Whether you are a freshman in high school getting ready for your first set of finals or a graduate student with 16 years of learning under your belt, you can always improve your study habits. These habits encompass everything from the environment you choose for study to specific tools that you use to help yourself learn, and each one can make an incremental and important difference in your ability to remember material in the short term and the long term. Good study habits and strategies do more than simply help you to get better grades: they teach organization and time management as well as facilitating independent learning skills that can carry you through your entire life. (Sylvan Learning)
Cramming Doesn’t Work
One of the best ways to build good study habits is to understand what bad study habits are and why they don’t work, and the most commonly-practiced of these is cramming. It’s something that 99% of students admit to doing, and you may even believe that it has been successful for you if you successfully earned a good grade after staying up all night and trying to fit months’ worth of studying into one night. The problem is that there’s a big difference between knowing something and it simply being familiar. Though familiarity may give us a sense of confidence, and it may or may not be enough to get you through a midterm or final, but it definitely does little to aid in your ability to remember information down the road, or even to be certain that you fully understand it. (BBC)
Organization and Environment
One of the keys to studying success lies in making sure that you are being intentional and focused, and that relies on creating the right setting, being organized, being in the right frame of mind, and avoiding distraction. You need to have all of your materials and tools together and allocate a specific time and place for your study, on a regular basis. By setting aside a specific time for study – at the same time every day – you make it into a consistent and integral part of your routine rather than a haphazard and disorganized activity that you fit in when it is convenient, or worse yet – procrastinate into nonexistence because you don’t feel like doing it. You don’t need to want to study – you just need to recognize its importance and do it. (Washington Post).
Another key to establishing a good study routine is the environment you choose for doing it. You want to find a place where you are comfortable, but not too comfortable – after all, you don’t want to fall asleep. You want to feel relaxed and able to spread out all of your materials without fear of needing to move or share your space, and you want the location to be free of any association other than study. If you are in the kitchen, you are more likely to decide to get up and eat instead of working: if you’re in a bookstore you’re more likely to get up and browse the shelves. Most importantly, you need the spot to be free of distractions. Though you may enjoy the interruption or relief of being able to chat with friends in the library, or opening Twitter to see what’s new in the world every 15 minutes or so, distraction and disturbances are Enemy #1 when it comes to getting the job done. In fact, a study conducted by researchers at Michigan State University revealed that disturbances of just a few seconds were enough to double errors on difficult tasks and impede the process of learning. (Psych Central) [reference link no longer available].
The Difference Between “Surface Learning” and “Deep Learning”
If you are focusing your efforts on rote memorization, using repetition and rehearsal as your primary study tools, you are cheating yourself of the ability to truly learn and understand your study topic and to retain the information long term. These methods are referred to as being “cognitively passive”. Other cognitively passive methods including reading and highlighting texts or recopying notes or making flashcards: though they may be of use when you’re strictly trying to remember something for a test or quiz, this is just surface learning – it does little to contribute to your overall knowledge, and you are far less likely to store the information in your long term memory for later retrieval. By contrast, when you engage in “cognitively active” forms of study like self-quizzing, engaging in active recall drills, teaching somebody else what you’ve learned or linking what you’ve learned to things you already know, you are participating in creating memories that will be accessible both for the short term and in the future. Long-term memory is made up of deeply learned information. (Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine) [reference link no longer available].
Essential Study Techniques for Optimizing Deep Learning (American Psychological Association)
- Research has shown that you learn a great deal more, and more efficiently, when you space out the time that you spend studying a topic. Rather than trying to fit everything you need to learn into a single long study session, you are far better off allowing yourself to study for a shorter period of time and then leave the subject for another day. By allowing time to elapse between study sessions, the more efficiently you will learn the information. This is because the time lapse between sessions allows you to forget what you’ve initially learned and then refresh the memory. This has a strengthening effect.
- Though it may seem counter intuitive, studies have shown that when you study a variety of topics together instead of segregating different subjects, you are more likely to learn more effectively. Some of this may have to do with providing yourself with space between learning and relearning, but it also may be because contrasting information that you’ve learned and observing differences and similarities facilitates greater understanding. The method may feel counterintuitive and disorganized, but has been proven effective.
- There is a difference between being familiar with a subject and truly knowing the material, and it is that difference that can lead to a better grade. Constantly rereading information is not as effective a method of studying as testing yourself on material is. When material feels familiar and recognizable, it can give you a false sense of security about how well you understand and know it. The only way to truly gauge your own memory and knowledge is by testing yourself.
In order to get the most out of your studying, you need to make sure that your environment and mindset is conducive to being able to concentrate and fully dedicate your time to learning the information in front of you, but you also need to understand that effective study is an activity that requires your full engagement. The more effective and active your study techniques, the better you will learn and remember what you are studying, and the more you will get out of it. (The University of Edinburgh)