Strategies & Tips for More Efficient Studying

Are you attempting to learn something new?  Want to help your children learn better practices for learning?


In this article, I want to share with you six tips for more efficient studying and learning. This can apply to your children, as well as your job. If you are attempting to learn something new, this article will give some tips to better enable that process.  If you know of someone learning something, pass along these tips to them.

Let’s get to the point … here are 6 strategies for more efficient learning:

  1. Put away the highlighter – Highlighting text tends to delay learning, according to research.  Instead of actively engaging with the material, you simply delay processing the information until a later date.  Various research indicates either a negligible effect, or possibly even a detrimental one.  Instead, quiz yourself on the material as you read it, or use Flash Cards (including digital apps) to actively engage with the information as you read.  In the time you spent highlighting material, you could have created numerous Flash Cards to quiz yourself later.  While not as effective, you could also write out what you would have highlighted in a notebook or in Evernote.  This is even more effective if you rephrase the material in your own words and make up hypothetical questions around it to quiz yourself on.
  2. Space it out – There is an old saying, “You can’t cram on the farm.”  Imagine a farmer waking up one morning and saying, “I forgot to plant the crops! And I need them tomorrow … looks like a LONG night for me!”  That type of thinking won’t help.  What can a farmer actually grow overnight?  And what can you learn overnight?  Very little.  The better way to learn is via distributed learning in which you space out your learning.  Take a look at the following diagram (courtesy of Princeton Tutoring).forgettingcurveThis type of graph was made famous by a German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus who did experiments on himself trying to memorize nonsense syllables (e.g., BOQ, TUN, etc.).  He found that he had a “forgetting curve,” but more importantly, a learning curve if he spaced out his repetition of study.  Here is what this graph means…When you process information, you recall most of it immediately. However, over time, the remembrance will decrease (orange line, 1st Repetition). If you repeat this process, your remembrance goes back up high, and then over time it drops again(orange line, 2nd Repetition).  Yet the green line represents how much you recall with each repetition (i.e, your true memory over time).  Every time you review the material, you will remember more.  Most people know this already in some form because they will review materials over several days compared to one time only.  The more you review, the more you remember.Here is the interesting thing about this that many have not considered. When you study something in one sitting, apply this same technique. So instead of studying something for 1.5 hour with no breaks, study for 15 minutes then take a 5 min break. Then go back to studying, and repeat. You will end up with 4 segments of study (60 minutes) and will remember more than you would have by cramming for 1.5 hours.  Think about that … if someone were to sell you a device that promised to enable you to learn 90 minutes of material in 60 minutes, would you buy it?  And yet, you can have this same result for free simply by applying this technique.  You might also try experimenting with different intervals (e.g., taking shorter breaks at first, then longer breaks later during your study session).  Find what works best for you.  While I believe this way of studying works for everyone, the way in which you apply it effectively will vary with the individual.  Keep trying out various ways of doing this until you find your “magic spot.”

    Emergency tip:  If you must learn something in a short amount of time, you can still use this tip to help in some way.  That is, if you must learn something in a short amount of time, you are better off studying for 15 min, then taking a break for 10 min … then back to 15 min, then a break for 10 min … rather than one long session of 60 min.  During your break, get up and stretch and walk around.  If possible, go outside and take a quick 5 to 10 min walk (set your timer on your phone so you know when to get back to studying!).  However, don’t expect a full mastery of the material like you would have with several days/weeks of learning the material.

  3. Turn off distractions – This seems so obvious, I almost cringe putting it in this list.  Yet, I find so many people try to learn something while attempting to watch TV.  Or, they will attempt to learn while their cell phone is turned on and they continually get interrupted by text messages and Facebook posts.  There was a study done on Microsoft employees to study the effect of interruptions.  The research found that it took the average Microsoft employee 15 minutes to return to their previous task after being distracted by an email, phone call, or instant message.  That is an average.  So, for some, it might even take longer.  Imagine you are studying.  Suddenly you get a text message.  If you are “average,” it will take you 15 min to regain your focus.  Suddenly, 5 minutes before you regain your focus, you get a Facebook notification.  Another 15 minutes now!  Can you see how detrimental this is?  Two simple messages have now cost you a half-hour of productivity.  The answer is simple.  Turn off your phone, email, IM, television, … while studying!  (I do think playing some music softly while studying is ok. If you find yourself focused more on the music than the material, find something else to listen to.  For me, I find that I have to listen more to instrumental music than music with vocals for maximum focus.)



