Person reading and highlighting. Highlighting is one of a number of often recommended but provably ineffective methods of studying.

Wasting your time studying? How to and How not to Study.

Many posts and articles in the last few years have broken my heart. They give counter-productive techniques to studying that not only waste your time, but set you up for frustration and disappointment. Several teams of learning scientists analyzed the research and found the most effective and ineffective ways to study. For your sake, don’t study again until you read this post.

Wasting your time studying?

The field of education is more art than science, and more superstition than truth. Many tried and true practices are of questionable value while proven approaches have sat on the shelf.

Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, & Willingham (2013) and Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel (2014) reviewed the evidence for and against various study techniques and evaluated how effective they are at creating durable learning. Unlike, perhaps, much of your previous learning, durable learning stays with you and available to use long after your final exams.

How to and How not to Study

  1. Take ownership of your learning. Passive learners blame others for their mistakes. Active learners take responsibility for learning and practice effective learning strategies.
  2. Adopt a growth mindset. Recognize mistakes are a badge of effort and lead to the best learning. Not taking risks and blaming others prevents learning (point 1). Your brain grows in response to failure, so look for opportunities to fail (see point 4).
  3. Read effectively. Skim your reading to identify unknown terms and to develop questions. Use your questions and those at the end of the section to guide your reading. As you find answers, write them down in your own words. Don’t waste your time highlighting. Don’t read word-for-word, unless it’s relevant.
  4. Test yourself on your learning. Don’t assume you have learned simply because you were comfortable when reading. Break up reading by testing yourself on what you just read. Use the notes you made in Point 3 to test yourself later (see 5). When self-testing reveals a weakness, re-read the relevant paragraphs, but don’t waste your time rereading an entire section or chapter.
  5. Spread your self-testing out over time. Repeated testing triggers memory formation. Even when you get a question right in a few days later, revisit it in a week. For questions you get wrong, revisit them sooner. Schedule multiple study sessions. Don’t cram. You may do ok on the test, but you likely won’t do as well as if you spread out your learning. And you definitely won’t remember as well.
  6. Mix your study. Study subject 1 for a while, then subject 2, and so on. Too much time on one subject is not as effective as spreading the study out and breaking it up with different subjects.

Next Steps

Improve your studying by practicing the methods above. Future posts will cover the methods in more depth. Subscribe to be notified of these posts and free resources.

More on growth mindset and how to improve when you make mistakes is covered in the post Are you learning the slow way? 6 Steps and 4 Elements to PowerUp Learning & Performance.

Make It Stick (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014) as a quick, enjoyable read that teaches the studying techniques in this post. The last chapter summarizes techniques for faculty and students.

 Credit and Resources

  • Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (1st edition). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press.
  • Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques. Psychological Science in the Public Interest.
  • Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash