I’m going to keep this post crisp and crunchy. We’ll first begin with the worst study habits and then move toward the best study habits & tips. What we are about to look at is thoroughly supported by scientific research. TL;DR at the end.
I’m writing this post after studying over 250 research papers. I have cited about 100 in this article and its cornerstone sisters. Thanks to applied psychology research, we have these amazing insights.
You can consider this post as the ultimate guide on how to study efficiently. There are study habits you should and shouldn’t have. Let’s find out what they are!
Table of Contents
The worst study habits students have
If you have been or are a student, there is a chance that you have had these bad study habits. I know I’ve had them.
These are your biggest enemies because, according to tonnes and tonnes of research, they are linked to poor memory, poor attention, poor cognitive abilities like decision making and logic, poor motivation, unhealthy anxiety and ultimately, poor academic performance.
The following are the big bad DON’Ts of studying for college or school exams. In fact, not doing any of the following is the first step to improving your grades, GPA, and test scores.
… Oh, and a quick note – The following 7 habits will save you more time than you can imagine!
1. Staying up late and waking up early to study
Compromised sleep is always bad for your focus and concentration. And yet, the most popular study method is to study for long late/early hours before the exam.
If it isn’t obvious, let us look at what the research says.
- There is a clear association between compromised sleep and poor academic performance.
- Poor sleep might create a vicious cycle between low academic performance and associated stress which further affects sleep quality.
- In a study where sleep quality was measured against neurocognitive performance (all those thinking, attention, memory, decision-making skills) and academic performance shows that poor sleep causes a decline in academic performance & cognitive aspects of learning.
- A review of a large number of studies shows that poor sleep as a result of late sleeping and early rising negatively affects academic performance in school and college students.
Sleep is important for learning and memory just as much as it is for staying awake and alive. If you have trouble falling asleep or getting some good quality sleep, you should try out these techniques and/or visit a mental health professional.
Study tip: Sleep.
2. Counting hours and massing
You know whats a good idea? Studying for 20 minutes properly and spacing out for a while. Then, return to studying for another 20 minutes. 20–25-minute chunks of learning are far more effective than brute force learning for long hours (massing). Don’t bother with ridiculous 27 hours of studies every day… over and above college learning hours and homework assignments. Breaks between study sessions are really important for your brain to digest all that you’ve learned. Study hours are not proportional to the quality of studying. (More on the optimal time duration for studies in the rest of this article.)
You can use the Pomodoro technique if you want a disciplined approach. It is an elegant and simple productivity improvement technique which can be flawlessly applied for completing assignments, reading & reviewing study material, managing study/learning load, etc. Here is how it goes.
- Pick a timer, Set it to 20 or 25 minutes
- Spend 20-25 minutes on a topic (or sub-topics)
- Once the timer rings, stop.
- Take a break of 5 minutes (cycle 1)
- Return to another 20-25 minutes for learning a new topic(s)
- Take a break of 5 minutes (cycle 2)
- After 4 such cycles, take a longer break
I recommend using this study technique when you need to study for long hours, especially before an exam. It is ideal for a quick review because you can systematically cover individual concepts or sets of quick facts one after the other. With this study method, you’ll be able to review a large number of topics in a few days without exhausting yourself with monotonous boredom and anxiety. Oh, and you will have actually learned something instead of feeling that you’ve studied well only for the exam to prove your wrong.
Study tip: Don’t study for long hours – study in small chunks of 20-45 minutes along with breaks. Or, use the Pomodoro technique.
3. Not knowing what to study
Worrying takes up a lot of time and drains you. Academic anxiety gets worse when a student has no clue about the contents which need to be studied. Imagine going for an exam and realizing that you’ve skipped a whole chapter because you were unaware.
Knowing the index page and sub-headings should be your first step. This compounds with not knowing how much effort is needed to study. Once you know the headings and sub-headings, you can use that architecture to compartmentalize and remember the contents. The more complex your study material gets, the more detailed this architecture should be. Ideally, you should always be aware of the interrelations between subheadings.