    Office workers are typically interrupted roughly every three minutes, taking some 23 minutes to return to the original task, according to another study by Gloria Mark of the University of CaliforniaAlessandro Acquisti and Eyal Peer from Carnegie Mellon did an experiment testing subjects who were faced with distractions versus those who were not while learning new material. Their findings suggested that interruptions were detrimental to the point of turning a B- student (80 percent) into a D- student (62 percent). That is a drop of two letter grades!  So, with that in mind, the easiest fix is to avoid distractions. Research does indicate, however, that we may be able to train ourselves to focus in the presence of distractions if we are diligent to learn from the moments where we failed. This does take some time, and simply turning off the distraction is much easier.

  4. Think of learning like body building – This point shares some similarities with other points made above.  Your brain is like a muscle, and you can think of learning as exercise.  It is amazing to me that the biggest way to build muscle is more about what you do outside the gym than what you do inside.  Sure, you can exercise for an hour, but the more important matters are things like how much rest you get that night (to let your body rebuild), the food you eat (to fuel that rebuild), and so on.  Our brains are the same way.  If you aren’t getting much sleep, you will throw a huge obstacle to your learning.  The same would go for not eating well.  Also, to build muscle does take some time.  You can’t work out one day and expect to be a super-hero the next day.  What this means is that 1) the more you study smart, the easier it will get over time, and 2) to learn anything can’t happen over night … it will take some patience and time.For example, many students give up on learning math or statistics.  They expect that it should just happen instantly, or they quickly give up after 1 or 2 failures.  Rather, you need small victories that build up over time.  I have personally taught and tutored students who had to be placed into remedial math in college and eventually took Calculus!!  They would have laughed at me had I told them they would eventually be taking Calculus while they struggled with how to add fractions.  I saw them everyday, and we slowly built their “math muscles.”  I also spent many weeks breaking down some “stinkin’ thinkin'” they had about themselves (more on this below).  The same could be true in a job.  Even more so in that environment, people are expected to “master” something in hours or days.  But as mentioned earlier, you can’t “cram on the farm.”  Neither can you build “brain muscle” overnight.  Push yourself, but don’t beat up on yourself.  Learning is a journey.
  5. Engage in Active Learning – We have a very interesting perspective of “learning” in our world today. If you pass a test (often of multiple choice items) we will say “you passed” or “you mastered the material”. Or we will even give you a degree and claim you an expert in that area. I have been in higher education for many years, and when I left to pursue more private consulting, I was shocked at the disconnect I had from the academic world to the “real” business world. It was huge!! In modern times, if someone asks “do you know this subject,” you could point to a paper-pencil test to prove you do. But … in ancient times if you were to ask that question, the person would say, “Let me hang out with you and see how you live. Then I will know what you have learned.” To them, what you knew is what you lived. It wasn’t a matter of facts, but of living it out. So, what does this have to do with learning? Simply this … to really learn something, you need to strive to act on it in some way. The more you can get away from learning something via thoughts only, the better off you are in recalling it later. This is known as active learning.


    How can we apply this to learning? Do something. Don’t just study facts in your head. As this diagram shows, just the simple act of writing it down, or speaking it out loud, can drastically help you learn something and remember it. Better yet, try to put it into action. So, if you learn about a particular type of poetry, try writing some of your own in that style! Or if you are learning SQL for your business, then write a program! If you are learning new managerial skills, find some that you can put into practice this week! Instead of learning cold facts about history, create a play that you act out with your friends or family to make those more real to you! Anyone remember SchoolHouse Rock? Create a song! Let your kids learn those songs and I bet they will never forget the Preamble to the Constitution again. Make your learning active, real, fun, and tangible.
  6. Deal with Stinkin’ Thinkin’ – I did a recent podcast on this whole issue.  Sometimes our biggest obstacle in learning isn’t our technique, but our identity or self-image.  We can sometimes use failure or labels as a means to base our identity, which we in turn use as an excuse to not learn something.  For example, if you struggle with math, have you accepted a label that you “are just a person who can’t get math”?  I have talked to so many people who wear that as a label.  It takes a lot of effort to convince them that this is just something they accepted about themselves that isn’t true.  Sure, math may be challenging to you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn it.  It may not be your favorite subject, and that is quite ok.  Yet you can learn math and do excellent in it.  The same is true of any subject.  You can learn anything you want to learn.  Do not ever limit yourself.  Believe in yourself, and never accept any labels you or others put on you.

Remember … Learning is a journey, not a destination.
 The ultimate goal of education is to become a life-long learner, not just to acquire some facts to pass a test.  In fact, we all know this … but we never really “learn” something until we live it.  We can study math, but we never really know math until we use it in real life.  If you are learning something, apply it to your life.  Teachers, do not forget to relate what you teach to the real world.  Believe in yourself … that you can learn anything you desire.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.