How to Study Effectively

The good, the bad, and the necessary

study, study, study,study
Do you spend hours studying only to find you get the same results or worse every time? Are you frustrated with the way you study? Do you stay up all night the day before an exam cramming everything in and hoping the chapters that you skipped won’t be in the exam? Or do you spend hours highlighting or underlining your notes and find that it makes no difference?

The problem is that a lot of the techniques students use to study are ineffective. There is vast world of research out there that is written in English that most students (and teachers) don’t understand or don’t have time to read. MathsatSharp.co.za has taken the time to read through these mountains of research articles and digest them for you.

There are two parts to studying: 1. what you do when you study and 2. how you do it.

1. What you do when you study:

Bookrags has a list of the worst study habits a student can have: studying with friends, too much music (too loud or too distracting), a bad environment (as in there are 50 things to distract you at your study spot), last minute cramming, eating (too much, although light snacking is perfectly fine), alcohol (which i think is kinda self-explanatory), working in bed (because that’s your happy sleeping space), multi-tasking (if you are checking Facebook, Twitter and trying to study at the same time you are multitasking), outside stress (this means that there are people or things happening around you that are making you worried and unable to focus), studying during the drive to school (I get car sick, but if you don’t rather use the time to go over or review your study notes), and studying without a plan (as in oh don’t worry, I will finish these 5 chapters that are 50 pages each tonight and still have time to go out for dinner). If any these sound familiar (or you are just curious) check out scientificamerican.com to find out how good your study skills are.

To fix this (or make you even more effective) you need to come up with a strategy.

And the very first thing to do is to plan your studying: when you are going to study, how you are going to study and what you are going to study. Your study plan should be flexible to a point – you do need to sit down and study but you can change times, and what you will be studying when, as long as you get through the work you wanted to, by the time you needed to.  Along with your plan should be your goals – what do you want to achieve for this subject? What do you want to achieve for the end of the year?. Your goals should be realistic – if you are currently a D student, don’t expect to shoot straight up to 90% on your first test (although it has been done before), but expect to get a C or aim for a B. Your short-term goals should be stepping stones towards your long-term goals – what do you want to study at university? What kind of job do you want?

When you sit down to study make sure that you are not easily distracted. This means finding a quiet space that allows you to concentrate, does not allow people to walk past and distract you and has everything you need. Think crazy busy coffee shop or T.V. lounge vs quiet library or empty classroom. If you do not have a space at home like this, ask one of your teachers if you can stay for a little while after class each day to study.

You should also make sure that you are leading a healthy and balanced lifestyle.

Gillen-O’Neel, Huynh and Fuligni (2013) did research on students and their sleeping habits. Although the best level of sleep varies somewhat between different people, most teenagers need just over 9 hours of sleep each night. Sleep is an important process because it allows the brain to consolidate the learning you have done that day. Gillen-O’Neel, Huynh and Fuligni found that students who sacrificed sleep in order to study, actually performed worse than the students who did not. Students were more likely to struggle with assignments and paying attention in class the next day. And, in general, irregular sleep (3 hours one night and 12 the next) is linked with lower academic performance.

Now that you are ready to sit down and begin studying where do you start? The website 2knowmyselfsuggests that you begin with the easy part and work towards the hard part. Whatever you study for the day should also be reviewed on that day, and remember to take breaks regularly. Your brain has an attention rate and needs to take a break at least every 45 min to an hour. Breaks should be a maximum of 15 minutes long.

So we know what you should be doing when you are studying, the next thing to check is how you study.

2. Study Techniques (How you study)

What do you do once you have the book in front of you? Do you start reading it, then reread it? Do you highlight or underline important information? Do you ask yourself questions about the work you are studying? Do you try to write notes or summaries about the information? All of these actions are study techniques. Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan and Willingham (2013) reviewed nine major study techniques to find out which ones work best, why they work best and who can use them.

The first technique is called elaborative interrogation.

This is a very fancy name for saying that you ask yourself questions about what you are studying. You  ask why, what, where, when and how. You look for similarities and differences. This is great for short passages but is more difficult to apply to more work. Subject suggestions for using this technique would be your English comprehensions,  life sciences, consumer studies, geography, history, economics, business studies, and tourism. Remember to break these subjects down into sections and ask yourself both broad questions (what are the main ideas of the entire section?) and specific questions (what are the main features of an animal cell?). And, remember the more general knowledge you have about the subject the easier it is to use the technique and the more effective the method becomes.

The next technique or study method is similar – self-explanation.

And is also pretty self-explanatory (sorry about the pun J). Essentially the idea is that you explain the work to yourself. For example, when you work through a maths example in class, and then go over it at home try to explain each line to yourself as you work through it. The idea is to explain how you are thinking about the problem. The method works better when you explain it to yourself step by step rather than at the end of a problem. This method is particularly effective for maths, accounting or programming in CAT.

