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Are you scrambling to learn as much information as possible before exams? Do you have days where you spend hours studying and still feel like it wasn't enough?
Studying for exams can be a daunting task. There is so much material to master, with strict deadlines and the pressure of good grades looming in the background. Everyone has a system of studying that seems to work for them, but sometimes we get stuck in a rut and don't progress. Fortunately, extensive studies on how to study effectively have found some key tips to help people optimize their learning process.
In this ultimate study guide, you'll learn about every aspect of studying effectively (supported by science) for your upcoming exams. The strategies outlined here can help boost your confidence, reduce anxiety and ensure success on exam day—so let's get started!
⏪ Before starting to study, consider doing these 7 simple steps
1. Goalsetting: What grade do you want to achieve in each subject? Creating a measurable outcome will drastically increase the chance of achieving your goal.
2. Study Schedule: Write a rough study plan.
It can change at any time.
"In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."
3. After your lectures is before your lectures: Skim through the content/slides covered in the next lesson.
This only takes 10 minutes, but it will be of huge advantage. Your brain will remember the information you have already read. Information will be retained much longer because the forgetting curve gets interrupted.
4. Check with a fellow student who has already written the exam or is some years ahead of you. This will tell you what to focus your time and energy on.
5. Search for a study buddy.
6. Do the mock exam before you start studying. This will help, too, to know what topic and information you have to focus on for the test.
7. Put yourself into the role of your teacher. What questions would you ask if you were in your professor's shoes?
1-2-3 Meta: An NLP Format that allows you to shift perspective
It helps if you know how to put yourself in someone else's shoes. NLP has a great format called 1-2-3 Meta, where parts of it can be applied. It might help you to guess some test questions.
People usually use this format when they conflict with someone else.
Putting oneself in the shoes of the person involved, you dissociate yourself from your emotional mind.
Suddenly you might realize that you understand their point of view too. To think like the other person, it is necessary to use all the senses.
In the third position, you play a bystander who doesn't know what's happening.
At last, you are in a meta-position. Here you can look back on what you've just experienced. What were your most considerable insights?
In our case, you might even be able to guess some of the professor's questions.
And 1-2-3 meta can help you to train to get out of your thinking box. To realize that other people may have experienced different things and have other backgrounds.
7. Invest in suitable study materials. If there is a course that costs some money and creates good value, buy it.
🌱 Set yourself up for studying and reflect on your day for CANI (constant, never-ending improvement)
Energy is life: The higher your energy and engagement, the better
Ask yourself: When is my best study time?
Step #2: Reflect
Set the alarm every hour (for a week), and then write down every hour's energy level on a scale of 1-10. As a final product, you will have a curve of your daily energy. The more data (days) you track, the more detailed results you will get.
Step #3: Make use of energy peaks
Study complex subjects when your energy levels spikes.
Step #4: Rest when energy is low
Remember to have a balanced diet. Take a break, organize your class notes or watch relevant videos (not much energy needed) when you know that energy will drop. For me, this usually is about 3-5 p.m.
If you want to know more about the lifestyle aspects important for good studying results, read my post on the triangle of life. ⚠
Bonus tip on memorization:
Motion creates emotion; when you study and engage with the information you consume, you will increase retention and even have fun doing it. This was proven in a study on children learning to remember words.
Plan your day
Set a daily highlight: What one thing do I want to accomplish today?
Plan your off time so you have something to look forward to.
E.g., tell yourself that you will read and understand the 4 chapters to allow yourself to do something fun in the evening. That's how I managed to get through some study afternoons.
💪 Complexity is the enemy of Execution
Scope the subject
Go from big to small.
First, skim through the content you will learn. Use the table of contents after you have gained a basic overview, structure and break down the content.
Only then start "zooming in."
Pretesting: Ask yourself questions before you've even read through the textbook the first time
Pretesting is a form of active recall. Your brain will be primed to look for the correct answers after testing yourself.
Read more on the power of pretesting in my recent post. These 3 evidence-based study tips will improve your grades instantly.
Pretesting questions you can ask yourself
What do I already know about this topic?
What do I think I will learn?
Here, it is great to draw a mindmap to get an overview of the topic I am learning.
This will help you to see where you can apply the most leverage.
What not to do when starting to study a new topic
If you jump into a new subject, it is like digging for the treasure without the treasure map.
After some meters of digging, you will notice that it is the wrong approach till you try something different. Eventually, you will find that you must get a map first to know the way.
Consider the following questions after a day of studying:
What went well?
What should I keep doing in the following study sessions?
Did I reach my study goals? Why? Why not?
How might I better my study technique and look after myself (e.g., studying in diverse spots, limiting sugar intake, etc.)?
