What study habits are optimal depends on the student, the material being studied, and the goals of the students (which may range from getting a good grade to learning the material well). However, there are a number of general study habits that can be helpful to students across a wide range of subjects and goals. This is because there is a certain degree of alignment between different study goals (learning material better usually helps one get a better grade) and there are important similarities in the process of learning different subjects.
- Always plan in extra time for assignments and plan to finish reading material enough in advance to allow for review.
- Reduce or eliminate distractions while studying.
- Shallow processing involve studying meaningless, superficial properties of what you are trying to learn, like mindless re-reading or memorization. The deepest levels of processing involve thinking about material meaningfully, interpreting the information and relating it to your prior knowledge or experience, or creating a mental image of the information. Deeper processing leads to better recall. (Chew gives strategies for engaging in deeper processing in the linked PDF.)
- When you study a subject beyond the point where you can recall it successfully; you can recall it quickly and easily. So "overlearning" the material increases performance.
- Studying in a group can be effective, but it is also one of the easiest ways of fooling yourself into believing you are prepared when you really aren’t. If the group norm is that everyone studies hard and uses good study strategies, then the group will succeed. If the norm is that group uses bad study strategies and has many distractions, then you won’t learn. Everyone should come prepared and ready to contribute.
The material on this page is based on extensive discussions with students, personal teaching experience, an understanding of the psychological and review of the external resources at the end.
A response to the "easier said than done" objection
While some good study habits are counter-intuitive, others are widely known, at least in approximate form. The latter evoke an easier said than done response -- students feel they already know they should be doing it, but are unable to do so due to a very busy schedule, time management problems, trouble concentrating, procrastination, or akrasia. Keep in mind that there are two levels at which you can take each piece of advice:
- Follow the piece of advice in individual instances on a regular basis: For instance, if we say you should use quiz and recall, you could choose to try and remember to do that every time you are reviewing.
- Try to create or select environments that force or nudge you into following these pieces of advice. Environment here could refer to your choice of instructors or study materials, your choice of peer groups for study, your physical environment while you study, or your biological state while you study (how much you have eaten or how well slept you are).
Cramming, forgetting, and spaced repetition
There has been extensive research on the forgetting curve, a description of how quickly people forget stuff. This research confirms what we already know from common sense and experience, namely that cramming a lot of stuff the day before the test does not lead to good long-term retention. Rather, reviewing the material in small chunks and regularly is optimal for long-term retention.
A particular learning method called spaced repetition (see also this overview), where facts are periodically reviewed at increasing time intervals between successive review periods, has been shown to be more effective at memorizing lists for long-term retention. However, although spaced repetition is better for memorizing lists, a lot of study can be done effectively with very little memorization required. Therefore, while the philosophy behind spaced repetition is sound, your first line of attack should be to reduce the amount you need to memorize using the techniques of deep learning and overlearning. If there is still a substantial amount of relatively unmotivated stuff that you need to memorize, consider spaced repetition.
A few caveats are in order:
- Cramming can be an effective strategy if your sole goal is to do well on tests (i.e., you do not want to retain the information for the long term) and the test tests very directly for the knowledge crammed (so you do not need to process it or learn it deeply). Even here, however, cramming may pay off only in the limited setting where there is a single occasion for testing the material: with two or more tests (such as midterms and a final) cramming may not be time-effective.
- The advice to start early and review regularly is easier said than done. Many people have issues with procrastination and akrasia and even the knowledge of this fact may not help them learn and review material regularly. You might be interested in seeing our general list of recommendations for overcoming procrastination.
- A good workaround to minimize the consequences of procrastination and akrasia in the context of studies, without necessarily overcoming the problems, is to choose instructors and peer environments that make up for one's own shortcomings. For instance, a student who has trouble motivating himself or herself to review material immediately after class might find it more advantageous to study under an instructor who gives more quizzes and assignments. The student might also benefit from a peer group that creates social pressure for the student to regularly review material.
- People may not know how to review material. These issues are discussed below in the deep learning section. Again, students facing trouble with these can work on selecting instructors and peer groups that make up for their own shortcomings.
- Cognitive psychologist and college professor Stephen Chew combined his academic research on psychology and his classroom teaching experience to design general guidelines. His guidelines are available as a YouTube playlist and a PDF with the guidelines is also available. Chew's list coincides considerably with out recommendations. The recommendations are targeted at college students, and are focused more on people interested in learning.
- Writer Cal Newport offers a number of study tips in his book How To Become a Straight A Student (Amazon link). The recommendations are targeted at college students. Newport is more focused on the minimum needed to get an A, and his advice is focused more on students interested in grades. However, the advice overlaps to a considerable extent. Newport bases his advice on many interviews with "straight A students" as well as his personal experience being one.