1. Learn the same information in a variety of ways.
The research (Willis, J. 2008) shows that different media stimulate different parts of the brain. The more areas of the brain that are activated, the more likely it is that you’ll understand and retain the information.
So to learn a specific topic, you could do the following:
- Read the class notes
- Read the textbook
- Watch a Khan Academy video
- Look up other online resources
- Create a mind map
- Teach someone what you’ve learned
- Do practice problems from a variety of sources
Of course, you won’t be able to do all of these things in one sitting. But each time you review the topic, use a different resource or method – you’ll learn faster this way.
2. Study multiple subjects each day, rather than focusing on just one or two subjects.
It’s more effective to study multiple subjects each day, than to deep-dive into one or two subjects (Rohrer, D. 2012).
For example, if you’re preparing for exams in math, history, physics, and chemistry, it’s better to study a bit of each subject every day. This approach will help you to learn faster than by focusing on just math on Monday, history on Tuesday, physics on Wednesday, chemistry on Thursday, and so on.
Because you’re likely to confuse similar information if you study a lot of the same subject in one day.
So to study smart, spread out your study time for each subject. In so doing, your brain will have more time to consolidate your learning.
3. Review the information periodically, instead of cramming.
Periodic review is essential if you want to move information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. This will help you get better exam grades.
As the research (Cepeda, N. 2008) shows, periodic review beats cramming hands-down.
The optimal review interval varies, depending on how long you want to retain the information. But experience – both my own and through working with students – tells me that the following review intervals work well (I explain the entire periodic review system in this article):
- 1st review: 1 day after learning the new information
- 2nd review: 3 days after the 1st review
- 3rd review: 7 days after the 2nd review
- 4th review: 21 days after the 3rd review
- 5th review: 30 days after the 4th review
- 6th review: 45 days after the 5th review
- 7th review: 60 days after the 6th review
4. Sit at the front of the class.
If you get to choose where you sit during class, grab a seat at the front. Studies show that students who sit at the front tend to get higher exam scores (Rennels & Chaudhari, 1988). The average scores of students, depending on where they sat in class, are as follows (Giles, 1982):
- Front rows: 80%
- Middle rows: 71.6%
- Back rows: 68.1%
These findings were obtained under conditions where the seating positions were teacher-assigned.This means it’s not just a case of the more motivated students choosing to sit at the front, and the less motivated students choosing to sit at the back.
By sitting at the front, you’ll be able to see the board and hear the teacher more clearly, and your concentration will improve too.
Now you know where the best seats in class are!
5. Don’t multitask.
The data is conclusive: Multitasking makes you less productive, more distracted, and dumber. The studies even show that people who claim to be good at multitasking aren’t actually better at it than the average person.
Effective students focus on just one thing at a time. So don’t try to study while also intermittently replying to text messages, watching TV, and checking your Twitter feed.
Here are some suggestions to improve your concentration:
- Turn off notifications on your phone
- Put your phone away, or turn it to airplane mode
- Log out of all instant messaging programs
- Turn off the Internet access on your computer
- Use an app like Freedom
- Close all of your Internet browser windows that aren’t related to the assignment you’re working on
- Clear the clutter from your study area
6. Simplify, summarize, and compress the information.
Use mnemonic devices like acronyms, as these are proven to increase learning efficiency.
If you want to memorize the electromagnetic spectrum in order of increasing frequency, you could use this acronym/sentence:
Raging Martians Invaded Venus Using X-ray Guns
(In order of increasing frequency, the electromagnetic spectrum is: Radio, Microwave, Infrared, Visible, Ultraviolet, X-rays, Gamma rays.)
Question: Stalactites and stalagmites – which ones grow from the top of the cave and which ones grow from the ground?
Answer: Stalactites grow from the top, while stalagmites grow from the ground.
Study smart by using mnemonic devices whenever possible. In addition, you could summarize the information into a comparison table, diagram, or mind map. These tools will help you learn the information much faster.
7. Take notes by hand, instead of using your laptop.
Scientists recommend this, and not just because you’re more likely to give in to online distractions when using your laptop. Even when laptops are used only for note-taking, learning is less effective (Mueller, P. 2013).
Because students who take notes by hand tend to process and reframe the information.
In contrast, laptop note-takers tend to write down what the teacher says word-for-word, without first processing the information.
As such, students who take notes by hand perform better in tests and exams.
8. Write down your worries.
Will I do well on this exam?
What if I forget the key concepts and equations?
What if the exam is harder than expected?
