5 Research-Proven Tips for Studying More Effectively

When it comes to studying, it’s not just how much you study, but how well you do it. In fact, the better you are at studying, the less time you’ll actually have to commit to it. How can you attain pro status when it comes to studying for your online courses? Here are five tips, based on psychological research, that will help you hone your study skills and ensure you get more out of every minute you put in.

Adjust your mindset.

How you think about studying matters more than you might think; research has demonstrated that how you approach a task matters almost as much as what you do to complete that task. Studies have shown that simply changing a key belief, in this case the subject’s self-theory about intelligence and motivation, made a huge difference in the outcome of a study-focused course. Students who believed they would and could accomplish what they needed had more positive outcomes than those who were not instructed to adopt this kind of “growth mindset.”

It’s critical to start off a study session, then, by finding the right mindset. Remember, studying isn’t a punishment; it’s an opportunity for learning and to get more out of the time and money you’re putting into a course. How do you get into a positive mindset before studying? Begin by reminding yourself that even if you have limited time to study that every minute you spend reviewing the material does matter and will help you perform better down the line. Studying is an exercise in self-improvement, so learn to see it just like working out or practicing an instrument. Remember, things aren’t challenging because you’re not smart enough, you just haven’t learned how to master them yet. The point of your course is to learn how to be successful in the subject, not to automatically be an expert.

Can’t seem to get into the right mood? Put off studying to talk a walk or relax. Then come back when you can stay positive and tackle your work in the right frame of mind.

Optimize your environment.

Not every place is a great location for studying. Distractions can derail your concentration and make it take much longer to cover the same amount of material. Avoid crowded locations or places where there will be a lot of noise and instead opt for the library, a quiet office, or a calm coffee shop. Can’t get to a quiet place to study? Pop on your headphones and try to tune out everything else going on around you.

Your biggest distraction may be your technology, however. A recent study of more than 300 students found that high tech devices were responsible for students being unable to concentrate for more than three minutes at a time. This had a markedly negative effect: students who checked Facebook just once during the monitored 15-minute session performed significantly worse than their peers. Other studies have reported in more dismal results when tech is a distraction.

So, turn off your phone and avoid the Internet while you’re studying. You’ll learn more and can spend less time studying, leaving you more time for social media, texting, or browsing the Internet later.

Embrace chunking.

What’s chunking? It’s a teaching and learning method that groups similar information together, allowing it to be more easily understood as these chunks of information are easier to recall and digest. Instead of trying to remember a bunch of random information, you’ll provide a structure through which you can more easily recall what you need to know, even large amounts of data or vocabulary words, that might otherwise feel daunting.

For a study session, chunking can be applied in a few different ways. You may want to create an outline of the important topics covered in your books or notes and examples of each or use a mind-map to illustrate how things relate to one another. Or chunking can be as easy as grouping vocabulary words by something that unifies them (even just sounding alike) and studying them as part of that group. You can see an example of how that might work here.

Think it sounds too simple to work? A study found that by using chunking over a two-year period a subject was able to go from being able to remember only a 7-digit sequence to a 80-digit sequence. It’s a common technique used by people who have “super memories” and there’s no reason that you can’t use it to help you recall something a lot simpler than an 80-digit sequence of numbers.

Schedule study time, including breaks.

Studying weekly study sessions can go a long way towards helping them actually mean more to your long term success. You might not want to commit an three hours to studying each and every week, but research has long shown that study sessions spaced out over a longer period of time is a far more effective than studying for that same amount of time all at once or over a very short period of time.

Why does this work? Because it will likely take you a minute to remember what you covered in your last session and every time you have to jog your memory you’re cementing that knowledge further into your brain. This even works on a smaller scale as demonstrated by a recent study: students who studied a larger stack of vocab words (20 versus just five) actually remembered more of the words than those who tried to tackle just a few words at once.

In addition to these scheduled study sessions, breaks are also important, as counter-intuitive as that might sound. Research on attention has found that when a stimulus remains constant for too long, the brain stops paying attention to it. According to Dr. Alejandro Lleras, “Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness.”

What does that mean for you? It means you should take a break, as your brain responds to change and it will help you to stay focused throughout the entire session. Set a time limit for your break (10 to 15 minutes every 50 minutes is ideal) and change your scenery while taking a break—don’t keep looking at a computer screen or reading. Take a walk or get a snack instead. That short break will refresh your brain and leave you ready to absorb more information.

Choose the right study method.

One study method stands out as being far more effective to retention, no matter the subject matter: practice testing. This can include using flash cards, answering questions at the end of a chapter, taking practice exams, or other ways of testing your knowledge periodically. One large-scale study showed that just by replacing time spent on other less effective methods with practice testing gave students a huge boost in their comprehension and ultimately their overall performance in a course.

What doesn’t work? This same study also showed that summarization, highlighting and rereading were some of the least effective ways to review the material for a course. They’re easy to implement, but they don’t work. Why?  Because they provide a false familiarity with the course material. In essence, you feel like you know the information because it seems familiar when you’re reading it but you’ve never forced yourself to retrieve the information without the source material. Without this retrieval, you won’t really ever learn the material in a meaningful way and likely won’t be able to recall it on an exam.

So, bust out the flashcards, quiz your classmates, or use those end-of-chapter quizzes in your textbook: they can make a big difference in your overall study success.

Do you have any study methods you swear by? Share them here!