The key to becoming a successful student is learning how to study smarter, not harder. This becomes more and more true as you advance in your education. An hour or two of studying a day is usually sufficient to make it through high school with satisfactory grades, but when college arrives, there aren’t enough hours in the day to get all your studying in if you don’t know how to study smarter.
If you’re a student, this might mean thinking about your study habits. Here are some suggestions to help you learn as efficiently as possible.
Sleep well, Learn well
Learning isn’t easy, and being able to focus is important for digesting new information and understanding concepts. When you get a good night’s sleep, you feel fresh and attentive the next day.
Sleep is also critical for what happened the previous day. Extensive work in both animals and humans shows a crucial function of sleep is to reprocess and consolidate what happened during the day.
Focus, and don’t multi-task
Our brains are impressive machines, but they can’t handle everything at once. There is simply too much going on in our sensory environment for us to digest. To be effective, we need to direct our attention to just one or two tasks at a time. That generally means no background music (it won’t help you learn). Don’t be tempted to multi-task while you learn. When you do, your brain is actually trying its hardest to switch rapidly between tasks. But whenever you get distracted and switch focus, it takes minutes to settle back into the groove of studying. Minimize your distractions and focus your attention on the task at hand.
The “testing effect” is a well-established phenomenon in learning. Essentially, we learn much netter by testing our own knowledge than by re-studying material. So if you’ve got an exam coming up, don’t just re-read a textbook and highlight important passages. Instead, test yourself by doing practice exams. The process of actively recalling information helps deeper learning take place, and it works even better if you can check whether your answer is correct.
You don’t have to wait until exam time to capitalize on the testing effect. As you read through a textbook you can give yourself mini-tests, trying to recall the major points of each chapter you finish.
Finally, analogies and metaphors can be great tools for learning. For example, I hope that by comparing memory formation to hikers on a forest path, you’ll be more likely to remember a bit about how our brains lay down strong memories.
You can create similar analogies in your own study, and if you combine it with good sleep, spaced practice, self-testing and undivided attention, you can take your learning to another level.