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Let’s be honest, everyone has done a little last minute study cramming.
But is intensive studying over a short period of time helping or hurting our brains?
In a study conducted by Harvard Crimson, students believe it’s better to study than cram. When asked what the most efficient strategies for getting good grads are, “use of selective and efficient study techniques” came in first.
It’s time to stop cramming and really learn how to study.
Enter study hacks…
Study hacking is the art of learning efficiently. While learning how to learn might seem strange, it could help you shave hours off your study time, retain information, and fine-tune your brain.
Your brain is like a web; the more connections you weave between information, facts, concepts, emotions, smells, sounds, and tastes (just to name a few), the more you remember. Just like a web, your connections can grow weak over time. The good news is that by reinforcing and retrieving memories, the connections grows stronger and memory will be held for longer.
We’ll show you how to implement critical study hacks for learning—shifting away from cramming and moving to retrieval, association, and re-representation.
Here are 5 study hacks to help you master anything…
1. Challenge Yourself
Tests are used to measure of what we have learned. Past tense, have learned. We pass tests to demonstrate that we picked up the important points from the class, and to declare ourselves ready for the next level.
However, tests often aren’t used as a learning tool. Testing not only gives us a chance to see where our understanding is lacking, but also helps to push those equations and statistics further into memory.
Robert Bjork, a psychologist on the forefront of the research into learning, coined the term ‘desirable difficulties’ to the strained search for memories. When we have a word on the end of our tongue, an answer just looming over the edge of awareness, that difficult act of pulling it out rather than just turning back to our notes is one of the best ways to form long lasting memories.
This study hack is as simple as using flashcards. The constant retrieval and instant feedback is a tried and true method for learning. Flash cards be made even better using a system defined later.
Study hacks often include variations. Another technique you might try is rewriting. With only a blank piece of paper and a pen, try writing and describing what you want to recall, test the lengths of what you can remember before going back to the answers.
2. Space It Out
We need downtime, to give our new connections some time to forget, before we go reactivating them.
In their book ‘Make It Stick,’ Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel note that some forgetting is necessary and beneficial to the learning process. Letting the thoughts get a little rusty means the effort needed to resurrect them is greater, this effort then translates to added strength.
The forgetting curve was developed by German researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885. The curve describes the rate at which forgetting occurs both before and after a number of retrievals.
The more we revisit, the slower the decline.
The first box is tested every day, the second box every 2, the third every 4, and so on. Whenever you get one wrong, it goes right back to the first box. This allows for the well remembered cards to be progressively less-studied, while the difficult ones show up often.
3. Mix It Up
The process of actual studying or practicing is best done in a mixed fashion. Within most subjects there are different topics, weaving these topics together as opposed to the classic one-after-the-other system is much more effective.
Switching between distinct yet related topics often leads to greater understanding of the overarching subject.
For example, a good basketball player would do better if their practice was a random mix of three-pointers, layups, and mid-range jumpers than if they chose to do 20 of one and then another.
The counter-intuitive nature shows up here, in that most people that practice this way believe that it’s less effective. The benefits aren’t seen as fast as the blocked practice method, as the act of switching before one has had the chance to try again can feel like a lack in improvement. It’s easy to feel like quitting, but don’t give up!
“They can see that their grasp of each element is coming more slowly, and the compensating long-term advantage is not apparent to them. As a result, interleaving is unpopular and seldom used.” — Make It Stick
4. Connect It
Associations are a memory’s best friend, the more you have the longer they’ll stick around. Those associations can be prior knowledge, a certain emotion, something on the senses, or a location in space.
Where you are can have a profound effect on your memories. Think of some of the best memories of your life — likely, you have a vivid image of the location and surroundings.
Our ability to navigate complex lands and travel great distances on foot comes with an impressive capacity to remember incredibly detailed images of doing so. The usefulness of this ability is clear, an understanding of the land one inhabits leads to a greater chance of survival and prosperity.
The usefulness can also be manipulated, by taking our locational memory and attaching it to our learning; one of the study hacks I use most often. By mixing up the locations we practice or study in, the larger array of connections we make to the memories. Sticking to one location causes that spot to get drowned out by too many attachments, there’s nothing special between it and an important thought.
Other connections can be made by playing a certain song, burning a type of incense for different smells, even something as simple as trying a different pen or writing in an unusual style can become triggers to different memories.
From there you trust in the power of the mind. Whenever you find that you need the information you stored, you mentally transport yourself back to the location, or simulate the smell or sing the song in your mind, and hope the connection grew strong enough to be triggered by the thought.
This study hack of triggering a thought through a visualization is known as the method of loci.
5. Redesign It
Benjamin Bloom made a distinction between different types of knowledge. At the lower end there is knowledge and comprehension, and at the higher end there is synthesis, analysis, and evaluation.
We start at the lower levels and work our way up, from simple facts and ideas to the deep understanding that leads to creativity and complex problem solving. True knowledge doesn’t lie in basic memorization, it comes from the ability to extract the underlying concepts and patterns, so that you can interpret and predict novel solutions to unique problems.
By manipulating the material into new shapes we gain greater insight into our understanding of it. Re-representing requires more than the remembering of what you read or what you saw, it needs the deeper understanding that accommodates change.
One powerful tool that’s been used in transferring knowledge for a great length of time is the metaphor. Being able to take the shape of one idea and relate its certain aspects to something entirely different requires vision. If devising a full metaphor proves too difficult, this study hack can easily be implemented by simply asking “How is this [insert topic] similar to this [insert different topic]?”
Another technique is to draw. While similar to the metaphor, drawing the information without using words requires focus, creativity, elaboration, and the ability to manipulate the concept.
Bottom Line, Don’t Trust What’s Easy
Rereading and highlighting text, cramming for exams, and practicing the same thing over and over fail to take into account how memory works. Yet, they’re the most often turned to strategies.
The fluency we feel from being able to memorize something is misleading, what we know are the words and the grammar, not what ideas and principles it pertains to. Fluency feels like understanding, but only because it fails to challenge it.
When we cram we put loads of data into our memory at once, which can lead to a short-term advantage, but leaves out the necessity of retrieving it over time. As Ebbinghaus noted, we forget most of what we learn after a single day, but with learning spaced out and some forgetting allowed to take place, we slow the rate of decay.
Long lasting connections require time and retrieval, failing this the memories will fade quickly. We can give them a better chance by making connections, and forming larger webs of knowledge. These large webs are the foundation of higher order thinking, a necessity in the search for creativity and complex problem solving.
So, move forward by making your learning difficult, forcing tests on yourself, and finding ways to manipulate and to conceptualize the information with the study hacks we’ve provided.
How does your learning style differ from the techniques here? Are you going to implement these study hacks to become more effective?