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10 Learning Secrets That 90% Of Students Aren't Using

A collection of little-known, proven tips students can use to learn more easily and more deeply for their upcoming finals.

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1. Retrieval is king

“If you read a piece of text through twenty times, you will not learn it by heart so easily as if you read it ten times while attempting to recite it from time to time and consulting the text when your memory fails.” - Francis Bacon

The knowledge that rereading textbooks is often labor in vain sends chills up the spines of educators and learners, because it’s the number one strategy of most people, including up to 90% of college students in some surveys, and is central to what we tell ourselves to do when we learn. Sadly, it has three strikes against it:

1. It takes a long time.

2. It doesn’t lead to durable learning.

3. It creates the illusion of knowing, where familiarity with the material is mistaken for mastery. When you have the book or your notes (or Google!) open right in front of your face, it’s easy to convince yourself that the knowledge is in your brain. But it’s not.

In order to learn well, you must retrieve. This is true for anything the brain is being asked to remember and call up again in the future—facts, complex concepts, theories, and problem-solving techniques.

By attempting to recall material you are trying to learn, you create robust new memories and strengthen existing ones. This produces knowledge that can be retrieved more readily (and in more varied settings), and can be applied to a wider variety of problems. In practice, this means that as you’re learning you should test yourself on the information you’re absorbing. Even when you don’t know something entirely, it’s better to try and reproduce from memory than to give up early and look at the answer. Active recall is always better than passive repetition. Sure, it’s more difficult, but it’s undeniably more effective.

2. Study over time

When most people want to study something, they will generally re-read, re-listen or re-say the information many times over a short period. While this method will work after a while, it’s not the best, or even close.

Instead, what you should be do is look at whatever material you need to study for a brief period, then wait a day to review it again. If you have no problem remembering the material, put it away again, but this time don’t review it for two or three days. Each time you review the material and find you’re still remembering it, increase the amount of time between reviews. The strategy I just described relies on practicing “a little bit here, a little bit there”—short review sessions, spaced out over a significant chunk of time, at least two weeks before the exam—to cement material into the mind using sturdy neural bricks that won’t break down on test day.

Spaced repetition, as it’s called, is very much like watering your lawn three days a week for thirty minutes, instead of once for ninety. You’re not working any harder or spending any more time (in most cases you actually need less time), but the impact is profound. No other technique comes close in terms of immediate, noticeable, and reliable results.

Embedding new learning in long-term memory, in which material is given meaning and connected to prior knowledge, is a process that unfolds over hours, and often days. By spacing out your practice, you let some forgetting set in (making it harder to recall concepts), but the effort required and the time periods between sessions vastly increase the strength of the relevant memories.

“So what is the optimal interval to wait before studying something again?” you might ask. Well, you want a little forgetting to set in, so the next session requires effort, but not too much forgetting so you have to fully relearn all the material.

In 2008, UCSD professors analyzed twenty-six different study schedules and actually settled on an optimized distribution. In short, if you want to know how to best split up your sessions, you need to decide how long you wish to remember something. The most widely spaced, longest schedule is the most effective. With longer spaces, you forget more, but you find out what your weaknesses are and you correct for them. You discover which associations, which cues, which hints are working and which aren’t. And if they’re not working you come up with new ones.

3. Change up the environment

Many public speakers choke because they never practice on the stage they are going to be using, or even in front of people. They enter a new environment and totally blank, because what made them comfortable, what helped them remember the flow of the presentation in their practice environment is no longer there.

By reviewing in new environments, what you know becomes increasingly independent of your surroundings. This doesn’t mean you should constantly go to different libraries or spots in your house just for the sake of it (that will only waste time). But it does mean you should review on your way to class, on the bus, or whenever you have a spare ten minutes. Sometimes aloud, sometimes quietly. Sometimes with music, sometimes without.

Most importantly, if you have a chance to use the actual room you are going to be testing in (especially for a practice test), take full advantage. Cues in the room will work in your favor on the big day.

4. Constantly give yourself mini-tests

“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns—there are things we do not know we don’t know." - Donald Rumsfeld

Testing in and of itself is a powerful learning experience. It is a chance for you to demonstrate your knowledge, changes and adds to what you know, and also dramatically improves your ability to retain material, by strengthening and stabilizing the related neural patterns and chunks in your brain.

The testing effect (what scientists unimaginatively call this enhancement in knowledge gained from testing), occurs even if test performance is bad and no feedback is given. Yes, the simple act of taking a test (no matter how poorly you do) makes a difference—truly remarkable. Of course, when you self-test, you’ll want to get immediate feedback, so you can see what you need to focus on and adjust your strategy going forward.

