While plenty of us love learning, studying can be an entirely different beast. Training your brain to remember information when the pressure’s on is no easy feat, and sometimes you might feel like no matter how much time you spend reading the material you’re tasked with absorbing, your studies are not very effective.
Even adults who are no longer technically students — or those who are grad students, or are taking online courses to advance their career — might feel like they’ve never really figured out the best way to study. Part of the problem, of course, is that every person’s brain and study skill set or style is so unique. This means that different methods work for different people, and it can be tricky to figure out what kind of study session will be effective for you — especially if you’re working alongside other people.
Some of us like to take notes or write down our ideas to retain knowledge; some of us like to jot down questions and ideas as we read, and some of us prefer to take a practice test or make a study plan or study guide to help prepare for a test or exam. Whatever helps your mind absorb knowledge might be drastically different from the tactics that work for every other student in your class.
Luckily, there are lot of researchers who have done a lot of in-depth studies about the best way to study — and we’re compiling some of those findings for you so that you can figure out what kind of tips will work for best for you while you’re studying (Note: Millennials and non-millennials alike might have to force themselves to take a legit social media break while studying!)
1. Study when you’re tired, perhaps just before you go to bed.
According to research published by The National Center for Biotechnology Information, our new memories become stronger while we sleep — so if you study before you go to bed, regardless of your sleep schedule, you may be more likely to retain the concepts you were focusing just before you said goodnight to your study guide.
Thebestcolleges.org also suggests that if you’re studying when you’re tired, in the hours before you go to bed, your mind is more likely to retain new concepts and skills. While your study plan should not be to procrastinate and save all of your studying for the night before an exam or presentation, it is wise to review problems, questions and relevant material before getting a good night of sleep.
2. Listen to music.
This is a study habit that may not work for everyone, but it’s worth trying. Listening to music — especially classical music, which tends to make people relax — during study time can make students more receptive to information, according to research published in "Learning and Individual Differences."
3. Take a practice test.
Research called "Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping" shows that when students take practice tests, which is a method of studying known as “retrieval practice,” it enhances their learning. An extra bonus of this method of studying is that if you’re creating a practice test for yourself, you're building in more time and activity that may help you learn the material.
4. Pay attention to where you study.
When you’re studying, it’s obvious that hours matter — but so do your surroundings. A 1978 experiment in which college students were given a list of 40 vocabulary words to study in two different rooms — one of which had no windows and was full of clutter, the other of which was modern and had a courtyard view — showed that the students who studied the words in the two different rooms outperformed (by far) the students who studied the words twice in the same room.
So if you’re not already in the habit of changing up your scenery, start thinking more about your study location. Whether you’re moving between your desk and a cafe or a courtyard and the library, it’s worth your while to make sure you’re giving yourself some different views throughout your hours of studying.
5. Get exercising.
Everyone knows that exercise is good for your physical health, and you can exercise while you're working or studying, too. You should — the benefits it can have on your brain are also tremendous, and all the more reason you should prioritize exercising even when your workload seems overwhelming.
"The New York Times’" Gretchen Reynolds writes that scientists “have discovered that exercise appears to build a brain that resists physical shrinkage and enhance cognitive flexibility. Exercise, the latest neuroscience suggests, does more to bolster thinking than thinking does.
“Why would exercise build brainpower in ways that thinking might not?” she continues. “The brain, like all muscles and organs, is a tissue, and its function declines with underuse and age. Beginning in our late 20s, most of us will lose about 1 percent annually of the volume of the hippocampus, a key portion of the brain related to memory and certain types of learning. Exercise though seems to slow or reverse the brain’s physical decay, much as it does with muscles.”
In the study Reynolds analyzes, researches found that 65-year-olds had achieved the brains of 63-year-olds — simply by walking. So whether you’re a runner or a yogi, try to work in time for some physical movement — ideally, before you sit down to study — to increase your alertness.
Taking a walk right before a test is also a good idea as it can improve your performance.
6. Chill out.
This one's easier said than done because oftentimes you’re not particularly relaxed while studying. But if you can get yourself to chill out — whether by meditating, doing yoga or breath exercising, or simply taking breaks to either mentally or physically recharge — it’ll probably impact your study session for the better.