The next method is practice testing.

You need to find past exams and test papers and use them to test yourself, without looking at the answers until after you have completed the entire test (or a section). Once you have completed the test, go through your answers and mark them. Check what you have gotten right or wrong. This testing process improves your learning and helps you to remember your facts for longer, and it even works when the questions you practiced are a different type to the questions you get in the exam. Dunlosky and his fellow researchers also found that practice testing that is spread out over a couple of days is more effective than practicing all the tests in a row on one day. So, when your teacher says the test is not for marks, study any way because the test will help you later on – in fact, you should be asking your teacher for more tests 😉 Practice testing can be used for any subject.

The method of distributed practice

means that you spread your studying over a number of days and times. It is the opposite of cramming, and it is way better than cramming because it allows you to remember your facts for longer. It is highly recommended by Dunlosky et. al.  and can be used for all subjects. This also links with a study plan – you should  plan to spend two hours a day studying for a week, rather than spending 14 hours the day before the exam cramming.

Interleaved practice means that you mix up the problems, and is particularly effective for maths. For example, if you are studying factorizing, you need to use a set of questions that  mixes all the different types of factorizing together (eg. highest common factor, grouping, difference of squares, cubes and sum of cubes, and trinomials). This will help you in the test to decide which method to use for each question in the test. This method is particularly effective when studying mathematics.

The sixth technique is summarization.

You need to be able to identify the main points of the text  and exclude any information that is not important. It is better to write your summary in your own words rather than simply copying your textbook. The only problem with this method is that you need to be skilled at summarizing. This method can be used for science, life science, consumer studies, geography, history, economics, business studies and tourism.

Most students like to highlight or underline their notes or textbooks. According to Dunlosky and fellow researchers, highlighting has little to no benefit. It helps your memory a little for remembering facts but does not help with understanding or applying your knowledge. Highlighting and underlining is not recommended over any other method of studying.

The keyword mnemonic encourages students to make up a mental image about the word you are learning. This image is then supposed to remind you of the word when you are in a test situation. The problem is that the method is not efficient, students aren’t able to remember the word for a long time, and it only really works with words that are easy to use with a mental image. This method is also not recommended.

Similar to the keyword mnemonic is the use of imagery for text learning. As you are reading a section of the textbook you develop a mental image of what is going on (like a movie in your head). If for example, you are learning about the parts of the plant in your head, you could imagine yourself as an ant climbing up the plant and as you pass certain part of the plant you name it and explain anything important about it. Again, the method does not tend to help students understanding or application but it is easier to use than the keyword mnemonic.

Of the nine study techniques and methods mentioned here the most highly recommended are interleaved practice, practice testing and distributed practice, after which the elaborative technique and the self-explanation method follow. Remember that some methods work better for some students and not for others and you need to try each one before deciding what works best (or a combination of what works best) for you.

On a parting note, Sanjoy Mahajan wrote an article on the freakonomics website called “The Way we teach Math and Language is Wrong”. Essentially he said that we should try to make our learning active, to practice daily and to have no fear of making mistakes. Now, although is particularly applicable to maths and languages, we can also apply it to all our other subjects as well. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, to get things wrong (as practice testing shows, this is actually really helpful and we learn from our mistakles). We need to make learning fun!


  • www.bookrags.com/articles/16.html
  • www.2knowmyself.com/studyng/effective_exam_studying_tips_techniques_and_methods
  • www.soundfeelings.com/free/studying.html
  • freakonomics.com/2011/11/02/the_way_we_teach_math_and_language_is_wrong/
  • calnewport.com/blog/2007/12/31/monday_master_class_5_bad_study_habits_you_should_resolve_to_avoid_in_2008/
  • www.adprima.com/studyout.htm
  • psychcentral.com/lib/top_10_most_effective_study_habits/000599
  • www.studygs.net/attmot4.htm
  • www.scientificamerican.com/article/test_your_study_skills_quiz/
  • www.globalcognition.org/head-smart/5_study_skills_to_accelerate_your_learning/
  • C. Gillen-O’Neel, V.W. Huynh, and A.J. Fuligni (2013) To study or to Sleep? The Academic Costs of Extra Studying at the Expense of Sleep; Child Development, 84 (1), pp 133 – 142
  • J. Dunlosky, K.A. Rawson, E.J. Marsh, M.J. Nathan, and D.T. Willingham (2013) Improving Students Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology; Psychological Science in Public Interest, pp 4 – 58.


Update: Another handy webiste to visit is https://custom-writing.org/blog/tricks-to-save-time-studying   They have some gerat hints and suggestions.

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