the content more memorable.

How to incorporate mind mapping study techniques into your studying

You may recognize the diagram below from my post on note taking

The mind mapping study technique
Mind mapping basics

Here’s a quick 4 step process you can follow to make a mind map:

  1. Take out a blank piece of paper and draw a box in the center
  2. Write down the main topic you’re studying in the central box
  3. Draw smaller boxes and put the sub-topics related to the main topic in them
  4. Include notes related to each sub-topic around each sub-topic box

For step 3, I reccomend using four boxes. If you try to make it with less than 4, it will be hard to cover the topic sufficiently. If you use more than four, it will be hard to fit everything you need to on the page.

Action Step:

After your next lecture, go somewhere quiet and re-write your notes as a mind map. Go through the textbook, clarify everything you’re unsure of, and add additional notes to your mind map. Then, work on reproducing your mind map from memory to study.

10. Build a Memory Palace

There’s a large body of scientific evidence that shows we remember pictures much better than words.

In 1970, a benchmark study on perception and memory for pictures was conducted. Participants looked at 2,560 photos for just 10 seconds each. Even after a three day period, the participants still successfully completed image recognition tests with at least 90% accuracy.

Also, the researchers found that the participants’ recall abilities were not significantly impacted even when the time of picture exposure was decreased from 10 seconds to 1 second.

In the decades that followed, more and more evidence has come out that confirms the finding that the human memory favors visual images over written words.

A striking characteristic of human memory is that pictures are remembered better than words.

-Quote from Neural correlates of the episodic encoding of pictures and words

What does this mean?

The implication here is that you should try to incorporate visuals into your studying as much as possible. Mind mapping study techniques, which we just talked about, are one way of creating visual study aids. The memory palace method is yet another!

You’ll need to be willing to use your imagination and some creativity to make this one work for you.

How do we know the memory palace technique works?

2006 U.S.A. Memory Champion Joshua Foer used it. So have many other memory championship competitors. I can also testify from personal experience that it works.

Foer details his story in his New York Times best seller Moonwalking with Einstein (affiliate link)In his book, Foer describes how to use the Memory Palace technique in detail, as well as much more. This is another book I featured on my big list of the best books on study skills. 

Check out the book here (affiliate link):

 

 

Another World Memory Champion’s Thoughts

I highly recommend watching this video in which another world memory champion and future medical doctor Alex Mullen his explanation on the technique.

 

How to apply the Memory Palace technique to your studying

First, you want to pick out a location you’re very familiar with. You can use your house, a friend’s house, or your school. You can also use a path you frequently walk on.

Next, mentally map the route out in your head. If you’re using your house, start outside with your driveway. Work your way in and through each room in a sequential order.

Lastly, add the items from a list you want to memorize into each room in a visual way. Aim to make them interact with the environment somehow. It helps to try to make the images as absurd as possible. Try to pair them up with how the words sound.

An Example of Using the Memory Palace Technique

In a neuroscience class, I used this method to memorize the cranial nerves.

There’s a nerve called the vagus nerve. In my memory palace, I visualized casino slot machines in one room of my apartment. I did this because the word vagus as in the vagus nerve sounds like Vegas, as in Las Vegas.

The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve. To remember this, I put the image in the 10th place I visit in the sequence. I also visualized that the slot machines read things like 10,000 prize. 

Action Step:

Grab a list of items you need to memorize, and build a memory palace using the instructions above!

What’s Next?

Life rewards those who take action. Congratulate yourself for putting in the effort to learn these proven study techniques to improve your study skills! It’s going to really pay off for you!

Learning the most effective study techniques isn’t the only thing that goes into achieving the grades you want though. You still have to come out of your tests victorious.

Get the 28-Point Test Prep Success Checklist

This is the next logical step if you really want to start blowing the lid off of your tests. Grab your FREE copy of our 28-Point Test Prep Success Checklist now!

Access the 28-Point Test Prep Success Checklist

Thanks for reading!

 

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