Study tip: Figure out all the topics you need to learn for an exam well in advance. And then, make sure you know what you need to know within a topic. Use your subheadings as a template to learn and remember
4. Counting the volume of studies
It should be painfully obvious to everyone that thinking of studying a whole book at a time can be overwhelming and stressful. This will necessarily hamper your focus and concentration. Yet, that is a common habit – ‘I have to study 10 chapters in 2 days.’ It’s honestly ridiculous. This can easily change into ‘I need to study 1/1oth of a chapter every few days.’
There is a psychological effect you should know about – The Parkinson’s law. It states that work expands or contracts to fill the time available. If you overestimate the time needed to study something based on how much there is study, you’ll eventually end up consuming the overestimated time period you set aside. This could result in a heavy loss of time. You can minimize this problem by focusing on small bits without declaring any time commitment based on the volume of studies.
Study tip: Distribute your learning in small chunks over a long period. Don’t allot time based on the total amount of study material.
5. Procrastinating till you have all the notes
Why wait to have all the notes? Procrastination is actually evil on two levels. First, a student procrastinates and rationalizes that he/she will study adequately after all the notes are there. This wastes time. Second, procrastination is about delaying some perceived anxiety about a future event (in this case, the overwhelming nature of study material put together). This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The student is making the overwhelming nature of studies demonstrably true by procrastinating and then is likely to worry and complain about the overwhelming nature. It’ll be far easier for a student to study in small chunks as and when they have their materials ready.
A common misconception: People think that procrastination is a time-management problem. It isn’t. Not even close to it. Procrastination is about poor emotional regulation regarding future events.
Study tip: Don’t procrastinate. It makes your fears true when they shouldn’t be true. Here is how you can kill the procrastination habit.
6. Not chilling, partying, gaming, dating, etc.
Don’t stop having fun. If you stop having fun altogether, you will probably face mental health issues associated with monotony, depressed moods, social withdrawal, etc. Being a student has its fun side, and it shouldn’t be taken away. So if you want to get drunk, go ahead and get drunk; have fun when nothing much is at stake, just make sure you don’t stay hungover all your life. I do not endorse underage drinking & smoking, drunk driving, unprotected sex, or drugs. Be responsible and accountable.
- Research shows that participating in intra-college activities, having fun on campus, and engaging in recreation helps freshman students increase their grade-point average (GPA scores). 
- Participating in extra-curricular activities like sports, clubs, social interest groups, etc. can make school-time more enjoyable. This creates a liking towards one’s school and this liking is positively related to improved academic performance.  This is even more useful for less-advantaged students. 
- Moderate amounts of gaming and computer use is linked with academic growth and development in 10th-grade students. 
- Social networking is not clearly linked to improved and worsened academic performance. A review of 23 papers suggests that the results are highly mixed.  While we can wait to see the specifics emerging from future research, a judgment call can help in the interim. Giving up social media or increasing the time spent on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram might not be your best bet in improving your learning potential. If it is moderate, don’t worry about it.
- A meta-analysis of 29 studies with a total sample of 19,000+ students across different grades found that boredom predicts negative academic outcomes. Boredom in class is worse than boredom outside of class. Boredom also negatively affects motivation and optimal study behaviors.  It is in everyone’s best interest to not experience chronic boredom. Find a way to make things interesting.
- Even primary school students can benefit from enjoyment. Boredom, emotions, and achievement are tied together and have a reciprocal relationship – each factor affects the other and can play the role of a mediator. 
Study tip: Have fun and don’t be bored.
7. Neglecting food, water, and exercise
Download an app if you need reminders to drink a glass of water and eat. These are not things which you should skip. Quality food, enough water, and moderate exercise will raise your baseline focus and concentration as well as keep you in a sharper state of mind. The lack of these 3 things can also induce severe lethargy – one more enemy.
This isn’t some common advice. Even if it sounds blah, it needs to be said. Research shows that these factors affect academic performance and the cognitive ability of students. If you stay hungry, dehydrated, and kill your physical movement, you will probably do badly in exams.
