How To Study – Study Skills To Learn Effectively

February 16th, 2014 No Comments

how to study

What image comes to mind when you hear the word “study”? Sitting with a group of friends in the library, quizzing each other on the core concepts of microeconomics? At a desk by yourself, stooped over a book with one hand clutching your unkempt hair, drilling definitions into your brain? Listening to the first chirps of morning as you finish comparing lecture notes with textbook content? Reviewing what you’ve learned each week in an organized fashion so you don’t have to cram?

More than likely, the image depends on the type of task requiring study. Preparing for a multiple choice assessment? That image is going to involve repetition–running facts and definitions over and over again in your mind until you have memorized them well enough to regurgitate them onto your test form. Studying for an essay response? The image shifts to include deeper comprehension of concepts, events, or practices. You may need to have facts memorized in this case, but it’s equally important to be able to think logically and make a sound argument about the material you’ve just learned.

These mental associations don’t lend the most positive connotation to the term “study.” Who actually enjoys studying, at least as much as they enjoy learning?

The scholar, that’s who. The scholar studies as a hobby, a pasttime, a living. She wears glasses on the end of her nose and makes a pot of hot tea in order to savor the experience. In the realm of the scholar, studying is the opposite of sacrifice–it’s exactly what you want to be doing, at least a good deal of the time…

So what’s the difference between these two images, aside from, well, the images? The answer lies in the relationship between motivation and knowledge retention. Pscyhological studies have shown time and time again that the more you enjoy what you’re learning, the less it feels like work, and the better you remember the information come test time–not to mention after the test is over.

Obviously, you can’t be excited by every fact you learn, but something is to be said for enjoying the act of studying itself. In other words, we can “learn to learn better” by changing our prespective on learning itself.


The key to effective learning is motivation. True, we often absorb information from our surroundings that we don’t consciously acknowledge learning at the time. Somehow you know the Prime Minister’s birthday, though you’ve never been told it. You must have heard it in passing on television and only really knew that you knew it when the topic came up in discussion. But your instructor is not interested in what you may have picked up on peripherally. Course tests are designed to measure how closely you paid attention to lectures and textbook materials, and how well you can retain that information.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a reasonably motivated student. But what can you do to increase your motivation to pay attention, retain, and remember? Maybe a little hard science will help.


Prior to the founding of psychology as a scientific discipline, attention was studied in the field of philosophy. Due to this, many of the discoveries in the field of attention were made by philosophers. Psychologist John Watson cites Juan Luis Vives as the Father of Modern Psychology due to his book De Anima et Vita in which Vives was the first to recognize the importance of empirical investigation. In his work on memory, Vives found that the more closely one attends to stimuli, the better they will be retained. Since then, the scientific study of attention has been an essential part of learning theory.

What you really need to know about attention is that divided attention can be improved with practice. Spelke, Hirst, and Niesser (1976) studied accuracy and response time of performance by participants reading short stories and writing down dictated words. The participants’ initial performance was very poor when both tasks were performed simultaneously, but after participants practiced the tasks 5 days a week for 85 sessions, their performance improved for both tasks.

Spelke and others have proposed that it is possible that controlled tasks can be automatized, thus using fewer attentional resources. For example, it is probably not a good idea to begin a class taking notes on a laptop when you are not a skilled typist or have only ever hand-written notes in the past. Once the typing process becomes automated, your attention will be less divided.

In addition, the strength of one’s divided attention relies on the perceptual domain being engaged (visual, auditory, verbal, etc). In early experiments with the dual-task paradigm, performance of two simultaneous tasks requiring the use of two separate perceptual domains (e.g. a visual and a verbal task) is nearly as efficient as performance of the tasks individually. But when a person tries to carry out two tasks simultaneously that use the same perceptual domain, performance is less efficient than when performing the tasks individually.

Still, with enough practice, performance on dual tasks engaging the same perceptual domain can be improved. Even great concert pianists, who engage both their right and left hands in separate but flawlessly executed patterns, once suffered from divided attention.

But not every task requires divided attention. In fact, sometimes the most difficult tasks to focus on are the ones that require our undivided attention. Below are a few classic ways to enhance attention on a single task:

  1. Get enough sleep to help your brain process information faster
  2. Drink enough water to help enhance body and brain function
  3. Focus on one thing at a time; don’t try to tackle several concepts at once
  4. “Kill the closest snake” (Whatever is within your reach and easily attainable, do that first; then move on to the next easily accomplished thing)
  5. Create a reward for yourself that can only be enjoyed once you’ve finished a task
  6. Place yourself in a setting where you won’t be distracted
  7. Don’t try to concentrate marathon-style; break up your study sessions into manageable blocks of hours
  8. Try to remain “in the moment”; enjoy what you are learning and push all other responsibilities aside
  9. Think about your study session or task not in terms of duty but as an opportunity for personal growth
  10. CHOOSE to pay attention; respect the assignment by respecting your freedom to decide what’s worth your time


Spaced Repetition

In 1939, psychologist H. F. Spitzer tested the effects of ‘spaced’ studying on sixth-grade students learning science facts. Spitzer tested over 3600 students in Iowa and showed that a they retained new information better if they studied it repeatedly over time, rather than all at once.

