How to study

I was reading this article on how to study. The article provides great advice, such as space out your study sessions and rely on retrieval practice. That made me reflect upon my own approach to studying and how it has changed over time. When I started studying (many years ago now!), I read every single word in every text to make sure I did not miss out on anything important. I read the text from A to Z, from the first to the last page (not including the list of references).1 However, this took a very long time and was definitely not a sustainable strategy.

Luckily, I found out that it was not only a waste of time to read everything, but also not the best way to engage with all the material. In the years where I was teaching, I gave a lot of students advice on how to study, and I told them again and again that what is important to learn is how to study rather than the specific content in the curriculum. Teach a man to fish and what have you.

Today, what I find interesting is the need to move from our traditional understanding of literacy to that of digital literacy. In brief, studying today is radically different than studying, say, 20 years ago. The table in the article From Written to Digital: The New Literacy covers the key differences between the two well:

This is not to say that reading is not important. It is. But when you study, you should focus on reading beyond the text at hand. Think about how it is connected to other studies, papers, books, ideas, etc. The important thing is not what you get out of a text – but where you store what you get out of it.

Time is a limited resource and you need to optimise your reading. I truly believe in slow reading, and the more time I spend with a text, the more time I will not only spend processing each paragraph, but also think about connections and implications. Books are like meals. You do not remember every aspect of any meal you eat, but they have an impact on your thinking, and you need to be very cautious with what you put into your body/brain. However, when studying, you cannot spend too much time with the same text as the marginal return will quickly decline.

So, how should you study? There are (at least) five different study strategies, namely (re)reading, highlighting, note-taking, outlining and flash cards (Miyatsu et al. 2018). I don’t think one strategy is intrinsically better, so I think it is more a question of finding the strategy that suits you best. Putnam et al. (2016) provide a set of specific strategies for how to optimise learning that are worth considering (from Table 1 in the paper):

  • Space out your learning.
    • Study for a little bit every day, rather than cramming in one long session.
    • Start studying early, and touch on each topic during each study session.
    • Reading before class and reviewing lecture notes after class will help consolidate what was covered in class.
  • Learn more by testing yourself.
    • Instead of writing a chapter summary as you read, write down what you remember after you read, recalling the details from memory. Then, check to see how well you did (the read-recite-review method).
    • Answer the “end-of-chapter” questions both before and after you read a chapter.
    • Use flash cards to learn key vocabulary. Retrieve the idea from memory (before looking at the answer) and use a larger (rather than a smaller) stack of cards. Put answers you missed back in the deck at an early place and the ones you got right at the end. Finally, aim to recall each item correctly multiple times before taking a card out of the deck.
    • Be skeptical about what you think you know—testing yourself can provide a better picture about which concepts you know
      well and which you might need to study further.
  • Get the most out of your class sessions.
    • Attend every class session.
    • Stay focused during class by leaving your laptop at home; you’ll avoid distracting yourself and your classmates, and you may remember more by taking notes by hand.
    • Ask your professor for a copy of any PowerPoint slides before class, so that you can take notes directly on the slide handout.
  • Be an active reader.
    • Instead of speeding through your reading, slow down and aim for understanding.
    • Ask yourself questions as you read, such as, “What did I learn on this page?” and “What on this page is new to me?”
    • Finally, write some of your own questions about tricky concepts: “What is an example of X in real life?” or “How is Theory X different from Theory Z?”
  • Other general tips.
    • Get organized early in the semester: Put major due dates and exams on your calendar, set reminders to get start studying early, and be sure to look at your calendar at least once a week so you can plan ahead.
    • Get some exercise. Going for a 50-min walk in nature can enhance your ability to focus on difficult tasks.
    • Sleep! Sleeping is critical for ensuring that memories are successfully stored in long-term memory.

There are different ways to study, and my own challenge over the years has primarily been one of finding the motivation. Interestingly, the motivation to study for me personally is often stronger when I have studied. For example, when I have accomplished something, my motivation to keep going is stronger. When I completed a module, my motivation to read through the papers and books again was stronger than prior to taking the module. I guess what I am trying to say is that finding a good way to study is not easy, and whatever works for you … works for you.

  1. Ironically, today, I primarily consult the list of references when I read academic texts before actually reading anything beyond the title and abstract. []