- Insecurities about food, avoiding socializing with food, and staying hungry is negatively associated with academic performance. 
- Even for school going students, a high-quality meal appears to improve test scores. 
- Food insecurities such as avoiding food-related hangouts, saving money, body image, etc. tend to reduce a student’s GPA directly as well as indirectly via related mental health issues. This study was conducted on over 7000 students in the California University system. That says something! 
- Drinking water and avoiding thirst is directly related to better cognitive outcomes. 
- Dehydration can lead to cognitive impairment. 
- Exercise promotes cognitive functioning and research shows that those who exercise (even a little bit) enjoy superior cognitive abilities.  This directly impacts the learning ability of students.
- On a related note, hygiene is so important that UNICEF has an initiative called WASH which promotes water-based cleanliness. Their initiative has observed that handwashing can improve academic performance in school children, especially in the 3rd world nations. 
Study tip: Have water, don’t skip food, and do some exercise.
The best study techniques and strategies science has to offer
This section is pretty small and tight. It is just an overview of the most potent study tips that have amassed research support. You’ll find a link to a more thorough article at the end of this section.
So let’s begin. We will now learn how to use the brain to maximize our innate capacity to learn. Here are 5 study techniques which are designed to be the most effective as they are based on our current knowledge of how the human brain works.
- Spaced repetition: Learn a bit of information. Then wait for a while. Recall/review it again after a few minutes. Then wait.. do something else. Recall/review it in 20 minutes, then in 1 hour, then in 4, and so on. Review/recall information with increasing time intervals between successive repetition. This strengthens memory and pushes it into long-term memory storage.
- Interleaving: Study related concepts in a pseudo-parallel. That is, not one after the other over lots of time. If you have 3 related topics – A, B, C, most people study AAAAA BBBBB CCCCC. Interleaving is ABC ABC ABC ABC ABC. Interleaving is more efficient. Interleaving is perfect for learning related concepts.
- Chunking: Group information together in meaningful small bites. It is easier to process chunked information. Grouping information also creates associations between and within group members which further improve your learning and memory. Chunking should be a default go-to technique.
- Meta-cognition: Think & reflect on your study material in a way that is not too academic. Think freely and ponder over it. Let your brain swim in it. Relax, sit back, and think. This is ideal for gaining insight. Plus, metacognition strengthens the interlinking of concepts in your brain. It can also strengthen the memory of your learning by adding personally valuable contexts. Creating a new set of notes is a great way to start the metacognition process. Meta-cognition overlaps with another evidence-based learning strategy called generative learning. Essentially, you actively integrate to-be-learned-content with prior knowledge. You can draw, imagine, summarize, dramatically enact and teach information to facilitate generative learning. Find a way to make learning meaningful – personally relevant or relatable. It is important to associate make learning larger than life (as opposed to studying for the sake of studying).
- Retrieval practice: Absorbing information is one thing, but remembering and reproducing learned content is a different ball game. You need to practice recalling your learned material. After all, recalling information is a completely different process for the brain. Train that process by attempting to remember.
You can read this article I’ve written on these study techniques for a more in-depth understanding. The research supporting these techniques is cited in that article. Anyway, if you’ve understood these techniques, let’s move toward our next biggest problem to solve.
Recommended article: How to improve your memory and remembering capacity.
What if your concentration is poor and you are easily distracted?
No, really. What if you are aware of your limited capacity to concentrate and you are finding it difficult to study? You should try out at least 1 of the following study habits which deal with sensory stimulation – processes which belie attention and concentration.
I want you to convert your limited concentration and distractibility into an advantage. You can leverage your poor concentration and study well enough by addressing the underlying problem.
Make information a little obscure
You can do this by making slightly abstract notes. The construal level theory suggests that making information obscure or ‘distant’ makes the brain pool in more resources to address it. Because of the extra distance, your surplus attention is occupied and you address your study content with the remainder of your attention.
The additional advantage is that when you make vague notes and increase the psychological distance between you and the information, your brain will begin hijacking the fundamental learning processes to your advantage. Your brain will automatically connect bits of information to form a wide network of information. In short, you will learn the fundamentals and concepts better. Then, you can take your break and return to studying.
