How to Study Effectively (Not Just for Students!)

By Ali Luke

January 27, 2011   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

Most of us don’t stop learning after school’s out. We may study for a professional qualification, in the hopes of a promotion, to make our working lives easier, or simply for the joy of learning.

If you didn’t learn how to study effectively when you were young, though, you’re probably wasting a lot of time.

Here’s how to make the most of your studying time, so that you remember and understand what you’re trying to learn – rather than just staring at the book in front of you.

Don’t Just Read
The biggest mistake people make when studying is to read the textbook, or their notes, over and over again. Sure, some of it will eventually stick – but this really isn’t an effective way to learn.

If you’ve ever “read” a whole page only to realize you didn’t take in a word of it, you’ll know how easy it is for your eyes to keep moving when your brain’s switched off. And if you’ve ever nodded along, feeling like you’ve “got it” – only to fail a test – then you know that simply reading isn’t enough to lodge information in your head.

Engage With the Material
When you’re studying, you need to engage with whatever it is that you’re learning. Ideally, you want to do that in some practical way. So:

    • Instead of reading a manual about PHP code, try using what you’ve learned as part of a website. 
  • Instead of studying the science of cooking, bake something – and experiment with different additions. 
  • Instead of reciting capital cities, get a blank map and plot them onto it. 
  • Instead of listening to or reading French, try writing or speaking.

The way in which you engage will depend on what you’re learning and on your own learning styles. You might prefer to write about what you’ve learned, draw a diagram, or do something practical.

Memorize Thoroughly

When you’re trying to memorize something – perhaps a scientific formula, or a quotation from literature – it’s often helpful to write it out. The more times you do this, the more likely it is to stick! To ensure that you’re not just getting it into your short term memory, try writing it out at different times during the day, without looking it up beforehand.

There are plenty of tricks you can use to help you remember things. You might try mnemonics (here in the UK, schoolchildren are taught “Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain” for the colors of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). You could make up a poem or even set words to music – it’s often easier to remember something which rhymes (like “Thirty days hath September…”).

Take a Quiz
Until you test yourself, you won’t know whether you’ve done enough studying. If you’re working towards a particular qualification which has exams, get a hold of copies of previous test papers and try them out.

If you aren’t going to be sitting an exam, look for a quiz on your subject, or ask a friend or family member to test you using your notes.

If you’re studying for your own purposes – perhaps to learn a language – then you could test yourself out by attempting to write something in that language without referring to your books or notes.

When you’re studying, it’s easy to unconsciously skip over tricky bits – a quiz helps highlight these! Plus, you’ll often find that material which you could only just remember gets more firmly lodged in your mind.

Do you have any great studying tips to add? Share them with us in the comments!

Written on 1/27/2011 by Ali Luke. Ali writes a blog, Aliventures, about leading a productive and purposeful life (get the RSS feed here). As well as blogging, she writes fiction, and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing. Photo Credit: MC Quinn
Ali Luke

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