Weaker students tend to grossly overestimate how well they understand material. As a result, they don’t study much; they take the exam and believe they have done really well, and then are stunned when they find out they did poorly (because going in they didn’t know where their gaps in knowledge were).

Don’t fall prey to this trap by simply telling yourself you know the material. Mastering the lecture or text is not the same as the ideas behind them. Quiz yourself (as early and as often as possible) for proof of understanding—otherwise you won’t know the things you don’t know.

5. If you know it, move on

Continuing to study or practice something after it is well understood is called overlearning. An example might be a student correctly solving a certain kind of math problem and then immediately doing several more problems of the same kind. Or keeping the training wheels on after you’ve learned to comfortably ride a bike.

Continuing to hammer away at something once you have it down does no good. If you know it well now, you’ll know it for the test. You should instead start interleaving your practice with different material or different techniques. In math and science, this is crucial because just knowing how to use a particular problem-solving technique isn’t enough—you also need to know when to use it. Randomizing different problem types and skills is the best way to develop this intuition.

6. Studying doesn't have to be silent

Children who explain the solution to a problem to someone else (or to themselves) learn better.

"The basic idea is that it is really effective to try to get kids to explain things themselves instead of just telling them the answer," says Vanderbilt psychology professor Bethany Rittle-Johnson. "Explaining their reasoning, to a parent or perhaps to other people they know, will help them understand the problem and apply what they have learned to other situations."

Indeed teaching someone else what you know forces you to justify how you know it—to explain why a certain fact is true or why a concept works. It requires breaking down and simplifying chunks, and then repackaging them for others, which improves your own understanding and recall. It’s hands-down, by far, the best way to learn deeply.

Even if there’s no one willing to listen to you, you can (and should) use this strategy of explanation and elaboration. Find a quiet room where you can talk aloud, and talk! There’s absolutely no reason studying has to be a silent process.

7. Raise your hand immediately

One of the best ways to reduce study time is to eliminate your question marks on the spot.

Here are four ways you can do this:

1. Ask questions during class.

2. If number (1) makes you feel uncomfortable, talk to your professor briefly after class.

3. Get answers from your classmates (especially the A students).

4. Come prepared to exam review sessions, where the most common problem isn’t too many questions, but too few.

We’ve all heard the advice: if you’re confused, it’s almost certain others are too. But it’s true. It’s always true, no matter how you feel in the moment.

Don’t worry about looking dumb. Worry about being dumb. Ask questions! Otherwise, when you finally get around to studying, you’ll have unanswered questions, and you can’t always ask your textbook for the answers.

8. When you work, work hard. When you're done, be done.

The best students work differently. When they say they are going to study, they actually study. When they show up to do a problem set, they actually do the problem set. And when they sit down with a cup of coffee to write, they actually write. No email, no Snapchat, just work. Everything is

planned and scheduled, ahead of time. They have morning routines, to automate that portion of the day and conserve willpower. They learn constantly and in blocks; even fifteen minute rest periods between classes are allocated for review. When they work, they turn off everything and are laser-focused—with full knowledge that (amount learned) = (time spent) x (intensity of focus). They work on single tasks for a long time without switching, allowing them to maximize

their performance output. They try to structure their lives so that whatever they are doing right now is the best possible use of their time. Then, when they finish (which is usually early), they are free to play and do whatever they want for the rest of the day. Additionally, when they are sick or feeling off, they don’t push. They stop working and let their bodies recover.

Poor students go to the library with only a vague idea of what they are going to work on and for how long. Consequently, they half-work, which means constantly distracting themselves with memes on Reddit or infotainment sites, and then ultimately leaving many hours later without having gotten much done. They use busyness as a proxy for productivity, and as a result waste much of their valuable time. When exams rolls around, they cram, staying up multiple nights in a row to make up for not having learned what they were supposed to have learned in stages. They perform OK, but not great. The cycle repeats.

The difference between great students and poor students: great students do what they say they are going to do. They don’t lie to themselves. When they work, they work hard, and when they’re done, they’re done.

9. Use this little red tomato to supercharge your productivity

Are you in the market for something easy to use? Fun to do? That will immediately improve your productivity? Obviously.

Here’s how it works:

• Set a timer for twenty-five minutes.

• Close Facebook and Twitter. Turn off all notifications.

• Work. No interruptions or distractions whatsoever.

• Once time is up, take a five minute break. Feel free to check social media or talk to friends. Walk around. Go to the bathroom. Get some water. Have a snack. Do an organizational chore.