This early work went unnoticed, and the field was relatively quiet until the late 1960s, when cognitive psychologists explored manipulation of repetition timing as a means to improve recall. Around the same time, Pimsleur language courses pioneered the practical application of spaced repetition theory to language learning, and in 1973 Sebastian Leitner devised his “Leitner system,” an all-purpose spaced repetition learning system based on flashcards.

Going over your notes once a week instead of cramming before your mid-term is scientifically proven to be a more effective strategy.

At the time, spaced repetition learning was principally implemented via flashcard systems. These systems were unwieldy because, as you can imagine, any significant study base requires many thousands of flashcards. With the increase in access to personal computers in the 1980s, spaced repetition began to be implemented with computer-assisted language learning software-based solutions. The aim of these programs was to tailor the spaced repetition to learner performance.

To enable the user to reach a target level of achievement (e.g. 90% of all material correctly recalled at any given time point), the software adjusted the repetition spacing interval. Hard material appeared more often and easy material less often, with difficulty defined according to the ease with which each user was able to produce a correct response.

Going over your notes once a week instead of cramming before your mid-term is not just something instructors suggest in an attempt to create the perfect student–it is scientifically proven to be a more effective strategy.

Additional Memorization Strategies

Like spaced repetition, the following strategies and tips are backed by hard evidence. Save yourself some time and ward off stress by adding these to your regular studying routine:

  1. State-Dependent Recall: It is easiest to recall information when you are in a state similar to the one in which you initially learned the material. If you listen to music while you study for your online test, listen to the same music when you take it and your scores will go up.
  2. Chunking: A term referring to the process of taking individual units of information (chunks) and grouping them into larger units. Probably the most common example of chunking occurs in phone numbers. For example, a phone number sequence of 4-7-1-1-3-2-4 would be chunked into 471-1324. Chunking is often a useful tool when memorizing large amounts of information. By separating disparate individual elements into larger blocks, information becomes easier to retain and recall.
  3. The Method of Loci: A mnemonic device used in ancient Greek and Roman times wherein items to be remembered are mentally associated with specific physical locations. Examples include the various rooms of a house and paths through the forest. A great tool to help yourself memorize terms, related concepts, or anything else that can be “placed” as an image on a mental map.
  4. Interacting images: An item is much more likely to be remembered if it is imagined as being actively involved with another item in some way rather than sitting there doing nothing. When items are intertwined or associated they are said to be interacting and they become a single chunk or whole in memory.
  5. Priming: An effect in which exposure to a stimulus influences a response to a later stimulus. For example, if a person reads a list of words including the word table, and is later asked to complete a word starting with tab, the probability that he or she will answer table is greater than if they had not been primed. Larry Ferlazzo uses priming with his students before tests, asking them to spend a few minutes writing on a topic covered in the quiz.
  6. Forgetting Curve: A graph that hypothesizes how information is lost over time when there is no attempt to retain it. A typical curve shows that humans tend to halve their memory of newly learned knowledge in a matter of days or weeks unless they consciously review the learned material. More cognitive evidence for spaced repetition and weekly reviews of learned material. Forgetting happens fast—don’t just review before the test!
  7. Dual Coding: The ability to code a stimulus two different ways increases the chance of remembering that item compared to if the stimulus was only coded one way. For example, say a person has stored the stimulus concept, “dog” as both the word ‘dog’ and as the image of a dog. When asked to recall the stimulus, the person can retrieve either the word or the image individually or both, simultaneously. If the word is recalled, the image of the dog is not lost and can still be retrieved at a later point in time.

The most motivated of students–the ones who ace their tests–are confident not in their intelligence but in their ability to mentally organize new information. Performing well feels good, and further motivates you to perform well. Use these strategies to stay confident, successful, and therefore motivated.

Taking Notes

 You likely have your own system for taking notes, whether it’s recording every word, paraphrasing in your own words, writing down only the most important concepts, or avoiding notetaking altogether. Whatever works for you, do that.

It is prudent to keep in mind, though, that the executive attention function of your brain can only focus on so many stimuli at once. Granted, with enough practice you will be able to handle more, if you find yourself struggling to listen deeply to a lecture because you’re too busy scribbling notes on a Power Point, try focusing on the lecture and take notes on the Power Point later when you have no other distractions.

