There are few worse feelings than the one you get after you dedicate hours to studying, only to sit down to take the exam, feel your mind go blank, and know that most of that time was wasted. While students learn many useful things in school, how to study effectively is not always one of them. These 15 tips are based on the advice of teachers and successful students, as well as the outcomes of studies, and are guaranteed to help you study more effectively so that you can remember what you need to when you sit down to take that exam.
1. Create a good study environment.
To state the obvious, the environment you study in can make all the difference. Many students like to “multitask” by watching TV, texting, or switching between tabs on their browser, but effective studying requires full attention. It’s also important to study in a manner that simulates the testing environment – in other words, if you’re drinking soda, snacking, listening to your iPod, or lying in bed, you aren’t preparing your body to recall those concepts under the right conditions. Try sitting at a desk and working quietly instead.
2. Understand context and background information.
Many students struggle because they fall back on rote memorization, which may work for the short term, but won’t help you take anything away from the class or ace the final. Understanding the flow of the lesson and the context of a topic – how it relates to other ideas, why it is important – will make it easier to remember the concept. Similarly, a good grasp of relevant background information will help you understand the topic, see how it applies or builds on other concepts, and truly learn it, instead of just “knowing” it for a few hours.
3. Check your understanding as you go.
It’s easy to tune out or miss key pieces of information when you’re reading or listening to a lecture, even if you think you’re being careful and attentive. It’s also common to misinterpret a concept or idea when you first encounter it. Try to stop after the lecture and re-summarize to yourself what you’ve learned. If your textbook offers review sections or quizzes for each chapter, make use of those. Learning something correctly from the start is easier than unlearning and re-learning it later.
4. Make a second pass.
Studies have shown that when your brain first encounters a problem or significantly new information, it gets hung up on it. This means that your attention likely got stuck on the first challenging problem or new theory in your lecture, video, or assigned reading. Go back through the material again; you’ll be surprised to see what key concepts you tuned out after focusing on that first one.
5. Organize the information.
If you can categorize the concepts you’re learning or make connections between them, you give yourself a better framework for learning; your brain will be more successful at learning things with some kind of structure or organization than it will be at memorizing a mess of facts. Making good connections also makes you more likely to remember the entire chain of concepts come test day.
6. Use memory tricks.
Think of these as a back-up plan – they aren’t the ideal way to learn, but it never hurts to have a few prompts up your sleeve. If all else fails, a catchy mnemonic device or funny phrase can help you remember key things, at least in the short term. Just remember that memory tricks can only take you so far.
7. Keep using what you’ve learned.
The phrase “use it or lose it” applies to working memory for most people. Even if you have the best study habits in the world, you won’t retain the information if you don’t do anything with it. Try to incorporate those vocabulary words into your daily speech or writing assignments, set aside at least fifteen minutes a day to do review math problems, and so on.
8. Try to take in the information in different forms.
It’s widely known that people have different learning styles; even if you already know and use your learning style, you can benefit from seeking out information that is presented differently. Different means of delivery lead to different rates of retention; reading and listening to a lecture have the lowest rates, while audio-visual presentations, demonstrations, and discussions yield higher rates. If you can’t get a concept to stick in your head, try changing up the means of presentation.
9. Take notes.
Taking notes offers many of the benefits already mentioned – it helps you organize and sort information, it allows you to make a second pass, and it forces you to think about and use the information. Writing out notes can especially help the retention of visual or kinetic learners.
10. Use flashcards.
Flashcards are one of the most effective means of rote memorization. They’re portable, convenient, and great for when you just have a few minutes free to study during the day. They are also a great way to gauge how much you’re already mastered; they give you a tangible indicator of the work you still need to do.
11. Keep up on sleep.
It’s not just important to get a good night’s sleep right before the test – you can also benefit from having generally stable and healthy sleeping patterns. Irregular sleep patterns and loss of sleep raise levels of the stress hormone cortisol; elevated cortisol levels make it harder for you to remember things or retrieve memories.
12. Study before bed.
When it comes to making connections and retaining new information, sleeping on it can make all the difference. A University of Notre Dame study found that people who memorized pairs of words at 9 p.m., just before bed, had a much higher retention rate than people who memorized the same pairs at 9 a.m. If studying before bed doesn’t suit schedule, you can still benefit from going over the information in your head just before falling asleep.
13. Throw in some physical activity.
Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which helps you feel more clear-headed and process information more effectively. A little physical activity will help you recover and refresh yourself during a quick study break much more than watching TV or grabbing a snack will. Staying alert and engaged while studying is key to retaining the material.
14. Practice using the information in a test setting.
If you have access to a practice test, you should definitely take it. Not only does a practice test show you what concepts you’ve mastered and which ones you still draw a blank on, but it helps you build a sort of muscle memory for maintaining focus and accessing the information you need during the real exam.
15. Talk about, explain, or teach the material.
One of the most effective ways to memorize a concept is to discuss it with others, explain it, or even teach it to someone. Explaining or teaching a concept requires mastery, and often your initial attempt will highlights flaws in your knowledge or understanding. Making, identifying, and correcting these mistakes solidifies your understanding and improves retention considerably.
As a final tip, it’s just as important that you don’t over-study or overload your brain. Skipping sleep or spending hours just sitting and staring at a text book is not only counterproductive to learning, but can lead you to feel tired, frustrated, and burned out. You can make the most of your study time by following these tips to understand the material, prepare yourself to perform in the testing environment, and use the way your brain learns to your advantage.
Lauren Hill is a contributing author for SchoolTutoringAcademy, a tutoring company offering online tutors for math, English, science and ACT/SAT test prep.