It’s difficult, as your eyes steadily become gritty and your head lolls to one side with a heaviness you didn’t know it possessed, to view sitting down and studying as anything less than a cry for help, much less a learnable skill. However, believe it or not, studying actually is a skill, and just like anything else, it can be relearned. Why do I say relearned?
Because most students are still indulging in the Cram, aka, “cramming,” which, as it turns out, is the entirely wrong way to study.
Cramming is most often used right before midterms and finals, when these exams seemingly spring up out of the great void and try to drag us back down into failure with them. Luckily, there are several studying techniques that can help you relearn the correct way to study and avoid cramming.
This is probably the single hardest technique to digest, especially for procrastinators, but it’s crucial. The thing about cramming is that the information being gathered during a rapid cram session is also rapidly lost after a short time span. There may be a benefit to glancing over your notes or flash cards a half-hour before an exam, but losing sleep and trying to cram in tons of information the night before typically just leads to a groggy feeling going into the exam–a counter-productive feeling no one wants on test day.
Don’t Study With Friends
Forming a study group is actually a great way to use a variety of studying techniques, as you’re able to quiz each other and offer insights into difficult topics. However, it’s also ridiculously easy to procrastinate if you’re studying with friends, as the session runs a high risk of turning into a socializing session. It would be more beneficial to – if you must study with friends – set some strict no-distraction rules, saving all social talk until the end of the session. An even better approach would be to find an open study group with students studying the same topic, but that you don’t know very well and may be more advanced in the subject. Seeking out a free tutoring service is also a great idea, as you’ll receive individual attention and will remain focused on the material.
Study When You Feel Most Alert
A study conducted at UCLA showed that “sacrificing sleep for extra study time, whether it’s cramming for a test or plowing through a pile of homework, is actually counterproductive.”
“Regardless of how much a student generally studies each day, if that student sacrifices sleep time in order to study more than usual, he or she is likely to have more academic problems, not less, on the following day,” researchers reported in the study.
The study reiterates the idea that you’re most likely getting nowhere if you’re struggling to keep yourself awake while reading notes, as most of your energy is being consumed through yawning and stumbling to grab another cup of coffee. Instead, take note of your daily habits and times you feel most alert – such as after a workout or before your classes. The key is to avoid personal “groggy” times such as the afternoon slump many individuals feel around late afternoon.
Break Up Your Time
While it’s tempting to save your immediate time by studying for hours closer to the date of the exam, you’re actually short-changing yourself when it comes to learning the material.
According to a report showing the best and worst studying techniques, researchers discovered that distributed practice, described as spacing out studying sessions to cover relevant material at least twice, non-consecutively, leading up to the exam, proved superior to cramming.
“And the longer you want to remember the information, whether it’s two weeks or two years, the longer the intervals should be.”
It would be more effective to break up sessions into 20-30 minute intervals throughout a few days or weeks, reviewing previous information at least twice before taking the exam.
Rewrite Your Notes
In a previous article, I discussed the effects of handwriting on memory and how it effectively improves recall. You may be thinking “I’ve already taken notes in class,” but usually these notes are semi-rushed, with most of your interest and attention consumed by trying to copy down the instructor’s words quickly. Rewriting these notes when your brain has time to dwell on the actual material is where many of the benefits are made.
“Writing by hand strengthens the learning process,” Anne Mangen, associate professor at The University of Stavanger, summarized in a study. She went on to explain how the actual process of writing with a pen or pencil as opposed to typing on a keyboard activates our motor actions. This activation leads to a “motor memory,” which aids in memory recall.
Using ineffective study strategies can actually cause you to spend more time studying overall than if you study smarter. Along with distributed practice, studies found that using flash cards and engaging in practice tests were more effective than simply reading and highlighting material. The key is to test yourself on the material during your study time in order to improve retention, whether through a practice test or by testing with flash cards in a study group.
Another study by researchers led by John Dunlosky from Kent State University showed that many of the most common techniques, such as rereading and highlighting, were deemed ineffective in comparison to practice testing.
“I was shocked that some strategies that students use a lot — such as rereading and highlighting — seem to provide minimal benefits to their learning and performance,” Dunlosky said.
“By just replacing rereading with delayed retrieval practice, students would benefit.”