Keep in mind the memorization strategies mentioned above and you will learn to take notes in a way that enhances your chances of recalling information. Try chunking your notes into flashcards organized by subject instead of recording everything in an endless page-to-page narrative. Draw a thumbnail image next to concepts you need to remember in order to strengthen your brain’s retrieval cues. Turn your page into the blueprint of a house and place historical events on different levels according to chronology.

Again, these are just suggestions. Everyone learns differently, so if you have a system that works for you, keep it going.

A few take-it-or-leave-it suggestions for note taking:

  1. Record definitions directly on flashcards during a lecture or study session. This will help you recall them better than if you scribble them down somewhere amid a long page of notes.
  2. Use shorthand and symbols for efficiency, such as the delta sign for “change” and an arrow for “leads to.”
  3. Underline or draw a box around important points.
  4. Record your notes by hand. Studies have shown this improves memory.
  5. Read the assigned chapter or material before the lecture; this will trim down the amount of writing you have to do, since the material will already be familiar to you.

Managing Time

No one knows what you can accomplish in a given amount of time, given your mood and motivation level, better than you. Most of us can manage to stay generally responsible and organized with our studies, but we’ve all procrastinated now and then. In fact, procrastination is normal. It gives our brains a much-needed break and introduces us to the greatest motivator of all: the clock. What’s hard to see is what we might gain from not procrastinating.

The University of Adelaide estimates that its 2nd year students should be spending an average of 14 hours writing a 2,000-2,5000 word essay. Most students, in fact, spend 2-5 hours on such an assignment, often in one sitting. 

The University of Adelaide estimates that its 2nd year students should be spending an average of 14 hours writing a 2,000-2,5000 word essay. Most students, in fact, spend 2-5 hours on such an assignment, often in one sitting. Here’s the interesting part: While those 2 hours may well be spent in intense concentration, 14 hours of work spaced out over the course of a week or two will result in a far more coherent essay, simply because you’re giving your brain a break and allowing it to process your topic in subtle, often subconscious ways–even while you’re sleeping.

Give yourself the amount of time you think you need to complete an assignment, but keep in mind that your brain actually needs more time than “you” do.

The following applications of time management have proven to be effective as good study habits:

1. Blocks of study time and breaks

As your school term begins and your course schedule is set, develop and plan for blocks of study time in a typical week. Blocks ideally are around 50 minutes, but perhaps you become restless after only 30 minutes? Some difficult material may require more frequent breaks. Shorten your study blocks if necessary, but don’t forget to return to the task at hand. What you do during your break should give you an opportunity to have a snack, relax, or otherwise refresh or re-energize yourself. For example, place blocks of time when you are most productive: are you a morning person or a night owl?

2. Dedicated study spaces

Determine a place free from distraction (no cell phone or text messaging) where you can maximize your concentration and be free of the distractions that friends or hobbies can bring. You should also have a back-up space that you can escape to, like the library, departmental study center, even a coffee shop where you can be anonymous. A change of venue may also supply extra resources.

3. Weekly reviews

Weekly reviews and updates are also an important strategy. Each week, like a Sunday night, review your assignments, your notes, your calendar. Be mindful that as deadlines and exams approach, your weekly routine must adapt to them.

4. Prioritize your assignments

When studying, get in the habit of beginning with the most difficult subject or task. You’ll be fresh, and have more energy to take them on when you are at your best. For more difficult courses of study, try to be flexible: for example, build in reaction time when you can get feedback on assignments before they are due.

5. Put one foot in front of the other

The Chinese adage of the longest journey starting with a single step has a couple of meanings: First, you launch the project. Second, by starting, you may realize that there are some things you have not planned for in your process. Details of an assignment are not always evident until you begin the assignment. Another adage is that “perfection is the enemy of good,” especially when it prevents you from starting. Given that you build in review, roughly draft your idea and get going. You will have time to edit and develop later.

7. Postpone unnecessary activities until the work is done!

 Postpone tasks or routines that can be put off until your school work is finished. This can be the most difficult challenge of time management. As learners we always meet unexpected opportunities that look appealing, then result in poor performance on a test, on a paper, or in preparation for a task. Distracting activities will be more enjoyable later without the pressure of the test, assignment, etc. hanging over your head. Think in terms of pride of accomplishment. Instead of saying “no,” learn to say “later.”

8. Identify resources to help you

Are there tutors? An expert friend? Have you tried a keyword search on the Internet to get better explanations? Are there specialists in the library that can point you to resources? What about professionals and professional organizations. Using outside resources can save you time and energy, and solve problems.

9. Use your free time wisely

Think of times when you can study “bits” as when walking, riding the bus, etc. Perhaps you’ve got music to listen to for your course in music appreciation, or drills in language learning? If you are walking or biking to school, when best to listen? Perhaps you are in a line waiting? Perfect for routine tasks like flash cards, or if you can concentrate, to read or review a chapter. The bottom line is to put your time to good use.

