Study For Success: Do’s and Don’ts

If you’re wanting to give your grades a boost or ensure that the information you’re studying actually gets learned rather than being forgotten the instant you leave the exam room, you’re in the right place. Here are some methods to ditch, and some to adopt to perform to your potential.

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Whatever level you’re at with your education, you want to be putting your best foot forward when it comes to studying. Unfortunately, research has shown that the most commonly used and popular methods of study are actually relatively ineffective for your learning and remembering. Lesser known are the successful, proven methods that actually work.

If you’re wanting to give your grades a boost or ensure that the information you’re studying actually gets learned rather than being forgotten the instant you leave the exam room, you’re in the right place. Here are some methods to ditch, and some to adopt to perform to your potential.

 

Common Mistakes:

Learning Styles:

There is a commonly believed and promoted myth that studying in accordance with ones preferred mode of learning is the most effective study strategy. This is the myth of ‘learning styles.’ Just because it’s plausible, doesn’t mean it’s true. The vast majority of individuals do not fit perfectly into tidy boxes, we are more complex than that. As with most things, we all lie somewhere on a spectrum, not entirely one thing, and not quite another, often somewhere in between.

In one study, students who were instructed to use their self-prescribed learning style to study either performed equally as well as, or worse, than the control group who studied without this instruction. Moral of the story: don’t confine yourself to a ‘learning style’ when there are more successful and evidence backed methods out there.

Highlighting:

Highlighting is a trusty go-to for most students. It’s easy to do, makes you feel like you’re actively engaging with material, and adds some aesthetic points to your notes. It seems like a win-win, but unfortunately, it’s basically useless, (sorry). Highlighting has been shown to have no impact on learning. Basically, studying with highlighting does nothing to improve your performance, so you’d be better off-putting your effort into a study method that’s actually going to do you some good.

The issue that’s been found with highlighting is that it tends to be misused. It can be an effective method if used properly, because highlighted information stands out more than unhighlighted text, helping you to remember it. We tend to, however, either over highlight or under highlight. Over highlighting stops the highlighted text from standing out anymore rendering it pointless, while under highlighting misses important information. It’s also been shown that performance suffers when you are tested on the information you missed out of your highlighting.

Essentially, highlighting as a study technique on its own is unhelpful. I would advise that you use highlighting to complement other techniques, to allow you to go back and identify the information you want to cover.

Rereading:

This again is a super common method, and while it does improve performance above if you hadn’t studied, it’s one of the less effective methods. If you are pressed for time or don’t have time to learn how to properly use one of the highly effective techniques shown here, rereading is worthwhile. On the occasions when you’ve left yourself enough time to not have to cram, you’re better off using your time doing something else.

Often, we mistake the improved ease in reading a text for having learned the material. This is called the ‘illusion of competency,’ and is just the result of familiarity with the writing improving fluency. The benefits of rereading are actually, unfortunately for all of us who do this, not very significant.

Summarisation:

Once again, summarising information seems like a good idea, which is why a lot of us do it. It can be a good idea too, but only if you know how to do so effectively, which it turns out a lot of us actually don’t. If you’ve been taught how to summarise, go for it, it’s a good way of further processing information you want to learn, but otherwise, it’s not going to be much help to you, so you’re better off skipping it. If you want to keep using this method but you’ve never learned how to summarize, it’d be a good idea to look into how it’s done for it to be of use to you.

Cramming:

Need I say more? If you use this type of study, you likely know it’s not the best. Leaving it to the last-minute doesn’t allow you to learn properly, you will likely forget the material quickly afterward, miss some crucial information, and you will not perform as well as if you had adequately prepared over time. However, if you really have to, cramming is the only option, and it does improve your performance above if you’d done nothing, so better to give it a shot if you’ve left it too late.

 

Effective Methods:

Practice testing:

Practice testing can be done in many different ways and is a highly effective method of studying, time and time again shown to outperform other common methods. Practicing retrieving information from your memory makes it easier to do so in the future. The benefits of testing withstand time, as it improves how long you retain the learned material. To use practice testing to your advantage, repeat testing until your responses are correct, from there, any further testing will further boost your performance higher still.

Some ideas for this method could be, testing yourself with flashcards, answering textbook questions, using past test papers if you can get your hands on some, or using Cornell note-taking (leave a column blank next to where you’re taking notes and later create questions based on the material in the column for yourself to answer when you go to study). My personal favourite technique is to test my memory by covering my notes, writing out what I remember and elaborating on it as much as I can, checking my notes, and repeat this until I can recollect more, and more accurately. Whatever practice test style you wish to use, you will see benefits from it, although more in-depth, elaborative methods show better performance in tests than do more basic ones.

