The 5 Most Effective Study Techniques You Were Never Taught in School

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In too many schools, students don’t learn the science of how to study effectively.

Imagine you’re studying for a professional certification, trying to cram info about new products into your head. Or maybe you’re out to ace that online coding course you signed up for. How do you study? For many adults, the answer is to do the same things we did back in school–reread the material, highlight key passages, scan your notes, and maybe make a few flashcards.

We rely on these study techniques because they seem sensible and straightforward. But just because they’re familiar and easy doesn’t mean they’re effective. In fact, research has shown that many popular approaches to studying are pretty useless.

Highlighting key passages, for example, does basically nothing to help you retain information, repeated studies have shown. Rereading study materials is a wildly inefficient way to study. Last-minute cramming might help you pass an exam, but you’re almost guaranteed to have forgotten the material a few days later.

The bad news is many of us waste a tremendous amount of time on suboptimal study techniques. The good news is there are plenty of better, science-backed approaches we can use–if we just take the time to learn about them. Here are five of my favorites:

1. Less reading, more recall

The idea for this column was sparked by a recent New York Times article explaining just how ineffective most traditional approaches to studying are. Sprinkled throughout the piece were several suggestions on how to study better, including focusing less on reading and more on quizzing yourself in writing.

“As students reread their textbooks, the increasing familiarity makes them think they are learning. But because they are not thinking about the meaning of what they read, they aren’t improving the knowledge that actually builds understanding,” warns the article. Psychologists say you should instead read once and then use the bulk of your study time trying to recall what you read and write it down. If you blank on a section or concept, it’s OK to read about it again. But let your attempts at recall guide you.

This approach is backed by research, but it’s also been endorsed by Nobel-prize winning physicists.

2. Active listening

The Times also recommends students shake up not just how they review information, but also how they take it in in the first place. Rather than passively listening to a lecture and robotically jotting down notes, students will remember more if they actively try to identify major themes, note supporting evidence, and listen for the underlying organizational structure of the lesson.

“Educational psychologists … encourage students to relate individual points to broader conclusions. That helps them discern the organization of the lecture and thus understand it more deeply,” notes the article. Both Bill Gates and Elon Musk have recommended a similar approach to learning.

3. Interleaving

The Times article is far from the only source of great ideas on how to level up your study habits, however. Plenty of other experts have offered research-backed ideas, including an approach called “interleaving.” Instead of devoting all your study time to just one subject or concept, interleaving says to mix thing up by working on different skills during a single study session.

In one study of the method, students who had been using interleaving to study did 25 percent better on a test one day after they studied. They did an impressive 75 percent better when tested again a month later.

4. Stretch out your studying

Cramming seems to work if all you care about is passing the test, but if you actually want to learn anything long term, it’s a terrible approach to studying. Everything you cram in your head last-minute soon evaporates. Instead, science suggests you should lean into “distributed practice.”

The idea is to spread your studying out over longer periods by breaking it into short, intense bouts of learning, followed by a decent-size break, ideally of a day or more.

5. Get active

When we picture someone studying, we generally imagine a student sitting quietly reading. But studies suggest more active learning strategies can often be more effective. Doodling your notes and drawing out concepts have been shown to significantly increase recall. Reading the material you’re trying to learn out loud also seems to help us remember more of it.

Actively writing out notes the old-fashioned way with a pen and paper is also more effective than efficiently typing them out on your laptop. “The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can’t write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them,” explained Princeton psychologist Pam Mueller of her studies comparing the two approaches.

We learn a lot of useful stuff at school. But one thing many of us never learn is the latest science on how to study effectively. Incorporate these research-backed ideas into your study routine, and you’ll find that memorizing those Spanish verbs or finally passing that next-level training test suddenly becomes a lot easier.