Write down one thing that will be incorporated into tomorrow's studies. Anticipate tomorrow's difficulties and strategize how to overcome them.
2 final steps: Use active recall at the end of your studying day instead of learning new content
#1. Draw a mind map of the things you have learned today. Use a blue or black color.
It is better to reflect on the last 10 minutes instead of studying new material.
#2. Add or cross out notes after you brain-dumped everything. Use a different color, e.g.
🧠 Active Recall: Ask yourself practice questions
Active recall is engaging and using cognitive effort to retrieve information to answer a question. Your level of engagement should be 100% when using active recall.
It improves the ability to recall information in the future and strengthens connections between information in our brains. A study from 2013 looked at hundreds of studies about different study techniques. In contrast to highlighting, rereading, and passively taking notes, active recall is "high utility."
Active recall can be implemented effectively with minimal training.
2 Benefits Of Using Active Recall + 2 Active Recall Apps
Active Recall has 2 benefits that are worth mentioning:
1. it aids in highlighting one's strengths and weaknesses, thus creating realistic insight into what to focus on
2. it creates new synaptic connections between known and new information (stored in long-term memory)
- App to use for active recall: Notion with its toggle feature. Write yourself practice questions and hide the answer under the toggle
- App for interconnected thoughts: Obsidian
👉 I have published a post on Active Recall: This is the most effective study method (after +100 years of research) according to science.
🔁 Successful Students use Spaced Repetition
Forgetting curve: After 24 hours, we have forgotten 90% of what we learned
We must review what we studied regularly to remember the things we learned.
With cramming, you will hold information in the brain for a short time.
To interrupt the forgetting curve, it is best to space the revision intervals more out the more time passes. First, revise after 1 day, then 1 week, 1 month, 3 months, etc.
The Flashcard App Anki for spaced practice
- Anki Flashcards has spaced repetition integrated, as when you say you don't know the answer, you will be asked it way sooner than if you knew it
- The algorithm is programmed for spaced repetition.
- Best when we forget a little bit, and it requires strength to recall information
Ali Abdaal has a whole Skillshare class about using Anki to retrieve information and integrate Active Recall and Spaced Practice.
📌 Other effective studying methods that help millions of students daily
- think you understand, switch to another subject/topic
- we don't get asked about the book structure in an exam
- it is again hard, and there we learn the most
LTM: Little Time, Much Motivation
- get the app Forest on your phone
- this technique is perfect if you don't feel like studying
- 25 minutes study session with 5 minutes break (repeat 4 times)
- then have a more significant break of about 20 minutes
- probably not the best method if you are learning programming or other things where it takes a while to get into the flow
- you can also try with more extended time periods
- try to 100% focus during the 25 minutes - only on studying
- fully relax during the break
80/20 Principle to overcome laziness and start studying
- what 20% can I study to achieve 80% of the result?
- Can I skip something that I have already spent so much time on?
Do it. That's how you remember and can recall it in the exam
- Maths -> Calculate
- Programming -> Program and not only theory
- Economics -> make a roleplay
- brain gets more oxygen and blood when moving (?)
VAKOG: Integrate your senses to remember
- try different learning styles like drawing, speaking out loud or listening to podcast about the topics, building something, ...
- use the same frequency when studying and for the exam (also chewing gum flavor)
Search like Sherlock for similarities and differences in the content you are learning (interconnection)
- make connections from phrases from one chapter to the other
- if the app allows it like roam research, then use it (free for students, I believe)
Stop with the formal explanation once
- explain it to a 6-year-old
- lets you simplify the topic, and then you know that you understand it
- explain it to someone who doesn't know anything about the subject
Tell your friends what you studied today (active recall in practice)
- will ask questions
- you know when you are not sure about the topic
- fully immerse in the content
- create a study habit
Interleave Practice: If you have just understood a topic, switch to another similar one.
When learning addition, it does not make sense to practice 10 similar examples where you switch the numbers you are adding.
By challenging our brains and switching to subtraction as soon as we have understood addition, we are forcing our brains to make an effort. Also, this already simulates the structure of an exam. At the exam, the questions are not divided into topics.
How to study effectively depends on your class (math - doing, psychology - explaining, etc.)
For non-technical classes (e.g., English, History, Psychology), figure out the big ideas so you can explain, contrast, and re-evaluate them.
For technical classes, work on the problems and explain the steps and why they work.
🧘♀️ Quick fixes for getting unstuck
I recommend the following posts if you struggle with thought circles or other negative emotions.
- 4 scientifically-proven methods to stop negative thinking
- Find focus fast
- 5 mini-coaching interventions to minimize negative thought patterns
What follows are some ideas when feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.
