Study techniques that actually work

Study techniques that actually work

As the new academic year begins, here a few ways that can enable students to study effectively

Developing emotional connect with the subject helps students delve deep into a topic.

We have all met students who seem to spend little time on studies yet score good marks. We have also seen students who develop a deep understanding of the subject in a very short period with very little effort. They are the ‘smart learners’ who ensure that they have a proper study plan that can help them achieve success in exams. If you think that you can’t do the same, think again. With a bit of planning and effort, everything is possible. Here are a few tips that can help you:

Right approach

Develop your learning skills steadily by critically assessing what you are learning, constantly asking the right questions and applying knowledge you have gained practically. Doing so can help you ensure that your learning skills are constantly evolving. Identify learning methods that work for you and stick to them — don’t get caught up by what your friends are doing as it may not work for you.

Get the larger picture

Smart learning is about comprehending the ‘larger picture of the subject’. Trying to study without understanding the ‘larger picture’ is like driving in the wilderness without a compass. A fear of the unknown grips us in both these situations. Who, after all, is at their best in unfamiliar territories? In fact, a study conducted by University of Canberra, Australia found that students who study Macroeconomics before Microeconomics improved their grades by an average of 7% in Microeconomics, while those who had studied Microeconomics and Macroeconomics concurrently did not show any significant improvement! Clearly, getting the ‘macro’ picture first helped students perform better!

I know the case of an IIT topper whose father was a driver in a company. Although the father could not afford IIT coaching for his son, his boss had a son of same age, who was also preparing for the IITs. The boss’s son would lend the reading material for a limited period before the start of the academic session. The driver’s son would then quickly read the material and return it. This enabled him to score excellent marks in school and crack the IIT entrance test, and even receive the President’s gold medal!

Recently, I helped a bunch of students from a National Law School learn Corporate Law in a couple of days, just before the exam. I started by advising them to quickly flip through the index before studying the book in detail. They would read aloud a topic from the index page and express their perception of the topic. Most of the times, there was consensus about what the topic was and so, it took them far less time to prepare, in comparison with wading through the entire book, page by page!

Know the syllabus

Sports’ coaching always begins with building physical strength, stamina and flexibility, irrespective of the game. Intense practice specific to the sport is taken up afterwards. Physics, for instance, would be far easier to learn if the student had adequate knowledge of prerequisite Mathematics.

Learning ability is dependent on the fact that knowledge tends to attract knowledge. Prerequisite knowledge helps you comprehend topics in an effective manner. The Pareto principle (also known as the 80:20 rule) applies well to learning — spend 20% time acquiring prerequisite knowledge and the remaining 80% on actually studying the topic. To build a house, build a solid foundation first!

Mixed learning modes

Developing an emotional connect with the subject can help you delve deep into a topic. Usually, emotional connect with a subject happens during ‘diffused mode’, when you are not even thinking of the topic. However, during this interlude, the brain is still actively figuring out what to do with the fresh knowledge, where to place it, how it relates to other concepts you have learnt, etc. Through this, neural networks are strengthened, leading to better understanding of the topic.

Is it difficult to induce diffused learning? Not at all! Do light tasks like walking, bathing, playing badminton etc., during the break. Getting back to studies is then easy! However, eschew doing something completely different as it disturbs the fragile memory of what has just been learnt! Watching TV or browsing the internet is to be avoided!

Studies show that the brain’s concentration curve is at its maximum in the first 30 minutes and declines thereafter. During exams, one may stretch this to 40 or 50 minutes. While doing so, it is important to take breaks every 50 minutes or so as these will help the brain function at the optimum level.


Nobody can remember an entire textbook. Even publishers divide it into chapters, and smart learners further divide it into summary points that they can easily digest. So, how is reductionism done? One way is to recognise patterns of information. For example, there is a pattern governing revolutions, ancient civilisations, etc. The smart learner latches on to these similarities (patterns) and goes on to digest the information easily, while others miss the similarities. For example, E=mc2 is a reduced form of Einstein’s
Theory of Relativity.

Root Word technique is yet another method that can help you study complex concepts better. In this method, you learn the parts upon which complete words are built. In essence, you are reducing the word to their components. This makes it easier to find similarities between a part of the word and other words you already know! For instance, autotroph is just a combination of ‘auto’ (self) and ‘troph’ (nourishment). The brain quickly slots this knowledge, making it easy to retain the information learned and recall it later.

These techniques will help you study effectively and broaden your perspectives through self-discovery.