After a great deal of research into the science of learning, a group of cognitive psychologists has found the absolute best-practice study skills. Here are their top six strategies to bring out your inner genius.
Ask, explain, and connect
When you have your textbook and notes in front of you, ask yourself questions about how and why things work, and then find the answers during class. Explain and describe ideas with as many details as you can and connect the ideas to your daily life and experiences. This forces you to understand and explain what you’re learning and connect it with what you already know. Not only does it help you organize the new ideas, but it will make them easier to recall later. Creating ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions make you think about the similarities and differences between ideas, and it will also improve your understanding. Start with your notes and textbooks and make a list of the ideas you need to learn. Go down the list and ask yourself questions about how these ideas work and why. Then go through your class material again and look for answers to your own questions. Make connections between different ideas and explain to yourself how they work together. The specific questions you ask and how you break down ideas depend on what you’re studying.
Five hours of study crammed into one intensive session is in fact not nearly as effective as spreading out these five hours over two weeks. You’ll learn more and get better results within the same amount of time or less. It’ll be less stressful than the panic of cramming, and because you’ll learn more, you’ll also reduce the time you need to study in the future because you won’t have to re-learn the same information. Make a plan and schedule short and consistent study sessions into your calendar. Review information from each class, starting a day later. After you’ve covered the most recent class, go back and study important older information to keep it fresh.
Switch between ideas during a single study session for a particular class. Don’t drill into one idea, topic or type of problem for too long. Switching will highlight and contrast the similarities or differences between topics or types of questions. If you’re doing problem-solving, switching can help you choose the correct approach to solve a problem. This strategy will encourage you to make links between ideas as you switch between them. You want your mind to be nimble and easily able to jump between ideas and know-how they relate to each other. Make sure you study enough information to understand an idea before you switch, you’ll need to figure out what works best for you – don’t spend an entire session on one topic, but don’t switch too often either. And for your next study session, change the order you work through topics because that will strengthen your understanding even more. Switching will probably feel harder than studying one topic for a long time, but remember, we want to use what’s most effective, not what’s easiest.
Words and visuals
Combine text with visuals. Doing this gives you two ways of understanding and remembering the information later on. Find visuals in your notes and textbook and examine how the words are describing what’s in the image. Then do it the other way around – how does the image represent what’s described by the text? Look at the visuals and explain in your own words what they mean. Then take the words from your class materials and draw your own picture for them. Try to create different ways to represent the information, and start to use this strategy when you practice reviewing your knowledge later on.
Relevant examples help demonstrate and explain ideas, and hence gives reinforces your comprehension. Human memory hooks onto concrete information better than abstract information, so always look for real-life examples you can relate to. Thinking of your own relevant examples is most helpful for your learning, but be careful to confirm with your teacher that your examples are accurate and relevant to the idea you’re learning.
Recall what you know
Finally, if you only take one thing away from this article, the single most valuable study skill to help you boost your performance, is this: practice retrieving everything in your head you already know about a topic. Put away all your notes and textbooks and write down or sketch out everything you know at the moment. Retrieving your knowledge like this reinforces what you’ve learned and makes it easier to remember later on. Also, improvement comes with practice. If you want to get better at recalling information in exams, then you should practice recalling information now, just like you practice any other skills. Plus, it highlights what you don’t know and that’s where you should focus your study time. So, how can you do this? Take as many practice tests as you possibly can, even if you have to make them up after you’ve used up what’s been made available to you. Or simply start with a blank piece of paper and empty your brain, write out everything you know about the topic at hand (or draw sketches or concept maps linking all the ideas together). Make sure you do this a while after you’ve learned something, so put away your notes – this is not about reciting information you’ve just glanced at in your textbook. Once you’ve finished, check what you’ve written against your class material. Note down what you got right and wrong, and what you couldn’t recall at all. This shows you where you need to get better.
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