Looking for the secret to retaining information and being able to summon it during exams? Need to know how to study smarter and ensure you’re on the right track in your approach? Here’s how our most successful students achieve their academic goals.
1. Be an active learner
Students are taught that effective study involves reviewing class notes, which is often interpreted as simply reading them over and over. The problem with this kind of learning is that it’s passive – you’re just dragging your eyes over the same words rather than doing anything with what you’re learning. This doesn’t help you embed what you’ve learnt in your long-term memory. It’s better to do something with what you’re learning, such as answering questions (even planning an answer) and rewriting quotations, rather than just reciting them to yourself.
The very best way to apply what you’re learning is to teach it to someone else. If you have a willing parent or sibling, sit them down and explain the topic you’re working on. If nobody’s available, you can always teach yourself in your bathroom mirror or coax a pet to listen.
2. Keep moving
Everyone knows the value of exercise, but stressed students often convince themselves that they don’t have time to do any.
The truth is that even a little bit of exercise – a brisk walk around the neighbourhood, some morning stretches, turning the music up loud and dancing in your bedroom – is a great way to let off steam and reset your energy levels.
There’s also evidence that exercise has a very positive impact on learning. Exercise can increase the effectiveness of neurotransmitters, improving the communication between neurons in the brain. It can also combat things like depression and fatigue.
3. Set SMART goals
Rather than just sitting down to study, it’s useful to set clear goals. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. With SMART goals, you’re more likely to start and finish, and what you achieve will fit into your bigger learning goals. For example, you might sit down with the goal of dividing your notes into sections and reviewing one section per day. Part of the timely element is that you understand how long a task will take, which is useful for time-limited assessments like exams.
4. Block social media
Don’t get too alarmed, nobody’s asking you to delete your Insta. The thing is, it’s really important to avoid diluting your learning time with the distraction of social media pinging in the background. You might believe that you can multitask, but multitasking is a myth. The reality is that every time you turn your attention from your work to your Instagram feed, you simply lose focus. Nobody can genuinely concentrate on two things at once.
Apps like Offtime and Space will block social media during specific times if you think you don’t have the willpower. And if the thought of not looking at social media for hours at a time makes you feel nervous, just remember that part of its appeal is your desire to avoid studying.
5. Get enough sleep
Research has linked sleep with mental acuity, achievement and, of course, learning. Scientists are starting to see a strong connection between sleep and memory consolidation. There’s also a direct correlation between students getting enough sleep and their ability to perform in tests. For teenagers, this means eight hours or more each night.
In addition to impairing your ability to learn and remember, lack of sleep seems to cause a raft of health problems, including weight gain, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of heart disease.
6. Manage your space
Doing a lot of study also means a lot of time in one place – probably at your desk. Even if we set aside the potential damage to your spine of working in a slumped position, spending a lot of time in bed or on the sofa just seems to make it harder to switch off social media or to resist the allure of Netflix.
To be efficient, you need to treat study like a job. Have a decent set up: enough space to spread out, tools that are fit for purpose (including your computer, calculator, textbooks), and a good chair. Make sure you’re warm or cool enough, that you have enough light to work. Put up your favourite photos. You want the space to feel comfortable, welcoming, and yours so that when you’re there you feel calm and positive.
7. Use your calendar properly
Successful students always know when tasks are due and when to start them so there’s no last minute panic. You can achieve this by making good use of your calendar or planner.
Mark when an assignment is due or an exam is scheduled, and then work backwards to when you need to start your prep. Some students use a colour code to prompt the appropriate sense of urgency. If they plan to start drafting an essay two weeks before it’s due, they’ll colour the first week in their calendar a soft pink and the second week a steady gradation to bright red.
8. Take advantage of feedback
Educational thinkers and researchers all pretty much agree that feedback is the “secret sauce” of learning. The best feedback is not just retrospective, it also tells you where you should focus your energy moving forward so that you learn from your mistakes and know how to replicate your successes.
Don’t just focus on the marks your teacher gives. Make sure you read his comments and advice. If you don’t receive any useful feedback, ask for it.
If your teacher is happy to read drafts, take advantage of her generosity. But don’t ask her to read your essay the night before it’s due. For meaningful revision and learning, you’ll need to allow time for feedback and to make necessary changes to your draft (see our point above).
9. Read the question
It might sound obvious, but successful students carefully read questions before they answer. It’s easy to read a question superficially and conclude you can’t answer it or substitute it in your mind with a question you’d prefer to answer. It’s surprising how often this happens.
The best way to ensure that you’ve read and understood the question is to underline the important words. Start with the verbs which tell you the kind of answer you need to provide (“discuss”, “compare”) and the main concept that you need to analyse, such as the relationship between Romeo and Juliet, or the feelings the Montagues and Capulets have towards each other. Paraphrase the question, starting with “This question is asking me to analyse the relationship between Romeo and Juliet.” By rewriting the question with the focus on what you have to do, you’ll be more likely to engage with it thoroughly (and correctly).
10. Ask for help
Successful students know that they don’t have to go it alone. Finding a genuine learning partner – possibly a friend, or teacher – means that you always have someone with whom to test your ideas, and who can give you meaningful, relevant and timely advice.
When you don’t understand how to tackle those Maths problems, or you’re struggling to start that essay, they’ll listen to you carefully, help you see what’s confusing you, and patiently help you back on the right track. We all need a little bit of expert help to give us the confidence to keep going.