These kinds of thoughts probably run through your head before you take an exam. But if these thoughts run wild, the accompanying anxiety can affect your grades.
Here’s the solution …
In one experiment, researchers at the University of Chicago discovered that students who wrote about their feelings about an upcoming exam for 10 minutes performed better than students who didn’t. The researchers say that this technique is especially effective for habitual worriers.
Psychologist Kitty Klein has also shown that expressive writing, in the form of journaling, improves memory and learning. Klein explains that such writing allows students to express their negative feelings, which helps them to be less distracted by these feelings.
To be less anxious, take 10 minutes and write down all the things related to the upcoming exam that you’re worried about. As a result of this simple exercise, you’ll get better grades.
9. Test yourself frequently.
Decades of research has shown that self-testing is crucial if you want to improve your academic performance.
In one experiment, University of Louisville psychologist Keith Lyle taught the same statistics course to two groups of undergraduates.
For the first group, Lyle asked the students to complete a four- to six-question quiz at the end of each lecture. The quiz was based on material he’d just covered.
For the second group, Lyle didn’t give the students any quizzes.
At the end of the course, Lyle discovered that the first group significantly outperformed the second on all four midterm exams.
So don’t just passively read your textbook or your class notes. Study smart by quizzing yourself on the key concepts and equations. And as you prepare for a test, do as many practice questions as you can from different sources.
10. Connect what you’re learning with something you already know.
In their book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, scientists Henry Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel explain that the more strongly you relate new concepts to concepts you already understand, the faster you’ll learn the new information.
For example, if you’re learning about electricity, you could relate it to the flow of water. Voltage is akin to water pressure, current is akin to the flow rate of water, a battery is akin to a pump, and so on.
Another example: You can think of white blood cells as “soldiers” that defend our body against diseases, which are the “enemies.”
It takes time and effort to think about how to connect new information to what you already know, but the investment is worth it.
11. Read key information out loud.
Studies have been conducted, which demonstrate that reading information out loud helps students to learn faster than by reading silently (MacLeod CM, 2010 & Ozubko JD, 2010).
What’s the reason for this?
When you read information out loud, you both see and hear it. On the other hand, when you read information silently, you only see it.
It isn’t practical to read every single word of every single set of notes out loud. That would take way too much time.
So here’s the process I recommend:
Step 1: As you read your notes, underline the key concepts/equations. Don’t stop to memorize these key concepts/equations; underline them and move on.
Step 2: After you’ve completed Step 1 for the entire set of notes, go back to the underlined parts and read each key concept/equation out loud as many times as you deem necessary. Read each concept/equation slowly.
Step 3: After you’ve done this for each of the underlined key concepts/equations, take a three-minute break.
Step 4: When your three-minute break is over, go to each underlined concept/equation one at a time, and cover it (either with your hand or a piece of paper). Test yourself to see if you’ve actually memorized it.
Step 5: For the concepts/equations that you haven’t successfully memorized, repeat Steps 2, 3, and 4.
12. Take regular study breaks.
Taking regular study breaks enhances overall productivity and improves focus (Ariga & Lleras, 2011).
That’s why it isn’t a good idea to hole yourself up in your room for six hours straight to study for an exam. You might feel like you get a lot done this way, but the research proves otherwise. So take a 5- to 10-minute break for every 40 minutes of work.
I recommend that you use a timer or stopwatch to remind you when to take a break and when to get back to studying.
During your break, refrain from using your phone or computer, because these devices prevent your mind from fully relaxing.
13. Reward yourself at the end of each study session.
Before starting a study session, set a specific reward for completing the session. By doing this, you’ll promote memory formation and learning (Adcock RA, 2006).
The reward could be something as simple as:
- Going for a short walk
- Eating a healthy snack
- Listening to your favorite music
- Doing a couple of sets of exercise
- Playing a musical instrument
- Taking a shower
Reward yourself at the end of every session – you’ll study smarter and learn faster.
14. Focus on the process, not the outcome.
Successful students concentrate on learning the information, not on trying to get a certain grade.
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s research shows that these students …
- Focus on effort, not the end result
- Focus on the process, not on achievement
- Believe they can improve – even in their weak subjects – as long as they put in the time and hard work
- Embrace challenges
- Define success as pushing themselves to learn something new, not as getting straight A’s
Not-so-successful students tend to set performance goals, while successful students tend to set learning goals.
What’s the difference between these two types of goals?
