You may have a study routine or a favorite study spot. Or your study habits may vary depending on your mood. Either way, there’s a good chance that you aren’t getting the most out of your study sessions. You could be getting better scores without having to invest a second more of your time—you just need to study smarter.
The New York Times recently published two related articles about the new scientific research on studying. That’s right—universities have been working hard to help you figure out how to get better scores. Their main suggestions are the following:
1. Space out study sessions
This can be over the course of a month or a week or even a day, but it is important to leave the material and come back to it later. Revisiting the material after a break requires you to re-learn it somewhat, which improves the strength of your learning. Using multiple study sessions also provides you with the opportunity to take advantage of the strategies listed below.
When you come back to the material, do it in a different spot. Were you in your bedroom earlier? Try the dining room. Or even sit in the car. Your brain forms subtle connections between the material and your environment. And the more connections your brain makes for a piece of knowledge, the easier it is for you to recall it later. Students who study in different rooms score higher than students who study in the same spot.
3. Test yourself
Have you ever been surprised by the difficulty of a test for which you studied hard? Chances are that your studying didn’t include testing yourself. Testing has a bad reputation because it is so difficult, but its difficulty is what makes it effective.
So how does it work? The act of recalling a piece of information, particularly if it is hard to do so, strengthens your hold on it. And forgetting can be just as helpful if you look up the information right away; the odds are low that you’ll forget it again.
Practice tests are far more helpful than repeatedly reading the material or even making outlines or concept maps. Those other strategies can lead you to believe that you know the information better than you actually do. In one study, students who used those techniques retrieved only 2/3 of the information that was retrieved by students who used practice tests to study (even though they had greater confidence that they would do well on the test).
4. Mix content
This applies to your initial review as well as practice tests. When you focus on the same information for awhile, your brain gets lazy. It is better to study distinct but related concepts—such as a series of math different formulas—in each sitting. This forces your brain to figure out the similarities and differences between the pieces of information and figure out when to apply each one.
And it doesn’t hurt that real tests generally feature mixed content—you rarely get tests with all questions of a single type lumped together.
In your textbooks, end-of-chapter review questions, which mix up the topics, are more effective than end-of-section review questions, which usually contain a more limited number of concepts. Once you are familiar with ACT or SAT question types, taking an entire section of an ACT or SAT practice test is more helpful than doing practice questions of a particular type.