female high school student studying with laptop

Every student wants to know the secret to acing the big test, whether that test is next week’s history quiz or the SAT.

Let’s start with some bad news: There is no fast, simple, effort-free way to learn.

Now for some good news: There are proven ways to make studying more efficient and effective.

First things first – just for the sake of argument, let’s all agree that the point of studying isn’t just to get a good grade (although that helps!) but to actually learn things.

If our goal is to actually learn things, then we need to have a basic understanding of how our brains learn new information. Think of the brain as an enormous room full of hundreds upon hundreds of filing cabinets, each filled with thousands upon thousands of files. Each file is a piece of information that you’ve learned and filed away, but having the file isn’t very helpful if you can’t access the file, right?

The trick to learning isn’t just a matter of putting information in your brain – it’s a matter of being able to access that information quickly and on command. How often have you stared at a test paper, frustrated because you know you know the answer, but you just can’t remember it?

No matter how well organized and clearly labelled your files might be, when there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of files locating a single file on command is difficult. What you need is a map. When you study – if you’re studying effectively – you’re building yourself a map that helps you to locate and retrieve a piece of information. And the best way to do this is to test yourself.

It might seem somewhat counterintuitive to study for a test by taking a test, but it’s really an ideal way of learning new information. When you test yourself, you force your brain to locate and retrieve necessary information. The more often you locate and retrieve a piece of information, the easier it is to find it again later on – you build yourself a map.

Want to learn more? The New York Times recently published a piece discussing research into this very topic. Check out the original article here.