Performance goals (e.g. getting 90% on the next math test, getting into a top-ranked school) are about looking intelligent and proving yourself to others.
In contrast, learning goals (e.g. doing three algebra problems every other day, learning five new French words a day) are about mastery and growth.
Most schools emphasize the importance of getting a certain exam score or passing a certain number of subjects. Ironically, if you want to meet – and surpass – these standards, you’d be better off ignoring the desired outcome and concentrating on the learning process instead.
15. Drink at least eight glasses of water a day.
You probably think you drink enough water, but studies show that up to 75% of people are in a chronic state of dehydration.
Dehydration is bad for your brain – and your exam grades too.
University of East London researchers have found that your brain’s overall mental processing power decreases when you’re dehydrated (Edmonds, C. 2013).Further research has shown that dehydration even causes the grey matter in your brain to shrink.
The simple solution?
Drink at least eight glasses of water a day. Bring a water bottle wherever you go, and drink water before you start to feel thirsty.
And if you’re taking an exam, bring a water bottle with you. Every 40 minutes or so, drink some water. This will help you stay hydrated and improve your exam performance. Plus, this also acts as a short break to refresh your mind.
16. Exercise at least three times a week.
Exercise is good for your body. It’s also very good for your brain.
Various studies have shown that exercise …
- Improves your memory
- Improves your brain function
- Reduces the occurrence of depression
- Helps to prevent diseases like diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis
- Enhances your sleep quality
- Reduces stress
- Improves your mood
Exercise is quite the miracle drug!
So to study smarter, exercise at least three times a week for 30 to 45 minutes each time. You’ll be healthier and more energetic, and you’ll remember information better too.
17. Sleep at least eight hours a night, and don’t pull all-nighters.
I’ve spoken to and worked with 20,000 students so far. Not a single one has told me that he or she consistently gets eight hours of sleep a night.
“There’s just so much to do,” I hear students say, again and again. As a student, sleep often seems more like a luxury than a necessity.
But what does the research have to say about sleep?
The research shows that if you get enough sleep, you’ll be more focused, you’ll learn faster,and your memory will improve. You’ll also deal with stress more effectively.
This is a recipe for excellent grades.
So sleep at least eight hours a night. This way, your study sessions will be more productive and you won’t need to spend as much time hitting the books.
In addition, sleep expert Dan Taylor says that learning the most difficult material immediately before going to bed makes it easier to recall the next day. So whenever possible, arrange your schedule such that you study the hardest topic right before you sleep.
Lastly, don’t pull all-nighters. As psychologist Pamela Thacher’s research shows, students who pull all-nighters get lower grades and make more careless mistakes.
18. Eat blueberries.
Blueberries are rich in flavanoids, which strengthen connections in the brain and stimulate the regeneration of brain cells.
Researchers at the University of Reading have found that eating blueberries improves both short-term and long-term memory (Whyte, A. & Williams, C. 2014). Blueberries may also help to prevent degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
19. Eat chicken and eggs.
A team of researchers from Boston University conducted a long-term study on 1,400 adults over 10 years. They found that participants who had diets high in choline performed better on memory tests.
Choline is the precursor to acetylcholine, which is essential for the formation of new memories.
What foods are high in choline?
Chicken and eggs (the egg yolk contains 90% of the total choline in the egg).
Just in case you’re worried about the high cholesterol content of egg yolks, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Recent studies show that eggs – including the yolk – are a healthy food for just about everyone.
And if you’re a vegetarian, there are alternatives to getting choline in your diet:
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
20. Eat omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for brain function. One experiment (Yehuda, S. 2005) also found that taking a combination of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids reduced test anxiety in students and improved their mental concentration.
Omega-3 fatty acids are linked to the prevention of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, depression, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dementia, Alzheimer’s, asthma, colorectal cancer, and prostate cancer.
That’s an incredible list!
Here are foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids:
- Pumpkin seeds
The bottom line
This is a long article that contains a lot of information. But don’t feel overwhelmed, because there’s no need to implement everything at one shot.
As the saying goes …
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
In the same way, to implement all 20 tips in this article, do it one tip at a time. Focus on just one tip a week, or even one tip a month. Once you’ve turned that tip into a habit, move on to the next one.
Throughout the process, don’t let the goal of getting straight A’s become an unhealthy obsession. After all, education is about much more than getting good grades.
It’s about the pursuit of excellence. It’s about cultivating your strengths. And it’s about learning and growing, so you can contribute more effectively.
There’s hard work involved, but I know you’re up to the challenge.