The science of studying – how to make it work for you

Many students have had their learning disrupted over the past 18 months and some have missed in-person lessons and courses. As a result, it has become more important than ever to find ways of studying effectively and efficiently.

Whether you are preparing for exams, revising for progress tests or consolidating your knowledge, being self-directed in your study and revision is a valuable and time-saving tool. This is particularly true if you are working and studying at the same time.

So what is the most effective way to study and how can you study smart to make the most of your time? Do flashcards work? What is the best study aid? How do you draw up an effective revision and study timetable? What can scientific research tell us about the best revision strategy?

The importance of effective study

“Combining study alongside work and other responsibilities can certainly be a challenge, however a good starting place is reframing what you know about managing your time,” say Karen Meager and John McLachlan – Co-founders of Monkey Puzzle Training and Consultancy.

“The phrase ‘time management’ is a myth because you cannot manage time itself, only your use of it. Time management is not multitasking nor speeding through your tasks as quickly as possible.” Indeed, when studying, this perception is only likely to reduce the amount of quality information you’re able to take in.  

“Each of us has the same amount of time each day, each week and each month. How we choose to use that time depends on what we consider to be important and how we think about time. It has as much to do with our deep-seated thinking and behavioural habits as it does to do with organisational skills.”

Making the most of your time might involve using commuting or downtime to gain extra information. Learning doesn’t necessarily equate to days in a classroom and can instead now be done in micro doses, to adapt to everyone, says Sarah Danzl, Head of Global Communications and Client Advocacy at Degreed.

“When you look at the concept of studying, it’s important to look at all types of learning – podcast while you commute or work on admin things, videos, books, reading blogs and newsletters,” she says. Reading round your subject, consolidating knowledge by looking at topics from different perspectives, can also help to shape your learning.

What is the most effective form of revision?

A fascinating study by Nate Kornell at the Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles, looked at the use of Flashcards in revision. His research:  Optimising Learning Using Flashcards: Spacing Is More Effective Than Cramming, found that not only did flashcards work well, but they worked best when revised in big batches, and then revisited later.

The spacing effect—that is, the benefit of spacing learning events apart rather than massing them together—has been demonstrated in hundreds of experiments, but is not well known to educators or learners,” he says in his introduction to the paper.

“I investigated the spacing effect in the realistic context of flashcard use. Learners often divide flashcards into relatively small stacks, but compared to a large stack, small stacks decrease the spacing between study trials. Studying one large stack of flashcards (i.e. spacing) was more effective than studying four smaller stacks of flashcards separately (i.e. massing).”

He points out that spacing does not take more time than massing, it simply involves a different distribution of time.

Is it worth going over topics you have already learned?

In short, yes. Research by Katherine Rawson, a psychologist at Kent State University in Ohio, in a paper on The Power of Successive Relearning: Improving Performance on Course Exams and Long-Term Retention, found it did.

She found that the spacing effect worked well when optimising learning and memory, as did practice tests across several days. Going through practice tests helped students retrieve information from their long term memory and consolidated what they had already learnt. In addition, testing yourself regularly, or getting someone else to test you and ask questions on different topics, can be very effective in helping you prepare for the variety of questions and approaches that might come up in a formal exam.

Cramming is less effective than spaced-out revision

Nate Kornell’s experiments also revealed that spacing was more effective than cramming. In other words, learning gradually across weeks or months will help you retain more than if you try to stuff your brain with facts and figures the night before your exam.

Cultivating this discipline is what will set you apart as a self-directed learner. Quizlet, the online revision tool, identifies self-directed learners as students who regularly practice behaviours that lead to greater achievement. They don’t just earn excellent grades; they demonstrate a genuine interest in learning. This internal motivation gives them a strong sense of personal agency and responsibility for their achievement.

Self-directed learners have three important habits:

  • Goal setting: They create clear long-term objectives with concrete steps for achieving them and time management skills.
  • Metacognitive skills: They are aware of how they learn best. They know which actions foster learning — like taking marginal notes or memorizing flashcard sets — and apply that knowledge strategically.
  • Growth mindset: They regard effort as the most important factor in their own learning, including the development of study skills. They believe their actions influence their intelligence and potential.

Plan your time for effective study

Another effective tool is to create a to-do list so that you can keep yourself on task.

“If you are revising for an exam, make a list of key topics you want to have studied by the end of that session so that you aren’t revising aimlessly, and tick them off at the end, says Michelle Bibby, Head of Pedagogy at The City of Liverpool College. “It may also help to rate your confidence out of ten for each topic you have revised so that you can revisit anything that you are still unsure of at the start of your next session.”

Get into Deep Focus mode 

This means putting your phone away and engaging fully with your work.

“If you have one particular project that you need to make progress on, blocking out a few hours of Deep Focus time in your diary will really help you,” says Dr Alex Young, human performance expert and founder/CEO of immersive training company Virti.

“Deep Focus time means removing all distractions – from social media to emails and even other people – so that you can give 100% of your mental energy to just one task,” he says. It’s best to plan your Deep Focus time to fall in the part of the day when you usually have the most energy, for example earning morning.

“When it comes to being more productive and balancing work and study in your life, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy,” he says. “Everyone is different; we all have our own motivators and it’s about finding what works best for you.”

Further reading:

Marianne Curphey is an award-winning financial writer and columnist, and author of the book How Money Works. She worked as City Editor at The Guardian, deputy editor of Guardian online, and has worked for The Times, Telegraph and BBC.

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