November 27, 2022

Secrets to Successful Studying

By Adina Levitt, Instructor

“But I studied!”

Maybe you’ve heard your student say this after getting a test back and not doing as well as they had hoped. The reality is that it may not matter if they studied, but how. Understanding the process of learning in the brain can help students maximize their study time and uncover the secrets to successful studying.

Cognitive science research has found that a significant amount of learning occurs when students pull information “out” through a process called retrieval practice, instead of cramming information in (Source). For example, if a student needs to be able to identify the parts of an animal cell for an upcoming biology exam, instead of looking at images and “studying” them, they can draw a picture and label the parts.

Active study processes also help students exercise critical executive function skills. Students can learn strategies for organizing their ideas in ways that facilitate information moving from long to short-term memory.

If studying should be an active process, beware of these passive studying techniques:

  • Reading over notes
  • Watching videos
  • Reading a textbook
  • Looking at practice problems or previously done work
  • Reading articles

Instead, here are active studying strategies that involve retrieval practice and engage executive function skill development:

Make flash cards

Whether you do so with index cards and a pen or online (strong plug for Quizlet), making (not using existing) flash cards is an excellent way to synthesize and rehearse information. Try talking the terms and definitions aloud while you practice the flash cards over and over. Start with definition → term and then try term → definition. Mix up the order and practice the more difficult cards more than the easier ones. If you use Quizlet, the “write” feature of learn mode is an excellent use of retrieval practice. Click here for more flash card tips!

Test yourself

Using a study guide, class notes, or a textbook, give yourself key words to define or questions to answer. This can be done by writing or talking. For example, if you need to remember the key events in the Civil Rights Movement for an upcoming history exam, grab some scratch paper and try listing the events from memory. Then, write some key information for each event. If you’re having trouble pulling this information from memory, go back to making flashcards. Doing practice problems from past exams or practice tests is another great way to test yourself on exam material.

Be the teacher

Find someone to study with and teach them! Whether it’s a classmate, sibling, parent, or even pet (!), teaching the information to someone requires retrieving the information from memory. This person (sorry, not your pet) can ask you questions or choose terms from your notes and check for your understanding (Source).

Synthesize information

Instead of memorizing information, synthesizing information involves deeper learning (Source). This could be done by making a Venn diagram or T-chart comparing and contrasting two concepts (such as rational and irrational numbers) or drawing a diagram to show the components and flow of a system (such as the digestive system).

Studying takes time and is most effective when it is spread out across multiple days, sometimes weeks. Try making a study schedule and map out certain topics to tackle each day, while building in time to go back and review previously studied material. With a studying approach anchored in brain science, students will optimize their learning and be prepared to conquer any exam that comes their way.