- Change the study place (go to the library, a cafe, outside, a place you have never been before)
- Take a day off. Ali Abdaal calls this the Reitoff Principle
If there’s a day where I get home from work a little late and I’m feeling pretty tired, I’ll just write-off the evening and lounge on the sofa reading a book or getting through my backlog of Peter McKinnon and Matt D'Avella videos, completely guilt-free.
But on days where I’ve got plenty of time and energy to crank out a video or blog post, I’ll devote 100% of my attention to that, and hopefully avoid the procrastination trap.
- Cold shower, ice bath
- 20 minutes nap
- Switch the subject you are studying
- Change the material you are studying, e.g., Try reading your book with an app that reads the text aloud to set a pace. This is precisely how runners keep their pace. They have another person running next to them, looking to achieve their personal goal. (same if keeping up with the voice while reading the textbook)
- switch your study space
- Do not forge yourself to continue; take a break.
Visualize and draw to link thoughts and get a better understanding of the topic you are learning
- Use graphs and clusters to organize the information in your head - we think in pictures and not in subjects and categori.es
- Always come back to the big picture after having studied one chapter. Ask yourself: Where does the information I have just read fit when looking at the big picture?
- Bringing your thoughts down on paper helps to understand (the connection between hands and brain and takes more time)
Other tools to use when getting stuck
Wingwave music is used in performance coaching. These alternating tones on the left and right ear lead to activating the prefrontal cortex in the cerebrum and improving networking performance. These are perfect conditions to get into the flow state fast.
On this website, you can combine 28 different background sounds to create a learning atmosphere you can concentrate on.
💣 One Day before the exam
What would be the topic I would hate to come to the exam?
What topic has the teacher mentioned several times? But maybe I didn't feel like studying it?
Now it's time to look at your weak points.
Ask yourself questions, and do not reread your notes.
💥 Exam Day: Do the same as always - Don't reinvent the wheel
If you never run in the morning, don't run.
If you never drink coffee, don't drink coffee on exam day because you think it may give you an extra boost.
It is not the time to try out new things. Don't risk anything.
💭 Reflect on what came up, what worked, and what didn't: (After the exam is before the exam)
- Write notes on what you have learned about the subject.
- How satisfied are you with your performance in relation to your learning?
- What would you have done differently if you could start learning again from the beginning?
- What will you keep learning?
- What questions and topics have come up?
I had my folders for each subject in notion where I wrote everything down about the exam:
1. What did the teacher ask?
2. Which questions didn't I expect?
3. How should I study differently next time?
4. What would I have done the same?
3 Studying methods which you should avoid ✋ DON'Ts ❌
Do not reread
Often we tell ourselves to have understood a topic, even though we only remember reading about it in the past.
We do not know it. We do not yet fully understand it. However, this is the risk of rereading.
We fool ourselves.
Do not highlight
There are revision techniques of much higher utility than highlighting in your textbook.
Do not take notes
If you take notes, try to take them in your own words. Listen and engage. Write down testing questions for yourself.
The problem is that we never learned HOW to take notes. The Cornell Method is a great method of taking notes using active recall to take your grades to a higher level.
Make it stick: The science of successful learning.
I searched for the best-ever evidence-based books on how to study and learn anything and found the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown.
If we look at the rating about the total number of ratings given, Make it Stick is the book that scored the highest.
A mind full of Numbers
I later found out that A mind for numbers even got a rating for numbers got 4.21 ⭐ with over 18.000 ratings.
However, A Mind for Numbers is a more niche book because it focuses on how to study technical and mathematical subjects.
The author Barbara Oakley also made the most popular online course on learning how to learn on Coursera.
#1. Get a general overview of the topic by using sources like youtube.
#2. Create a plan on what the teacher wants and how you will tackle the subject.
#3. Use Practice-Exams and active recall for pretesting what you already know.
#4. Interleaving to make it difficult: Switch the subtopic to think instead of memorize.
#5. Integrate, move and fully embody.
#6. Use spaced repetition to space out your revision times.
More on learning new information:
- Active Recall: This is the most effective study method (after +100 years of research), according to science
- 8 underestimated ways to overcome laziness & start studying a subject you don't like
- Discover the Cornell Method, which combines active recall and note-taking, to take your grades to a higher level
Book Resources on How to Study and developing study habits
- Make it Stick
- How to Become a Straight-A Student
- Deep Work
- 10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)
- Eat That Frog!
- Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
Studies & Articles Resources
- Studying 101: Study Smarter Not Harder
- Effectiveness of highlighting for retention of text material.
- How to Effectively Study
- How Do Students Really Study (and Does It Matter)?