5 Myths About Studying: How to Study Better

“Make sure you study for your test, tonight!”

As parents, teachers, and students, we have all either barked this command at our young charges, or heard it barked at us at some stage.

But how many of us ever issue specific instructions about how to study? Many of us have never been taught properly ourselves, and may have even picked up ineffective study habits in our youth that we have unwittingly been passing on to the next generation.

There is now a plethora of research to show that there are some key study skills that can help students to retain information that is meaningful to them. Unfortunately, there are a number of tenacious but unworthy ideas about what constitutes effective studying, which hopefully this article can go some way towards dispelling.

Before we get into the myths, it’s important to establish what we’re trying to do when we study.

  • Firstly, we’re trying to retain information, hopefully in our long-term memory, and not just in our short-term, working memory.*
  • Secondly, we are hoping that the information we retain is meaningful to us, in that we can apply, evaluate, and discuss the information, and it is not just rote-learned, meaningless data that we can regurgitate on the next test.

To help achieve this state of academic nirvana, here are 5 myths about studying, and what we can do to help students avoid them.

 

Myth 1: “I can learn everything I need to know the night before a test.”

Hands up if you’ve ever learnt everything you need to know for the exam, but can’t remember a thing after just one week?

For more durable learning, studying needs to be spaced out in smaller chunks over a longer period of time. Cognitive scientists have shown that each time we leave some space between studying, we forget a bit of the information. When we come back to it, it is the act of retrieving and re-learning the information that reinforces it in our long-term memory.

What students, parents, and teachers can do: Create a study calendar to plan out how you will regularly review class material. Have frequent, low-stakes testing in class. Make flashcards and test yourself.

Myth 2: “I can study by re-reading my textbook or notes, or highlighting passages of text.”

When we are re-reading information that is right in front of us, we are tricking ourselves into thinking that we know the material. Again, the key word here is retrieval. Digging into our memories, and struggling a little bit to recall information, helps us to learn it far more effectively.

What students, parents, and teachers can do: Read a section of a textbook, then close it and take notes from memory, in your own words. Explain what you know to a friend, parent, or pet. Test yourself with practice questions.

Myth 3: “Studying is all about reading and writing.”

Reading and writing are important parts of studying, but they are only the first step. We need to manipulate the information in our minds in many and varied ways to both make sense of it and retain it. There are countless ways to do this, but here are a few suggestions:

  • Expand on the information you are learning by asking yourself open-ended, elaborating questions, as shown in this video
  • Come up with concrete examples that you can relate to, to help explain abstract concepts
  • Predict what questions you think might be on the test, and practice answering them without notes.
  • Teach other people about what you are studying.
  • Translate what you are studying into a visual form, e.g. diagrams, infographics, timelines, comic strips.

Myth 4: “I should study one subject, skill, or type of problem all at once.”

While repetition is important for learning, research has shown that we learn a skills more effectively when we mix our practice of it with other skills. For example, if studying for a maths test, instead of doing 10 questions of one type, then 10 of another type, and so on, we should mix the different types of problems together. While this is more difficult, it forces us to develop the skill of choosing the correct strategy for the appropriate problem, which is arguably a more important skill.

What students, parents, and teachers can do: Resist the temptation to repeat the same process multiple times in a row, or study one subject all night. Switch it up! Mixing up your subjects and types of exercises can help to deepen learning, and adjust responses to fit the changing conditions.

Myth 5: “Music helps me concentrate.”

This is a stubborn little nugget. BUT study after study has revealed that when we listen to music while studying, it negatively affects our ability to retain information.

It’s important to note that there are some caveats to this. It depends on the intensity of the task. If we are just leafing through our notes, or painting a picture, then listening to music is probably OK. But if we are trying to learn the periodic table, or reading a complex text about the causes of World War I, it has been shown time and time again that people listening to music achieve lower test scores on average when trying to retrieve information.

It can also depend on the intensity of the music. Low-intensity, ambient music without lyrics is better than listening to music that we love with lots of lyrical and harmonic content.

One thing that has been shown to boost performance is listening to music before or after studying, as a way of providing motivation, or rewarding ourselves for effort.

What students, parents, and teachers can do: Turn off the music!

Finally, get a good night’s sleep!

Do not be tempted to pull an all-nighter to study the night before a test. If you have done all the right things and spaced out your study over time, make sure that you are getting sufficient sleep. This is not just to avoid tiredness. While we’re asleep, our brains process information that we have taken in during the day. That’s right, our brains are studying for us while we sleep!
If you’d like to read more about effective studying, I highly recommend Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. The Cult of Pedagogy is an excellent teaching blog with many great suggestions for teachers and students. The Learning Scientists is a Youtube channel which shows some practical examples of how to apply these strategies.

*While retaining and retrieving information is an important part of studying in many subjects, it is a foundation skill upon which other, more subject-specific skills should be built. For example, subjects such as English and Humanities require critical analysis and argument skills which require deliberate practice. This will be the subject of a future post.

Ben Basell is Humanities Teacher at All Saints’ College, an independent co-educational school (Pre-K – 12) in Western Australia.