We’ll first begin with the worst study habits and then look at the best study habits & tips. This is your ultimate guide on how to study efficiently. There are study habits you should and shouldn’t have. Let’s find out what they are! (Infographic at the end.)
The worst study habits students have and what to do instead
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.
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, especially if the workload is high. Even non-depressed students who have poor sleep tend to have poor grades.
- Poor sleep might create a vicious cycle between low academic performance and associated stress which further affects sleep quality.
- 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
Don’t spend hours studying at a stretch (a habit called “massing”) over and above college learning hours and homework assignments. Breaks between study sessions are important for your brain to digest all that you’ve learned. Study hours are not proportional to the quality of studying.
You can use the Pomodoro technique if you want a disciplined approach. It is an elegant and simple productivity improvement technique that 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 boredom and anxiety. It’ll help you learn something instead of giving the feeling that you’ve studied well – only for the exam to prove you 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. Uncertainty facilitates anxiety. 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. Once you know the headings and sub-headings, you can use that “Map” to compartmentalize and remember the contents. The more complex your study material gets, the more detailed this map should be. Memory for locations is one of our best memory systems, so leverage it by creating a map of keywords & topics (like a mental index). Ideally, you should always be aware of the interrelations between subheadings so they support each other like a net.
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. Set learning objectives. Ask questions you need answers to. Use your subheadings as a template to learn and remember.
4. Fixating on the volume of study material
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.’ This can change into ‘I need to study 1/10th 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 based on how much there is to study, you’ll eventually end up consuming all of the time 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 and restrict how long you take to study a chunk. Set earlier deadlines than what you anticipate according to the total amount of study material.
5. Procrastinating till you have all the notes or planning too much
There are hidden ways in which people procrastinate such as spending too much time planning & preparing. Waiting for notes or spending hours planning or organizing material may be a way to justify procrastination. A student procrastinates and rationalizes that he/she will study adequately after all the notes are there. This wastes time. 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 studies more overwhelming by delaying them and then is likely to worry and complain about the overwhelming amount of study material. It would be 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. Procrastination is about poor emotional regulation regarding future events.
Study tip: Focus on what you can do instead of what might happen. Thinking of worst-case scenarios makes your fears true when they shouldn’t be true. Here are emotional regulation tips to kill the procrastination habit.
6. Not enjoying, 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. Thoughts like “If I stop all fun, I’ll get good grades” are common in students but they are an example of a damaging thought pattern called Heaven’s reward fallacy.
- Research shows that participating in intra-college activities, having fun on campus, and engaging in recreation helped freshman students increase their grade-point average (GPA scores).
- Participating in extra-curricular activities like sports, clubs, social interest groups, counseling, guidance, etc. can make school-time more enjoyable. When a students’ needs are satisfied in a supportive school, they like their school better and that may motivate them to achieve more. Organized activities can even improve grades for the 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. Social media affects mental health and personal growth in both good and bad ways. Giving up social media or increasing the time spent on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram might not affect your grades or 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 & meaningful.
- Even primary school students can benefit from enjoyment. Boredom, emotions, and achievement are tied together and have a reciprocal relationship – Higher achievement may foster more enjoyment and less boredom and more enjoyment but less boredom could push for higher achievement.
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 that 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.
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 suffer during exams.
- Hunger and poor access to enough food is linked to worse academic performance.
- Even for school going students, a high-quality meal appears to improve test scores.
- Food insecurity (lack of access to food) creates related problems such as avoiding food-related hangouts, saving money, body image issues, etc., which tend to reduce a student’s GPA directly and indirectly via related mental health issues. The study was conducted on over 7000 students in the California University system.
- Drinking water and avoiding thirst is directly related to better cognitive outcomes. Dehydration can lead to cognitive impairment.
- Exercise promotes mental functioning and research shows that those who exercise (even a little bit) enjoy superior cognitive abilities. This directly impacts the learning ability of students.
- Hygiene is so important that UNICEF has an initiative called WASH which promotes water-based cleanliness. Their initiative observed that handwashing can improve academic performance in school children, especially in 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
1. Spaced repetition: revise information with increasing gaps in between
Learn a bit of information. Then wait for a while. Recall/review it again after a few minutes. Then wait and do something else. Recall/review it in 20 minutes, then in 1 hour, then in 4, and so on. Spaced repetition is reviewing/recalling information with increasing time intervals between successive repetitions. This strengthens memory and pushes it into long-term memory storage. You can also study in small sessions (30 minutes each) with regular breaks over a long period. Distribute your learning over time even if the time intervals do not increase progressively (also called distributed practice). Take breaks after each session. These are called spacing effects where adding idle time between learning sessions promotes concept formation & long-term memory.
Studying multiple related concepts in parallel is called interleaving, and studies show that it is more effective than massing, which is studying one topic for hours at a stretch. 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 many related concepts coherently.
3. Chunking: Study small coherent groups of information together in small sizes
Grouping information together in meaningful small bites is called chunking. It is easier to process chunked information than un-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. You can chunk information at a conceptual level as well as a temporal level – a few related concepts in chunked time (30 minutes) is a good start.