Distributed practice:

We tend to leave our study for later, closer to a test or exam. While that seems logical, evidence actually shows that spreading your study out is a much more successful strategy. Distributed learning is the act of breaking up your study into separated sessions, with longer breaks proving more successful than shorter breaks. More forgetting between study sessions facilitates learning and improves performance, who’d’ve thunk it?

Obviously, the amount of time you have before a test needs to be taken into consideration, because clearly, you cannot space your study sessions so far apart that you sacrifice the number of study sessions you are able to fit in. To use this method to your advantage, you’d ideally not wait until a test or exam is coming up, but study periodically throughout the whole term or semester. Maybe set aside a day each week, right from the start, to go over what you’ve learned, you’ll be happy you did.

One research paper found that a group assigned to six study sessions, each separated by 30 days, performed better in a test than a group assigned to the six study sessions performed only one day apart. The one day apart study group was found to outperform the group who did the six study sessions back-to-back on a single day (cramming). In addition to this, as would be expected, distributed practice testing performs better still than distributed study.

Teaching others:

Join a study group to discuss and help one another understand the content of your class, or bug your family and friends by teaching them about what you’re learning. Teaching other people is a performance boosting study tactic. Explaining to others can help you understand what you’re learning better, and also help you identify holes in your knowledge.

A study showed this to be effective, by comparing the test results of three different groups. One group studied as they normally would, another prepared a lesson on the topic, and the third taught the information as a study method. The group that prepared a lesson out-performed the normal study group and the group who taught a lesson outperformed them both.

Environment:

Location, location, location! Its been found helpful for your ability to recall information to study it in an environment similar to that in which you will be required to recall it. So basically, if you will be in a silent classroom test condition, then you should study in an environment as close to this as you can get. If your tests are held in the same place as your lectures, attending your lectures will help in your tests because being in the environment in which you learned material can help to trigger memories of it.

Studying in the same space, and not using that space for any other activities, helps you build an association with that location and studying, making it easier to concentrate. It can be tricky to concentrate in a spot you’re used to doing something else in.

Sleep:

I’ve said I before, but I will say it again. Sleep is so important! Make sure you get some good sleep after your study sessions and before your test. While sleep is not a study method in its own right, it’s included here because it will help all your hard work pay off.

Consolidation occurs during Short Wave Sleep, transferring memories from temporary storage in your hippocampus, to long-term storage in your neocortex, stabilising them. During sleep, your brain processes information which is useful for your future plans, and transfers the information you learned but weren’t conscious of, into consciously known information.

 

If you’re gonna do it, you may as well do it right. Ditch your old study methods and give your performance a boost with these well researched and evidence-based study hacks. You have the resources you need right here to help you smash your goals.

 

For more advice for students, see my post: 7 Tips From a Bad Uni Student to New Uni Students

 

 

 

References:

1. Kirschner, P. A. (2017). Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers & Education106, 166-171.

2. Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2015). Matching learning style to instructional method: Effects on comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(1), 64-78.

3. Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest14(1), 4-58.

4. Born, J., & Wilhelm, I. (2012). System consolidation of memory during sleep. Psychological research76(2), 192-203.

5. Nadel, L., & Willner, J. (1980). Context and conditioning: A place for space. Physiological Psychology, 8(2), 218-228.

6. Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2013). The relative benefits of learning by teaching and teaching expectancy. Contemporary Educational Psychology38(4), 281-288.

7 Tips From a Bad Uni Student to New Uni Students

Hindsight. It is a beautiful thing. As the end of my studies are drawing near I have the pleasure of looking back and wondering what on earth I was doing half the time over the past three years. Lots of missed opportunities and sub-par decision making. So like a wise older sister I shall now impart to you some worldly knowledge in the hopes that your uni experience is a successful and healthy one.

Tip One: Be thrifty

Whether you are getting a student loan, paying your way, or getting support from your parents, uni is expensive. I have spent a week or two in the last few years eating cereal with water because I ran out of milk and couldn’t afford to get more. Do not let that be you. That’s gross. Make sure you have money for necessities before you go out for lunch or go out drinking, even though its tempting.