That’s it. Deceptively simple, right?

This proven and popular time management hack, called the Pomodoro technique, from Italian pomodoro (tomato), has won the hearts of millions.

Why you should use it?

• You’ll get more done. Working in short, intense bursts beats eight-hour sessions any day.

• You won’t burn out, as it’s virtually impossible to push yourself too hard with this method.

• There’s a built-in reward every thirty minutes.

• Managing distractions becomes a piece of cake.

• You can repeat for as many cycles as needed.

If you feel like twenty-five minutes isn’t enough to gain momentum, you can do fifty minutes on, ten minutes off—same results.

Note: If you use Google Chrome, add the Strict Workflow extension to your browser for an easy-to-use online timer.

10. You snooze, you win

Students are obsessed with sleep deprivation. The longer you’re awake and the longer you study, the more you are a hero. The more you are encouraged to brag. The more your peers respect you and think you are on the path to success.

Unfortunately, sleep is like a bank account. Avoid overdrafts and your credit history will be perfect. Accumulate debt, however, and there will be compounded interest and an uphill battle to recover. There may even be an enduring little red flag marking your “bad sleep” credit history. You might not get a loan when you need it.

Most people (especially students) vastly underestimate sleep’s impact on their performance. But the costs of deprivation are heavy and accumulate quickly. With insufficient sleep you become anxious, irritable, and confused. Memory is impaired. Creative solutions that help you get things done fast and easy are hard to come by. Morale also plummets, causing you to engage in less demanding tasks like browsing Facebook, chatting with friends, or reading yet another Buzzfeed article that doesn’t matter; the motivation needed to tackle important tasks is simply not present.

Sleep has been a topic of research for over a hundred years; we know volumes about it. We know it is essential for learning and memory, as much of the encoding required to lock information into long-term memory occurs during sleep, where neurons active during learning become active again (this repetition likely plays a role in strengthening connections between neurons, thereby

solidifying the associated memory). We also know that adequate sleep before learning grants major memory advantages.

Your ability to regulate your emotions similarly hinges on sleep, as deprivation frequently causes irritability and extreme mood swings (by amplifying the fear and stress circuits in your brain). Many actors actually take advantage of this fact by staying up all night to prepare for scenes where they need to be angry or volatile.

Sleep is also critical to creativity and insight (many major scientific discoveries were the product of dreams), warding off infections, metabolic regulation, and the efficiency of your glymphatic system—your brain’s waste management provider—which removes excess fluid, toxins and other debris while you doze.

Simply put, sleep is essential to success as a student. This is why I always try to get about eight and a half hours. Seems to be the perfect amount for me. Some might need more—those under twenty-five should be getting around nine. Some less. But don’t think you’re special. Claiming that you can get by on less than six hours is an illusion—one that is hard to bust and will eventually bite you in the ass.

Once in awhile, you might need to pull an all-nighter. That’s ok. Understand the consequences and don’t make it a habit.

Being tired is not a badge of honor. So get more sleep. Stop bragging about how tired you are, and access your peak potential.

11. Bonus tip: A short doze goes a long way

When your eyelids can barely open, it’s impossible to do your best work. Instead of powering through or crushing caffeinated drinks to stay awake, take a short nap. Aim for 10-20 minutes max. You’ll get a full cognitive reboot and wake up feeling great. It’s often better than caffeine or exercise. Even seven minutes is enough if you’re really short on time.

Since there is actually a biologically hardwired dip in alertness in the middle of the day in all humans, the best time to nap is between one and three in the afternoon. Any earlier and you might have trouble falling asleep. Any later and it might interfere with your nighttime routine. Try to keep it short. A nap lasting thirty minutes or longer is more likely to be accompanied by sleep inertia, which makes you groggy and cranky.

For extra alertness, try a “caffeine nap”. Down a cup of coffee, Red Bull or other caffeinated drink and fall asleep for fifteen minutes; the caffeine takes time to kick in and won’t affect the quality of the nap. You’ll wake up extra sharp and without the urge to keep snoozing.

If you plan on staying up late and need to ward off sleep deprivation, ninety minutes is best. That’ll take you through a whole cycle.

If falling asleep during the middle of the day is difficult for you, find a dark room, ideally cool. Use one of those eye masks you get on plane rides. Minimize noise. You won’t have trouble.

Napping is not for the lazy and unambitious, or solely for old people with nothing better to do with their time. Napping is for anyone who wants a better memory, a longer attention span, heightened creativity, fewer mistakes, and reduced stress and anxiety.

Don’t be like the rest of your sleep-deprived, espresso-craving zombie peers. Nap!

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