Stress has some serious effects, and it can hinder your ability to absorb material, while relaxation can boost your attention span.
Another trick to reducing stress while studying is finding a quiet, peaceful place to make your own. This might be your living room, your backyard, the library or anywhere else that feels comfortable.
7. Practice teaching the material you’re studying.
It’s one thing to learn a bunch of concepts, but imagine if you had to not only better your understanding of them, but you also had to teach the concepts to ensure that another group of people understood the material?
Studies have shown that people who study under the assumption that they’ll then have to teach the material to other students are more likely to better grasp the content. This is not surprising if you think about it; if you’re memorizing information, there’s a better chance that you’ll be able to recall and discuss if you task yourself with being able to explain to someone else.
Additionally, speaking aloud what you're studying can help solidify the material in your mind as well. So even if you're saying it aloud to no one in particular, you're still studying and learning.
8. Take the occasional break.
Taking a break every hour and a half or so can have some benefits to studying, such as improving your focus and attention when you return to the material. However, it's important to choose the right activity for your break. Stretching, tidying up, taking a quick shower, meditating, cooking and taking the aforementioned walk can benefit your mind and body. Meanwhile, taking a nap, snacking on junk food, watching TV and surfing the web can have a detrimental effect on your studying — these activities will make you feel lethargic and be less productive.
9. Go for a walk before an exam.
Research by Dr. Chuck Hillman of the University of Illinois suggests that just about 20 minutes exercise before an exam can improve performance, so you might as well take a brisk walk to the testing center.
10. Speak out loud instead of simply reading.
When you speak out loud, you're more likely to remember something — in fact, you're 50 percent more likely to remember something you say than something you just read.
11. Create mental associations.
Steve Jobs once said: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something."
He's right — creativity is just making connections. Use mental mind maps to help you make connections, and you'll start thinking more creatively during test time.
12. Use scents to jog your memory.
Spraying an unfamiliar scent while you’re studying can help jog your memory when you spray it again just before an exam. Why? Well, it has to do with the way your brain processes odors and memories. Basically, smells are routed through your olfactory bulb, which the region of your brain that analyzes smells, and which just so happens to be closely connected to your amygdala and hippocampus, brain regions that handle memory.
13. Turn off the tech.
Whether or not you have a social media addiction, turn off the tech — and, yes, that includes your phone. Young adults almost tripled their time spent online from 10 hours and 24 minutes each week in 2005 to 27 hours and 36 minutes in 2014. In total, that means that the average adult spends more than 20 hours online a week — and that time could be spent studying if you turned off your tech.
14. Use apps to block distracting sites.
If you have to use your phone or computer to study, download apps that'll block distracting sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Instagram. Here are some options for you:
15. Watch a documentary on the topic of study.
When you watch a visual documentary with a story and a plot, you may be more interested than when you're reading from an explanatory textbook. A documentary will explain and show, so you'll have a more dynamic experience with the topic that you can reference during test time.
16. Use flashcards.
Test your memory with flashcards and don't stop playing the cards until you've gotten all of them correct.
17. Draw diagrams.
Drawn diagrams can help you to visualize information that might otherwise be difficult to describe. You can then recall these diagrams when you come to question on certain topics you drew up — this is an especially good technique for anyone with a vividly visual memory.
18. Study in a group.
When you study in a group, you can share ideas and learn from one another. It may be helpful to hear another person's perspective, and you can even teach them yours — and we already know that teaching something helps you study it.
Meditation will help you concentrate your energy into your studies, and it will also help you reduce pre-exam stress, which will improve your overall performance, as well.
20. Stick to print.
While some researchers have argued that digital interfaces can enhance academic experiences, 90 percent of those polled in a study titled "Paper or Tablet? Reading Recall and Comprehension" said that they prefer a hard print copy over a digital device when it comes to studying. This perhaps has to do with what a psychology lecturer at the University of Leicester in England once found: Students require more repetition to learn new materials if they read on a computer screen.
21. Type your notes in Times New Roman.
Typing your notes in Times New Roman will make studying easier for you, because it's statistically the easiest font to read, and you can read it the fastest. There's a reason why Times New Roman has been a staple font for so long.