As schools struggle to safely adapt to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world of education has been turned upside down. But even amidst all this uncertainty, there is still one fundamental academic truth we can always count on: the most successful students are the ones with the strongest study skills.
If you want to improve your study habits, the best place to start is by learning about how we learn—and that’s why we turn to the science of learning for the best study strategies.
In 5 Study Skills to Master, According to Science, we highlighted some key strategies to boost learning: don’t cram, build a healthy brain, change it up, learn to teach, and test yourself. Now we’ve got four more science-backed study skills for you to master.
Tip #1: Take a Break
Recent research suggests that taking frequent breaks maximizes learning by allowing the brain to refresh its working memory capacity.
Working memory is sort of like the brain’s scratch pad. This is where we hold information that we’re actively engaged with. Working memory delegates information to different parts of our brain for storage and keeps us focused on what matters. Researchers have learned that our working memory capacity is surprisingly limited, creating a sort of bottleneck in the memory encoding process. “In order to preserve the contents [of working memory in] long-term memory, only very limited amounts of novel information can be processed at any given time,” one group of researchers wrote.
What’s more, this same group of researchers have found that working memory gets worn out when you concentrate on something for a long period of time without rest, making it increasingly difficult to understand new concepts or new information. Several small studies support the researchers’ hypothesis that frequent short breaks allow working memory to recharge, thus improving learning outcomes.
This research lends evidence to support a favorite study strategy: the Pomodoro Technique. This time management method alternates focused work sessions with short breaks to help you focus better and avoid mental fatigue. One “pomodoro” is a 25 minute focused work session followed by a 5 minute break. After four or five pomodoros, you then take a longer 20-30 minute break. The technique takes its name from the Italian word for tomato because the student who developed the technique used a tomato-shaped timer to time himself. You will probably have a much easier time downloading a pomodoro timer app (there are plenty!) than trying to locate a tomato-shaped timer.
Tip #2: Intentional Learning
The phrase “intentional learning” hardly sounds like a study skill. After all, if you’re studying something, you’re probably not learning it by accident. When we say “intentional learning,” we mean that you should study with the intention of truly understanding information rather than merely knowing information.
When you study just to know something, the memory is shallow. It tends not to be retained in the brain for very long. When you study to truly understand something, you’re more likely to retain the information.
One researcher tested this idea by comparing two groups of students: one that was told that they would take a test on a set of material and one that was told that they would need to teach the material to someone else. Later, both groups were given a test on the material. The group that studied with the expectation that they would teach the material significantly outperformed the group that studied expecting to take a test.
Researchers hypothesize that the group that expected to teach the material engaged in more effective learning approaches, automatically seeking out key points and organizing information into a cohesive structure. They studied in order to actually understand the material because they expected to need to be able to explain it thoroughly to someone else; the other group studied simply to know the material well enough to recall information for a test.
Tip #3: Self-Explanation
A similar study strategy is called self-explanation. Self-explanation is exactly what it sounds like: explaining concepts to yourself.
In an analysis of 64 studies, researchers found that self-explanation is an effective study strategy because it encourages learners to form inferences and draw connections that enhance understanding. Self-explanation also helps learners to see what they don’t know so that they can fill in missing information.
While studying, don’t just absorb the information. Actively engage it by encouraging yourself to explain the whys and hows. So, for example, you wouldn’t simply learn the fact that Andrew Jackson was impeached. You would ask yourself why he was impeached, how his actions differed from previous presidents, how his impeachment compares to other impeachments, and how the event altered subsequent events.
Tip #4: Thinking About How You Think
Metacognition is your awareness or analysis of how you think and learn. Students who engage in metacognition carefully plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning processes. They pay close attention to which study strategies are working for them and which are not; they identify the things they don’t understand in order to seek out answers; and they are aware of their strengths and weaknesses. All of this helps you to learn more efficiently.
You probably already engage in metacognition without realizing it. When you consider your study goals, create study plans, or reflect on prior study experience, you’re using metacognition to improve your learning outcomes. If you evaluate whether a particular strategy is really improving your study skills, you’re using metacognition. And if you think about what you could do differently to overcome some challenge or confusing piece of information, you’re using metacognition.
You can up your metacognitive study game with some of these strategies:
- Pre-assess: Give yourself a quick pretest at the beginning of a study session to help you figure out what you already know and don’t know.
- The Muddiest Point: When you start studying a given topic, ask yourself “What is the most confusing thing about this material?” Think about why that point was confusing—what contradiction or intricacy tripped you up? Then clear up your confusion. Use your textbook or the Internet or ask a classmate, tutor, or teacher.
- Reflection: At the end of each study session, spend a moment reflecting on it. Ask yourself what worked and what didn’t; what points you still find confusing and why; what things you feel that you gained a better understanding of and how you arrived at that understanding. This self-reflection will help you to refine your study skills over time so that you become a more efficient learner.
Better Study Skills Make Life Easier
When you build better study skills, you make yourself a more efficient learner—and the more efficient you are at learning, the less time you have to spend studying! If you’d like to learn more about study skills, check out Secrets to a Successful Semester, where we talk about the study skills, time management strategies, and organization habits that help students excel.