Studying 101

Don’t be alarmed and don’t let me scare you…you’ve probably been doing the studying thing all wrong. Ok, maybe not all wrong, but at least partially wrong. But, it isn’t really your fault. More than likely, you weren’t instructed on how to study…until now. What follows is a simple introduction into proper studying with immediately applicable tips and strategies to get the most out of your time and efforts. And, although I am a teacher, this isn’t just based upon what I think or feel works. This is based upon science and experimentation and evidence of effectiveness. So, if you’re looking to study more efficiently and effectively, keep reading. This is for you. 

Who? 

You, that’s who. You should be doing the studying. You are the person who should be doing the thinking and working with the material. The person doing the thinking is doing the learning. This may seem extremely obvious, but it needs to be stated. If you are not working with the material, using the information, applying the knowledge (more on all of this in the ‘how’ section), you are not using your time as wisely as possible.

What? 

Missed or tricky information, that’s what. In general, I instruct my students to prioritize three categories of material from class for study:

  1. Information you don’t know. Maybe you didn’t understand a particular concept during class or you answered questions on this particular term incorrectly on informal quizzes.
  2. Information answered correctly via guessing during assignments or quizzes. Did you guess? I ask my students this a lot after completing an assignment. Whether correct or incorrect, a guessed answer isn’t a known answer. You can easily indicate a guessed answer during an assignment simply with an asterisk or you can even apply a confidence scale of, say, one to five for every question attempted. Those on the low end of the confidence scale should indicate the need to have another look at that material.
  3. Confusing information. I know in my class, there are similar terms and concepts that are easily and commonly confused for each other. I attempt to indicate this material to my students as subject matter that needs a special focus during later study attempts. Notate what appears confusing to you during class and prioritize that material for study later.

*More on these three categories at this link

During class, I instruct my students to write down information in the margin of their notes to study later. They may write a particular person’s name or theory down because I’ve said something like, “this is really important to know” or “make sure you understand this person’s contributions” or even “this will surely be on the test”. When reviewing before or after class with informal quizzes, I ask my students to focus on what they’ve gotten wrong and to make sure they prioritize that information for study. It may seem obvious, but it takes conscious effort to really examine your performance on a quiz and apply that feedback to what you should study later. 

When?

Whenever, that’s when. In reality, there is no bad time to study. Any instance where you have the time to focus and practice accessing your knowledge is a good time to study. Studying for as little as five or ten minutes can make a big difference in whether you may have access to that material when needed later. Don’t think you have to block out hours of time to effectively study. A really important aspect of knowing when to study is understanding that multiple attempts at accessing material across days or even weeks (known as spaced or distributed practice) has shown more evidence of retention than cramming the night before an assessment. In other words, you are better off planning on studying material for twenty minutes a night a few nights in a row prior to an assessment than preparing via studying one hour the night before the assessment. Try and consider how many separate instances you have retrieved and used material. For the most part, the more you have successfully recalled a term or concept across an extended period of time, the more likely you will be able to correctly use it on an assessment and beyond.

Where?

Wherever you can focus, that’s where. An important aspect of getting the most out of studying is being able to really give your attention to the task at hand. You should create an environment absent stimuli that may steal attention from your studying. I know, for myself, this means I need to put my cell phone out of reach, turn off netflix, close out extra tabs/browsers on my computer, and be alone. If I study with someone, I will find a reason to start a conversation. If I have my cell phone next to me, I will constantly check my notifications. These may seem like small disturbances, but they do impact the efficiency and effectiveness of studying. Even if you believe you are good at multitasking, you really aren’t. Sorry. You cannot cognitively focus on two stimuli at once. You are either giving your attention to the video on youtube or the material you are studying. You can even set up a little reinforcement schedule for yourself. Set a timer on your watch/phone for 15-20 minutes and really focus on studying. Then, when the timer goes off, reward yourself with a few minutes of social media. This is a great example of how you can work to create healthy study habits. 

Why?

To retain more information, that’s why. Studying via retrieval practice has been shown to reduce forgetting versus simple restudy of material (more on just exactly how to do this in the ‘how’ section) (1) (2). And isn’t one of the main goals of studying and education to remember things? You can’t use information in meaningful ways if you don’t remember it. Now, certainly, the end goal shouldn’t just be to learn facts and figures for an assessment. You should be much more interested in using the material you’ve learned to assist with learning more similar material or to apply creatively in novel situations. Learning about a particular subject builds on itself. The more you know about one area of study, the easier it will be to learn even more about that specific topic. 

How?

Retrieval practice, that’s how. There are many ways to study. One of the most popular methods of study is rereading your notes. This is actually quite ineffective. You aren’t really active with the material as you read information. You aren’t made to use the material or apply it in differing situations. With retrieval practice, you are tasked with recognizing or recalling the information and, perhaps, using it in some way. This can be as simple as answering a question, filling in a blank, applying the material in a scenario, or completing an essay (more on this in the ‘how’ section). The big point, however, is that you must retrieve the material from your brain without any assistance (notes or peer) and use it correctly. When you simply reread your notes, you aren’t really doing any of this cognitive work. You’re just reading over the words. 

And this retrieval practice doesn’t have to be difficult to do at all. It may be as simple as a brain dump. Sit down with a piece of paper and a pen/pencil and write as much as you can about a topic.; anything at all that pertains to the concept, no matter how trivial you may believe it is. Those trivial points may act as retrieval cues for other, more important, material. If you can’t write down or recall some information, you definitely shouldn’t assume that you know it well. Studying effectively can also be as simple as answering questions on a topic. If you have a study guide or document that quizzes you and asks you to fill in the blank, recognize the correct answer, explain a concept or theory, et cetera, you’re using retrieval practice. There are also many digital options for using retrieval practice. Quizlet, for example, is great for interacting with material. It forces you to recall information and makes it quite evident when you don’t know something. I also appreciate apps that recycle missed questions back into rotation to be asked again.

However you assess your knowledge during studying, an important point to remember is to only use your brain. If you have to use notes or an instructional video or a textbook to correctly answer a question, you don’t know the material well enough. If you did know it sufficiently, you wouldn’t have needed to use an aid. I know studying in this manner isn’t as easy as simply rereading your notes, but it is much more effective and efficient for retaining information. I also understand that it isn’t really all that fun to highlight and focus what you don’t know during studying, but you’d rather find out during studying that you don’t know a piece of information than on the summative assessment. Most of the time, if you’re finding out on the test that you don’t know something, it’s too late to remedy this hole in your learning. Do the harder studying up front so assessment day can be easier and more rewarding.

There you have it. Some (hopefully) helpful hints and tips. A few simple adjustments can assist you with more efficient and effective study habits that apply across most subjects and class levels. Good studying is good studying, no matter the type of information or grade level. 


  1. Roediger, Henry & Butler, Andrew. (2010). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in cognitive sciences. 15. 20-7. 10.1016/j.tics.2010.09.003. 
  2. Roediger, Henry & Karpicke, Jeffrey. (2006). Test-Enhanced Learning Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention. Psychological science. 17. 249-55. 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01693.x.

Feature image by Kyle Gregory Devaras on Unsplash.

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