How to study smartly

Work harder,” your professors coax you. “You must put in more effort,” your parents badger repeatedly. Yet, despite keeping owlish hours at night and rising like a lark at dawn, and yes, even switching off your phone, you perform sub-optimally on exams. Studying hard is not only exhausting but seems pointless as you haven’t done better even though you put in more hours than the previous semester.

Yes, it is indeed disheartening when you work so diligently but your performance remains stubbornly below par. While it is tempting to wallow in self-doubt or perhaps, consider a change of course, you need to first examine your study habits. Studying for long hours is not the same as studying smartly. In fact, you might even do better if you are less intense about your exams and learn the right study techniques that can help you maximise your performance.

In their book, Make It Stick, cognitive scientists Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel and writer, Peter Brown, provide concrete pointers on how students can optimise their studying. In fact, they argue that common perceptions of learning are often misguided. Based on evidence-based studies, the authors give students hands-on strategies that can boost and deepen their learning of practically any content.

Learning strategies

One reason why so many students fail to acquire the most effective strategies is because we are poor judges of our own learning. A very common study technique that students rely on involves rereading the text, often over and over again. Students also tend to revise one subject at a time. Both these common study habits are actually not very beneficial.  

In fact, rereading is a very passive exercise and does not necessarily boost later recall of material. So, if you are studying for an exam, don’t simply keep reading your text and notes repeatedly. Instead, you should try and recall information by trying to summarise the main ideas and quizzing yourself on supporting details. A number of studies indicate that taking a short quiz after reading some material results in superior learning when compared to merely rereading the content.  

Further, rereading the content may give you an ‘illusion’ of knowing because with each subsequent reading, the information seems more and more familiar to you. However, the apparent ease with which you read through material is not an indicator of how successfully you can recall or apply the same content in another situation.  Instead, if you keep questioning yourself and trying to recall what you have learnt, your learning will be more robust and less prone to forgetting.

Next, the authors also encourage you to avoid “massed practice.” If you are working on Maths problems, don’t solve them chapter by chapter. Your learning will be stronger if you do a few sums from different topics at one sitting. Instead of only doing sums on linear equations, make sure you interweave them with problems related to matrices and vector spaces.

While most textbooks are organised into separate chapters for each topic, you should pick sums across chapters. After all, exam papers present us with a variety of problems. Thus, in order to figure out what strategy to deploy for a particular problem, you are more likely to succeed on the exam if you have practiced beforehand with a mixed bag of questions that cut across chapters. Doing previous question papers is more effective than simply rereading chapters.

For better retention

Also, when timetabling your study, keep changing between subjects. Instead of focusing on Physics for three whole days, do a few chapters of Chemistry and Mathematics also. This will result in better learning across all subjects. Sometimes, students tend to avoid a subject they find difficult and keep pushing it down their study list. This only makes matters worse as the more you postpone a challenging subject, the more anxiety it is likely to invoke in you.

In order to promote retention, you also have to space out your revisions. If you study a chapter on calorimetery, don’t review it immediately. Initially, you might have to review it the next day in order to remember the main points. But after your second revision, increase the time between revisions. So, your third may be after three days and your fourth revision after a week.  

Fourth revision! Students may balk that they would never have time for so many revisions. But you may surprise yourself. If you optimise your study habits by following the suggested techniques, you will find that subsequent revisions take less time and your learning curve actually shoots up. As you embark on a new academic year, analyse your study patterns to optimise your performance.

(The author is director, PRAYATNA)

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How to study smartly


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