Tip Two: Prioritise

Because Uni is so expensive, don’t take it for granted. If you have a loan, you’ll be paying for it later, and if you fail a course and have to re-sit it, you’re adding to the cost for future-you. If you don’t do the work for your classes in favour of your social calendar or your new Netflix subscription, you are wasting your own time and money. That being said, having a good social life is a huge part of your uni experience.  But you do need to make sure you strike a balance between work and play so you form a good work ethic and set yourself up for the rest of your studies.

Tip Three: The ‘Fresher Five’ won’t kill you

If you haven’t heard of the ‘Fresher Five,’ it’s a common phenomenon where you gain five kgs plus in your first year. I’m telling you now, this is a real thing. Obviously, the metabolically blessed among us escape gain-free, but for the rest of us mere mortals, it is brutal and sneaky.

It’s easy to get caught up in the bad habits that are fostered in the first year, especially if you just moved out of home. But first-year and uni, in general, isn’t some alternate ultra-fat-storing universe where weight gain is unavoidable, obviously the usual still applies. You know the drill: eat your fruit and veggies, eat your protein, manage your portion sizes, don’t go ham on the higher calorie treats, and keep active. The major traps in first-year revolve around making new friends and wanting to involve yourself in every social opportunity on offer, and social eating and social drinking are a big part of that. Remember that you can still hang out with people and have fun without over indulging. Sometimes a sugar-free energy drink at a party is just as fun, or choosing the smaller option at lunch and skipping the added cake or fries (or in my case, milkshakes).

Stress eating is another catch, so keep the healthy snacks stocked up so you can turn to those when you need to. Keeping on top of your health is worth it, and as an added bonus it’ll help keep you mentally sharp for your studies.

However! If the fresher five befalls you, do not fret! At different times in life we have different priorities, and if in uni you find that socialising and keeping on top of your workload is what is most important to you, that is perfectly fine. For me, I was well and truly acquainted with the Fresher Five by the end of my first year, but my lifestyle now is a far cry from what it was then and the fresher five is a distant memory. Do your best, but don’t beat yourself up. You have the rest of your life to follow your fitspo dreams.

Tip Four: Don’t procrastinate

Do not do this. I myself used to be terrible at it. Worst of all its been proven that procrastination isn’t some kind of trait, or brought on by anything out of your control. Nothing is making you procrastinate. Procrastination is a choice. I hate this fact, but it is, none the less, a fact. Do not choose to leave your work to the last possible moment.

While you’re putting off your work, yes, life is good, but that it sets you up for a very, very not good time ahead. Often you underestimate how long an assignment is going to take, or you run into some unforeseen issues that you haven’t left yourself the time to sort out. Issues like this make doing your uni work suck way more than it needs to. Its no fun and wreaks havoc on your stress levels.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking ‘diamonds are formed under pressure,’ because while you may somehow pull an A+ out of your ass the night before the deadline, that does not mean you will manage that miracle every time. Don’t be lazy. Make like Shia LaBeouf and just do it.

Tip Five: Sleep

Partying and late night cram studying can absolutely ruin your sleeping pattern, and leave you sleep-deprived. This is bad for you, more so than you may think as sleep plays a role in keeping your cognition on point, your mental health, and your weight regulation. Go to sleep at a regular hour like a regular person as often as you can. Enough said. Go to bed.

Tip Six: Use successful study methods

I study psychology, and one thing they drill into us is that in order to consolidate your learning, to really get it to stick, you need to engage with the material. The more involved your processing of information, the better you will learn it. For a start, don’t skip lectures. Second of all, take notes. When it comes to note taking though, not every method is equal. You’re better off going old school and taking notes by hand, not on a laptop because writing by hand has been shown to improve learning as it requires more processing than typing. On top of that, if you have readings to do, take notes by hand for that too because reading often isn’t enough. In fact, its been shown that when you re-read material and it becomes easier to read, that isn’t necessarily because you learned the content, it can mean that you have simply become familiar with the writing allowing the act of reading to flow more smoothly.

Tip Seven: Take opportunities

Get involved in Uni life. There are so many clubs and study groups and extracurricular opportunities that can help your learning, forge valuable connections, and give you the boost you need to make things easier when it comes to getting a job at the other end. I wish now that I took what opportunities I could early on, and I’m kicking myself for it now. You have the chance to give yourself an advantage, so why wouldn’t you?

Take these tips and let my learnings through trial and many errors be a lesson to you. Even though I have managed to be successful in my studies (please don’t think I’m a total loser I promise I’m doing fine), it could have been a hell of a lot smoother, and I could have done myself much prouder had I adhered to this advice. You have been warned. My conscience is now clear. Go forth and kick some academic ass.