There is one other factor you should consider. Information has an abstract property called cognitive load or the weight of information. It describes how difficult it is to process information. Extreme easy and extreme difficulty makes learning worse. Ideally, you want the information to be moderately complex. That is, you need to manipulate the cognitive load. Construal level and cognitive load can go hand in hand. Increase the psychological distance (obscuring) can affect the difficulty level. Try manipulating the difficulty and obscurity to maximize your learning. This will vary widely between people and subject matter. Remember – Mental effort involved in processing information has a direct influence on the quality of learning.
So.. how should you implement this study skill? Begin with some rough, scribbled notes (poor handwriting is your friend here). Jot down related ideas. Draw arrows. Make a hodge-podge of data. Then look at it. Turn your notes upside down! Do whatever you can to put in more mental resources in learning. Jump between topics. Revise random things while studying a single topic. Make things challenging.
Study with background sensory stimulation
Light music without vocals and guitar solos, listen to nature or urban background sounds. Or in fact, sit in a public area. Background sensory stimulation allows you to lose some of that extra attentional energy. Just enough to let you concentrate better on the tasks at hand. Read more about how background music affects learning and productivity. If you are thinking of using music as a study aid, I highly recommend that you read those articles to understand what you need.
Try out different types of music, try out different sounds, adjust your volume, see if you like urban or natural sounds or you prefer something via headphones. Finding the sweet spot can be difficult. Or, it might turn out that you don’t have a sweet spot and music is not the solution for you.
Use a combination of interleaving & spaced repetition in short study sessions
Spaced repetition is a way to learn something in small bits and then repeat the learning & recall after a small duration. You can do this by learning something for 10 minutes, revise after 10 minutes, then 30 minutes, then 2 hours. Use interleaving along with this. Interleaving is studying in parallel. If you have 3 topics (A, B, & C), don’t study them as a sequence of AAAAA BBBBB CCCCC (repeating chunks of the same topic 5 times) one after the other. Study them as ABC ABC ABC ABC. Mixing spaced repetition and interleaving requires less long-term concentration and maximizes moments of high concentration.
Did I tell you that combining interleaving and spaced repetition is your most powerful study technique? It’s like combining Bruce Banner’s intelligence with The Hulk’s strength to get the ultimate supersmart superstrong superhero.
If I were to endorse only one study skill or habit, it is this one. And you know what the best part is? When you use spaced repetition and interleaving together, your study sessions will get shorter and your memory and conceptual understanding will get better. We are talking about study sessions which last anywhere between a few minutes to about 30 minutes. That’s it. Sounds easy, right?
Summary of the best study tips
Ok, let us consolidate all of this into a few good study habits. Use it as a how-to study cheatsheet.
The benefits are inside the brackets.
- Sleep well and enough (improve cognition, save time)
- Avoid procrastination (save time, reduce anxiety/stress)
- Avoid counting hours and the study volume (save time, reduce stress)
- Have fun in life (stay motivated)
- Be aware of all the headings and subheadings in your study material and use that index as a template to organize learning (improve memory and confidence)
- Drink water, eat food, exercise (improve cognition, stay alive)
- Use the Pomodoro technique (save time, study huge portions with ease)
- Use spaced repetition (improve memory, save time)
- Use interleaving to study related concepts in parallel (learn a broad topic holistically)
- Use metacognition and reflect on what you’ve studied (improve fundamental understanding)
- Practice to remember (improve recall, save time)
- Chunk information and make small digestible groups (save time, improve memory)
- Use background music if you have surplus attention and are distracted (save time, improve cognition)
- Obscure information to improve conceptual and abstract learning (improve cognition)
- Manipulate the cognitive load of information to maintain a moderate level of difficulty (improve memory)
- Make your learning meaningful, relatable, and relevant. Find a way to connect it to your future or your current life.
- Combine various techniques listed here (maximize learning, save time, reduce stress)
Use these and you will be a phenomenal student.