It is midnight and you are chugging on coffee to study for a test. You do all the preparation you can, but the moment you see a hard question on the test, your mind zones out. I have heard these types of scenarios from my classmates not once, but quite a few times. When I hear these situations, I want to tell them that studying doesn’t have to be that difficult or torturous. If effective study habits are established, then the entire process becomes easier and improves your mental and physical well-being.
Before I explain how I study, I would like to point out a common study habit that is inefficient and may not yield the best results. This type of study habit is known as rote review. In rote review, you are reading your notes, textbooks, or power points. Then, you copy your study material and highlight words to make them stand out. The problem with this method is that because you aren’t reproducing information from your own brain. Instead of actively recalling information, you are passively learning information. Simply staring at your textbook mindlessly doesn’t make you get out of your comfort zone. It doesn’t force you to reproduce information. For instance, how can you know that you actually understand a theorem when you don’t try to explain it in your own words?
A general study technique I use across many subjects is the active recall method. In the active recall method, you take on the role of a professor by lecturing and explaining the topic to yourself. Pretend that you are trying to teach your peers or younger students about this topic. When you explain the concept, you should hide your notes, online resources, or textbooks. You keep doing this until you can’t explain it any further because you forget some material or you start to make mistakes. If you can’t explain it properly, then revisit your review materials and repeat the active recall method until you can lecture correctly without depending on study resources. The active recall method can be done by reproducing your lecture on paper, but I find it easier to lecture aloud because I am an auditory learner.
The reason that the active recall method is a more effective study technique is that it is efficient by not wasting time on the concepts you are strong in and focusing the most amount of time on the concepts you are weak in. By not relying on the answers (notes, textbooks, etc.), you are forcing yourself to test what you actually know and don’t know. Also, it helps you refine your explanations because you want to explain it in such a manner that even a kid can understand a complex concept.
An example of using the active recall method is in math. For technical courses that have problem sets as homework, I first revisit my homework and see what mistakes I made. I target the problems I got wrong by redoing the problem from scratch and explaining the steps to solve the problem. As I explain, I will mention common misconceptions and errors. To speed up the process, I don’t waste time doing problems I got right on. Then, I check my answers to see if it matches. For the conceptual parts, I cover my notebook and test my actual knowledge about the concept. If I didn’t get it correctly because I forgot everything, I learn the topic and use a pen to write my corrections. Afterward, I reuse the active recall method to see if I can reproduce the information that I wrote in pen.
After using the active recall method to study for a test, there is one more key step in study techniques. After you get back your test, don’t shove it into your backpack after looking at your mistakes. For 5 minutes, reflect upon what you did well on the test and what you didn’t do well. Then, write down what modifications you can make to your study habits for the next test. As Cal Newport simply stated, “Study like Darwin.” Studying is an iterative cycle that requires reflection, analysis, and refining the process. When the classroom environment or structure changes, so should your study habits.
In a nutshell, more effective studying can take place by using active recall instead of passive recall. If this lengthy article is not enough to explain the detailed process of effective study habits, I recommend this short book called How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport. The author breaks down the process into manageable steps and mentions the common misconceptions of studying.
Newport, Cal. How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use While Scoring Less. Broadway Books, 2007.