How can we study smarter, rather than harder? As students, we’re never really taught how to study effectively, and turn to common study habits we pick up throughout our academic lives. Using these habits, we tend not to question their effectiveness, and instead strive to study harder or start to believe we’re simply not smart enough. But that’s not the case, we all learn differently and some study habits are more effective than others.
Common Time Management Techniques
Typically, you might find yourself either studying for long periods of time without proper breaks, or you might have adopted a common time management technique known as the Pomodoro Technique by Francesco Cirillo. The approach to time management is great for breaking work down into short focused sessions, and accounting for breaks. If done correctly, these pomodoro sessions can inform you of how long tasks, or study sessions take by tracking the number of pomodoros required. However, one common issue with the pomodoro technique is that it can break your flow state when you finally get in the zone.
Prospective Revision Timetables
When exam time rolls around, you start planning out your revision time. The most common revision plan is the prospective revision timetable where you predict and schedule study time in the future. However, these plans are time consuming and can be difficult to stick to. If you fall out of step with your timetable for a week, or even a day, this can throw off your revision plans, and mean you need to revisit and edit your timetable. This can take up more time than necessary and cause stress during an already difficult time of the academic year.
Alternative Time Management Techniques for Efficiency
The flow state is where we become immersed in a task, and are working with full focus. This state is important for deep work, and the Pomodoro Technique can cause breaks when we reach our maximum focus. Instead, FlowTime is an alternative that adopts the perks of the Pomodoro, but still accounts for tracking your study time, and breaking work down into short, focused bursts rather than long hours, where you’re unsure of where the time has gone. The FlowTime method means you track your start time on a single task, and note down distractions, and when you stopped working. This allows you to work uninterrupted while still being mindful of where your time is going, and how this looks across your task list.
Retrospective Revision TimeTable
Instead of trying to predict the subjects you might struggle with, or when you will have time to tackle a particular topic, you can implement a retrospective revision timetable. This is an effective timetabling method that focuses on the quality of your knowledge, and gives you flexibility to study when you have the time available. You list all your topics and colour code them based on your current confidence level, then you keep track of each time you study that topic, and your confidence during that session. This provides a visual overview of how well you know a topic, and how often you have revisited it. As long as you block out some time to study, the retrospective revision timetable is quick to set up and can guide study sessions, avoiding the need for re-planning or scheduling.
Common Study Habits for Learning and Memorisation
Note-taking and Summarising
When learning material for the first time, a common go to learning strategy is to take notes from lectures or readings. Note-taking can become a passive form of learning, where you write things down word for word, rather than seeking to understand. You might summarise those notes for later review, or summarise readings with the book open. However, you might realise that within a few days, you can’t remember the material, or haven’t developed a deep enough understanding to connect the material to other information in your course.
Similar to note-taking, highlighting can also be a passive form of studying, as we attempt to extract only the key points by selecting key facts and figures. You might do this by highlighting readings from textbooks, academic papers, or by reviewing your notes, and highlighting the key information throughout. Identifying important information and learning to be selective with our learning material isn’t a bad thing but, highlighting like note-taking lacks proper engagement with the content that needs to be understood.
Unlike note-taking or highlighting, reading can feel like a more effortful means of learning material. You might find yourself avoiding readings for this reason because it can become overwhelming. There’s often a lot of material to work through, and it’s hard to figure out what’s important to learn. Here, again, you’ll probably turn to open book note-taking, summarising and highlighting to make it through your readings. However, while reading might improve your comprehension of the material, and provide the necessary background context, you can read passively, and find yourself forgetting what you learnt. If you haven’t actively engaged with the reading material, it will be difficult to connect this information with alternative theories, and perspectives which is an important part of many assessments.
Instead of having a well-developed understanding of the learning material, you might instead find yourself trying to memorise material. This can feel like the best way to pass assessments, if you’ve memorised everything, how can you not do well? However, in higher education, and to gain those higher grades, you need to have a good understanding, and be able to connect ideas between material. Memorisation should be a second step after learning. You might find yourself re-reading highlighted reading material, or reviewing your notes without testing your ability to recall the information. Or, you may summarise material from notes and readings multiple times until it's condensed. However, these strategies are passive, and do not test your understanding, or memory of the learning material.
Alternative Learning and Memorisation Techniques for Effective Studying
Scope Your Subject
In order to learn effectively, you need to understand how information fits together. Learning large amounts of material can mean you get lost, and stray from the learning objectives set. While there’s no harm in learning more, you still need to have a good understanding of what your lecturer expects you to know, and what you’ll be getting assessed on. Scoping your subject allows you to gain a bird-eye view of your learning material and understand how this material relates to one another. This technique involves identifying core topics, sub-topics and the connections between them.
To make this an active learning technique, you can draw out a mindmap of module content from memory, and flesh out the gaps with resources after. This will test your memory and understanding of the learning material. If you study several modules that relate to one another, you can also create a larger mindmap, and connect this material, again testing your understanding and memory. Assessments will assess your ability to make meaningful connections between the content you learn, so this technique and the process of engaging with it has a number of benefits.
You can approach readings in an active and critical way, that will improve your ability to learn, and retain information. To read critically, it’s first important to set aside the time and aim to read in small, focused bursts. This will preserve your ability to focus, and take in the information. Similarly, before you read, ensure you are being selective with your reading material. You can do this by identifying reading goals about what you hope to learn, and then skimming the material to see if the resource is relevant. During your reading session, you can actively engage with the content by asking specific and critical questions, and by annotating the material with thoughts, questions or mini summaries.
These simple habits help you to process what you’re reading, and begin connecting ideas to previous knowledge. After reading, you can test your understanding and memory by summarising or paraphrasing the material from memory in your own words. It’s key to do this from memory, and later fill in the gaps for this to be an active and effective means of learning. You can later use this content in essays, or for flashcard based revision if this information is well synthesised, which saves you time, and prevents passive reviewing of material. For a more in-depth guide, check out How to Read Critically: An Exam Focused Guide.
The Feynman Technique
The Feynman technique involves taking a specific topic, and learning it in a way that is so simple, you could explain it to a five year old within five minutes. This method encourages you to break material down into simple, digestible components. Instead of assuming you have understood the learning material, this really tests how well you understand, and quickly highlights any gaps in your knowledge. By engaging with this process, you actively process the material, and end up repeating the content overtime which will improve your memory and understanding.
Active Recall and Spaced Repetition
Active recall is essentially self-testing, and spaced repetition is a time frame for when to engage in active recall again to best improve retention of information. This technique is effortful but will best prepare you for exams, or help you to memorise any kind of information long term. This is important for making the most of your education, beyond simply passing assessments. In contrast to rote learning, active recall engages your ability to recall and retain information by testing what you know, without notes or resources at hand. Active recall is not only a memorisation strategy but can also be employed frequently throughout your studies to better learn material. There are many ways to approach this, and we have covered this in detail in: Active Recall Revision Techniques for Different Types of Exams and A Guide to Active Recall: Top Tips and Tools for Effective Revision.