10. Review notes and readings just before class

This may prompt a question or two about something you don’t quite understand, to ask about in class, or after. It also demonstrates to your teacher that you are interested and have prepared.

11. Review lecture notes just after class

Then review lecture material immediately after class. The first 24 hours are critical. Forgetting is greatest within 24 hours without review.

Avoiding Procrastination

Easier said than done, no doubt, but it can be done. First, stop labeling yourself as a “procrastinator” if you have a bad habit. Instead, ask yourself the following questions when you’re feeling overwhelmed or tempted to postpone a study session:

  1. What do you need to do?
  2. What is the final objective, the end result?
  3. What are the major steps to get there?
  4. What have you done so far? Acknowledge that you are already part of the way, even if it is through thinking!
  5. Why do you need to do this?
  6. What is your biggest motivation?
  7. What stands in the way of your success? 
  8. What is in your power to change?
  9. What resources outside yourself do you need?

To get yourself started on the right path, create a simple “To Do” list to help identify a few tasks, your reasons for doing them, a timeline for getting them done, and remind yourself in the form of a visible post-it note or alert system.

While creating your list, write down major, realistic steps; start with small, concrete goals; and add detail and complexity as you achieve and grow. Make sure to dedicate certain hours or days to particular tasks. Build in time for review and find a trusted friend or expert to help you motivate yourself or monitor your progress.

Finally, don’t be afraid to admit your own false starts and mistakes. You know what kinds of things distract your attention: accept them but focus on the rewards of the task at hand, however eventual.

Stress Management

More often than not, unnecessary stress causes us to perform worse on tests and assignments. To get at the root of your issue with stress, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does your time allocation reflect the priority of your goals?
  2. Can you change your hourly commitments to meet your priorities?
  3. Where do you have the most flexibility: weekdays or weekends? Can you change one or the other? Both?
  4. Can you change your goals? What are your options?
  5. Can you postpone any goals until school breaks?
  6. How will assignments and tests affect your time allocation?
  7. What can you change to meet your class responsibilities?

Once you begin learning how to deal with the stress in your life, it becomes much easier to avoid it in the first place.

Being Productive

It’s truly fulfilling to be able to declare a day–or even an hour– a productive one. But why is it such a rare thrill? Laziness, distraction, and cognitive overload are among the most common culprits, and a small dose of each is natural. But when we want to study and can’t–well, that may be worse even than procrastination.

To remain focused, sometimes all we need is a cup of coffee, a good night’s sleep, a motivating song. For more serious dilemmas, there’s everything from self-help guides to therapy to medication. What lies at the heart of successful study habits is self-discipline, and cultivating a healthy dose of it may not be as difficult as you think.  

  1. First, view self-discipline as positive effort rather than one of denial. Self-discipline doesn’t have to be draconian; it can be extremely rewarding, and you can derive a lot of pride from it.
  2. To get yourself started, schedule a particular task in the morning and once in the evening. The task should not take more than 15 minutes. Wait for the exact scheduled time. When the schedule time is due, start the task. Stick to the schedule for at least two months. This will help you develop a natural habit of focusing on your priorities and avoiding procrastination.
  3. Track your progress. At the end of the allotted time, keep a record of accomplishment that builds over time to remind you of how far you’ve come. Building a record will also help you track how much time tasks take.
  4. Harness the power of routine. Instead of devoting a lot of hours one day,  none the other, and then a few on an another day and so on, allocate a specific time period each day of the week for that task.
  5. Hold firm. Don’t set a goal other than time allocation; simply set the habit of routine. Apply this technique to your homework or your projects and you will be on your way to getting things done.
  6. Maintain a self-discipline log book. Record the start and end times of the tasks. Review for feedback on your progress.This log book can be a valuable tool to get a better picture over your activities in order to prioritize activities, and realize what is important and not important on how you spend your time.
  7. Schedule your work day and studies. When you first begin your work day, or going to work take a few minutes and write down on a piece of paper the tasks that you want to accomplish for that day.
  8. Prioritize the list. Immediately start working on the most important one. Try it for a few days to see if the habit works for you. Habits form over time: how much time depends on you and the habit. When you have a clear idea as to what you want to achieve for the day at its start, the chances are very high that you will be able to proactively accomplish the tasks. Writing or sketching out the day helps.
  9. Associate a new habit with an old one. If you drink coffee, make that first cup the time to write out and prioritize your tasks. Association facilitates neural connections.
  10. Observe the people in your life and see to what extent self discipline and habits help them accomplish goals. Ask them for advice on what works, what does not.

Leave a Reply