4. Meta-cognition: Sit back and think about your learning
Think & reflect on your study material in a way that is not too academic. Relax, sit back, and think freely. This is ideal for gaining insight. Plus, metacognition (thinking about thinking) strengthens the interlinking of concepts in your brain. It can also strengthen the memory of your learning by adding personally valuable contexts. Metaphors and analogies are particularly good at connecting new information to things you already understand, so use metaphors and analogies when you find things are too vague. 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. Generative learning is when 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 make learning larger than life (as opposed to studying for the sake of studying). When students find real-life relevance in their learning material, they are more motivated to study and apply it in real life. One way to make new content familiar and relatable is to use metaphors. Use metaphors to bind old knowledge to new knowledge.
5. Retrieval practice: Prove you can remember what you’ve learned
Absorbing information is one thing, but remembering and reproducing learned content is a different ball game. Retrieval practice is spending time recalling your learned material to verify or improve your learning. The simplest way to improve recall is to repeat what you have learned out loud. This is called the production effect – studies show that things spoken aloud are remembered better. You can use the production effect to improve memory by teaching others what you’ve learned too. Speaking things out loud encodes more information in the brain which includes the physical act of sounding out words and hearing them. That improves the strength of its memory. Another useful strategy is to group meta-cognition and retrieval practice by generating new questions and answering them (like test questions) while revising notes. Creating test questions for yourself and then answering them (or looking up), on your own, can help you think and solidify your studying. Retrieval practice, along with feedback (whether you were right or wrong) not only improves learning but also increases the motivation to study more.
6. Mood, Arousal, & Fun: Keep having fun and make learning relatable & meaningful
Research shows that having fun while learning boosts mental abilities, associates reward and pleasure with information, strengthens and broadens memory networks, and engages 2 basic neural modes – one for diffused mind-wandering (which leads to creative problem solving) and the other for focused attention (which is goal-directed learning). To get the most out of your study sessions, begin with a good, excited mood. This allows us to have a holistic understanding without missing the details. Stay relaxed and refreshed by taking a few regular (or sporadic) breaks depending on what you need to study.
Always remember that feedback is important – whichever technique you use, make sure you get some feedback on your learning. It could be in the form of tests, scores, remembering, confidence, verifying with a book or expert, etc.
Recommended article: How to boost your memory
What if your concentration is poor and you are easily distracted?
What if you are aware of your limited capacity to concentrate and you are finding it difficult to study? Convert your limited concentration and distractibility into an advantage. You can leverage your poor concentration and study well enough by addressing the underlying problem – the balance of stimulation and distractions.
You can read this full-length article for a richer understanding of concentration, motivation, lifestyle, and distractions, or continue to read the highlights below.
1. Make information challenging
The construal level theory suggests that making information obscure or ‘distant’ makes the brain use more resources to understand it. Because of the extra distance, your surplus attention is occupied and you address your study content with the remainder of your attention. A simple way to do this is to make your learning goals challenging so you have to process them deeper & wider. Your brain will begin hijacking the fundamental learning processes to your advantage. Your mind will automatically connect bits of information to form a wide network of information. In short, you will learn the fundamental concepts better.
Information also has an abstract property called cognitive load or the weight of information. It describes how difficult it is to process information. Extreme ease and extreme difficulty make learning worse. Ideally, you want the information to be moderately complex to facilitate learning. Use moderate cognitive load. Construal level and cognitive load can go hand in hand. Increase the psychological distance to make your learning more “demanding.” Try to manipulate the difficulty 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.
2. Study with background music
Listen to light music without vocals and guitar solos, listen to nature or urban background sounds. Or in fact, sit in a public area. Background music allows you to lose some of that extra attentional energy. Sometimes we can’t focus because there is too much attention at our disposal but the study material or task is boring or not engaging enough to actually grab that attention. So music can occupy that surplus attention which would’ve otherwise tried to find “distractions” or fuel mind-wandering. 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. Research shows that complex music can help while doing simple, boring tasks but disrupt complex tasks, and your preference for background music matters in how it affects you. Choosing music as a learning strategy may be a judgment call.
Which background music can help students focus?
- Light electronic music if you are not too interested in the study material.
- Low volume high-intensity electronic music if you just can’t focus.
- Background café or nature sounds if you can focus but want to improve it.
- Avoid vocals, guitar solos, abruptly transitioning classical music
3. 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 as follows: learn something for 10 minutes, revise it 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.
If I were to endorse only one study skill or habit, it is this one. When you use spaced repetition and interleaving together, your study sessions will get shorter and your memory and conceptual understanding will get better. These study sessions can last anywhere between a few minutes to about 30 minutes a few times a day.
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 cheat sheet. The benefits are inside the brackets.
- Sleep well and enough (improve cognition, save time)
- Reduce the emotions that cause 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 or distribute your study routine across many small sessions with breaks (save time, study huge portions with ease)
- Use spaced repetition which is to repeat something with increasing time gaps (improve memory, save time)
- Use interleaving which is to study related concepts in parallel, not one after the other (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)
- Make your learning challenging 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 fun, meaningful, relatable, and relevant. Find a way to connect it to your future or your current life so you are curious to learn more (improve motivation, satisfaction, and value)
- Combine various techniques listed here (maximize learning, save time, reduce stress)
Use these and you will be a phenomenal student.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced in Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, a few books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m an applied psychologist from Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play the guitar.