If I didn't like writing so much, I'd probably be a teacher.
And the first thing I would teach my students is how to study.
Because strangely enough, school throws a lot of information at us but never teaches us how to understand and remember it. In my time, the teachers would just give us homework and remind us to “revise”.
WTF does “revising” even mean?
Are you supposed to just re-read the textbook until you can quote it without looking?
So here’s my take on the subject. Study skills that I’ve learned through school and my career. None of these are new. Most have been studied and proven. But for some reason, still aren’t taught to the majority of students. Below are 6 study “techniques”, which will not only help you when you’re preparing for an exam, but will help you learn and remember things for life too:
1. Keep your study sessions short and focused
MIT recommends studying for 50 minutes, followed by a ten-minute break. Other researchers say optimum productivity is 52 minutes of work, followed by 17 minutes of rest. And others say you can keep focused for as long as 90 minutes.
But they all agree on one thing:
Forcing yourself to concentrate when your brain is tired is NOT effective.
Personally, I follow the good old 45 minutes study, 15 minutes break method. It makes it easier to track.
If you’re used to “cramming” for long periods of time, this may feel unnatural. You may feel like it’s stopping prematurely, once you’ve gained momentum and your mind is “flowing”. But trust that your brain will work much better, and you’ll get more done — if you give it time to rest.
Here’s how I would schedule my study hours:
First 5 minutes: Review material from the previous session
Next 35 minutes: Study new material
Last 5 minutes: Review material you’ve just studied
Then take a break for at least fifteen minutes.
Or reward yourself: Grab a coffee. Take a nap. Or send a text to that hot guy/girl in class.
2. Create structured notes for what you're studying
My teacher used to say that there’s a direct link between your fingers and your memory: if you write something down, you’ll remember it better.
But you obviously can’t write down everything. And research has shown that just summarising information into notes isn’t effective learning. There are better ways of making notes. Like the Cornell Note Taking System, which is based on writing down questions as you learn, and then regularly using them to test yourself.
Personally, I use Mind Maps for my structured notes. The great thing about creating Mind Maps is they force you to understand how all the information is linked together. Like a growing “tree of knowledge”, it creates a structure for understanding a subject.
Once the structure is there, it’s easy to add in new pieces of information — like a tree branch growing leaves.
3. Revise, revise, revise — with a plan
It would be nice if all you had to do was study once, and you’d be an expert the rest of your life. But studies have shown that you could forget 70-80% of what you learn within two days. Unless you revise. And there’s a smart way of revising too. It doesn’t mean you re-read every page the night before your exams.
I learned this from Tony Buzan’s classic book 'Use Your Head".
He suggests revising new material you’ve learned systematically: after a day, after a week, after a month, six months, and when further required.
The great thing about periodic revising is you don’t need to spend many hours re-learning something. You’ll only need a few minutes to refresh your memory. Even less time after a week. Even less after a month.
Do it right, and all you need is a quick glance at your structured notes to keep it in long term memory.
4. Let your subconscious help you
Letting your brain rest is just one part of why it’s important to take breaks.
The other reason? Your brain actually sorts information without you actively thinking about it. If you give it time to. It’s like when you update your iPhone’s software. Your phone needs time to download the update, install it, and then restart. Your brain works similarly. Whenever there’s new information, you need to give it some breathing space to process it. “Cramming” is the equivalent of continually making your phone download data without allowing it to install.
There’s evidence that napping helps memory too. So make sure you get enough sleep.
Now I know this sounds like some black magic hocus pocus.
But try this: the next time you’re stuck on a problem, ask the question and leave it hanging in your mind. Then walk away, and do something completely unrelated. Revisit the problem after a nap. Are things clearer now?
A lot of times, I find that taking a break and sleeping on the problem — then revisiting the subject the next day results in this: “What was the problem again? Everything makes sense now.”
5. Link new information to something you already know
I think the formal term for this is “association”. And it’s what I turn to if I’m trying to understand something difficult and new.
Chances are, the “new” material you’re trying to learn isn’t something totally new (after all, you’re not a baby anymore). But it developed from some subject that you already know a bit about. Find the links between the new info and what you already know.
Let’s take a really basic example. Say you’re trying to understand a financial concept: depreciation.
Google says depreciation is: “a reduction in the value of an asset with the passage of time, due in particular to wear and tear.”
Which is a great definition, but very “academic”.
How do you make the concept stick in your mind? You think about something you know is true — and impacts your life every day. And link it to the new concept:
. Five years ago, you bought your car for USD 20,000
. If you try to sell it today, your friend will only pay you USD 12,000. Why?
6. Teach it to someone else
Remember study groups? Study groups are good. But perhaps not in the way you think.
The biggest benefit of study groups doesn’t come from listening to someone who’s better than you. It comes from trying to teach what you’ve learned to someone else.
Because a lot of things make sense when people explain it to you, or when you’re reading it from the page of a book. Try to explain it to someone else, though, and you’ll start seeing blind spots — areas that you aren’t fully clear about but haven’t realised. Especially when your audience asks you questions.
It’s the quickest way to see through your own bullshit. With an added bonus: the questions your audience has might just come out in your next exam, presentation or interview.