In my first year of college, I failed nearly all my classes because I didn’t know to keep up with the endless torrent of assignments. I had to figure out what went wrong or I would soon face the Golden Arches of McDonald’s. I scoured the web and even read a few books searching for whatever concrete evidence I could find that would improve my grades. Now I’m an A student and I owe it to what I learned about studying.

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From what I found there are only three study tactics you need to use to be successful in school (sources linked below). I should warn you that the techniques don’t make studying easier, they make your time studying more effective. What you’ll learn here is how to optimize the time and energy spent studying, so that you stop wasting your time. But before we get into what works we should define what doesn’t work and why.

Avoid passive learning

Passive learning does a really good job of making you feel like you’re doing something. The problem with passive learning is that you aren’t engaged with the work making it easy for material to go in one ear and out the other. Recall the last exam you studied for, at some point you most likely read through your notes thinking, “Okay all of this makes sense I should be ready for the exam.” The next day you get ready to take the exam and a wave of anxiety rushes over you as you stare at the first question, you realize you don’t know shit. What could have possibly gone wrong? You read the chapter like five times and highlighted all the important material. Well, that’s your problem, you studied the material in the most inefficient way possible.

Psychologist Mark McDaniel points out in an interview with Vox, that a lot of information is obtained from the initial reading but subsequent readings don’t lead to much information acquisition.

Similar to reading, highlighting as you read isn’t useful because it’s a form of passive learning. Instead, you should focus on techniques that require an active engagement that make you think.

Study Tactics That Don’t Waste Your Time

Test yourself — This one is the easiest to implement, while reading, every time you would normally highlight something ask a question with that information as its answer. Eg. what is the powerhouse of the cell? -the mitochondria

By testing yourself you engage in something called active recall. The basic idea of active recall is that the neurons that contain the information you want to retain become stronger with every test. (For a deeper understanding of the science behind this check out the sources section below)

Spaced repetition — information that is revisited repeatedly over time will fortify itself in your long term memory. In psychology, there’s a phenomenon that is known as The Forgetting Curve. The forgetting curve concept states that the majority of novel information is lost within a short period of time, and every time you revisit the topic the curve doesn’t fall as fast.

Spaced repetition is one of those study tactics that is simple in thought but can be hard to implement into your study routine. I use the questions that I make for testing myself and I will revisit the material from the previous week. It may seem like a hassle to do this but taking the time to review the material is definitely worth it if you’re committed to understanding the topics and encoding them into your long-term memory.

Practice like you play — I live in the states so my grades are dependent on a handful of exams. I’m no fan of an exam-focused curriculum because they put the focus on memorizing content vs understanding content but that’s an article for another day. Rather than complaining, we should learn how to optimize our performance on these exams.

You can do this by practicing how you play, or study in a way that’s similar to exam conditions. I’ll admit this the clunkiest study technique you can use but it’s highly effective. It makes sense, if you’re going to study for an exam why not study as if you’re already taking the exam? So instead of going through the material sequentially, mix up the practice, and study your topics out of order, similar to how an exam is structured.

It’s an effective study technique because you’ll learn how to identify the differences between the topics faster. Which translates to how an exam will look. Often an exam isn’t structured so that questions from chapter 1 are firsts then chapter 2 and so on. They’re more likely to be random.

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I hope these techniques were helpful in one way or another. If you’re interested in diving deeper into the topics discussed I recommend exploring the links below.