Opinion | There Are Better Ways to Study That Will Last You a Lifetime (2023)


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Guest Essay

Opinion | There Are Better Ways to Study That Will Last You a Lifetime (1)

By Daniel T. Willingham

Mr. Willingham is a psychologist at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of “Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning Is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy.”

Picture your preschooler’s teacher pulling you aside at pickup time to say that your child was “not taking responsibility” for learning the alphabet. You’d be puzzled and probably angry. It’s not up to a 4-year-old to make sure he learns the alphabet. That’s the teacher’s job.

But as your child gets older, he’ll increasingly be expected to teach himself. High school seniors must read difficult books independently, commit information to memory, schedule their work, cope with test anxiety and much more.

These demands build slowly across the grades, essentially forming a second, unnoticed curriculum: learning how to learn independently.

For most American students, that curriculum goes untaught. In a 2007 survey, just 20 percent of college students agreed that they study as they do “because a teacher (or teachers) taught you to study that way.”

And that lack of instruction shows. Students don’t know much about how they learn.

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In one study, researchers asked college students to select which of two scenarios would lead to better learning. For example, students were asked to compare creating one’s own mnemonic with using one the teacher provides. (Creating your own is better, previous research shows.)

For two of the six scenarios, students picked the worse strategy as often as the better one. For the other four, most students actually thought the worse strategy was superior.

How could they be so misinformed? You would think that after years of studying and then seeing their test results, students would figure out which methods work and which don’t.

Students get studying wrong because they don’t assess whether a method works in the long run. Instead, they pay attention to whether the method is easy to do and feels like it’s working while they’re doing it.

By analogy, suppose I were trying to get stronger by doing push-ups. You watch me train, and are surprised that I’m practicing push-ups on my knees. When you suggest that push-ups on my toes are a better exercise, I reply: “I tried that, but I can do lots more on my knees. And this way they’re not so hard!”

Students try to learn by doing the mental equivalent of push-ups on their knees.

For example, student surveys show that rereading notes or textbooks is the most common way students prepare for a test. Rereading is easy because the mind can skitter along the surface of the material without closely considering its meaning, but that’s exactly why it’s a poor way to learn. If you want to learn the meaning — as most tests require you to — then you must think about meaning when you study.

Yet, insidiously, rereading feels effective.

Rereading a textbook makes the content feel familiar. But judging that content is familiar and knowing what it means — being able to describe it, being able to use that knowledge when you think — are supported by different processes in the brain. Because they are separate, familiarity can increase even if knowledge of the meaning doesn’t increase. That’s what’s happened when a person looks very familiar but you can’t identify her.

And so, as students reread their textbooks, the increasing familiarity makes them think they are learning. But because they are not thinking about the meaning of what they read, they aren’t improving the knowledge that actually builds understanding.

Psychologists have developed much better ways to study, some of them counterintuitive. For example, if you’ve only partially learned some material, trying to remember it is a better way to solidify that fragile learning than studying more.

In one experiment demonstrating this effect, students read educational passages of about 260 words (for example, about sea otters) under one of three conditions. Some students repeatedly read and studied the text for four consecutive study periods, each lasting five minutes. A second group read and studied the text for three periods and in the fourth, which lasted 10 minutes, wrote as many ideas from the passage as they could remember. A third group studied for one period and tried to remember the material during the other three.

After the four periods, students judged how well they had learned the material and, unsurprisingly, the more students had studied, the more confident they were in their knowledge.

A week later, everyone returned for another test, and the results showed how misplaced student confidence was. The people who had studied just once (and recalled the material three times) remembered the passage best. The worst memory was shown by those who had studied the most — and had been the most confident about their learning.

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When students read textbooks, they again gravitate toward easy methods that, misleadingly, feel effective. They like to highlight, which adds little time to reading, and which students assume can guide future studying. But research shows there’s little benefit to highlighting over simply reading, in part because students mostly highlight definitions, not deeper concepts.

Educational psychologists have developed strategies for effective reading that even middle school students can use. Readers are told to perform a task while they read, for example, to identify conclusions and ask themselves how they are supported. This task requires that students focus on high-level themes as well as the details that support them.

Psychologists have even developed strategies to address one of the most pernicious problems in schooling: Students cram for tests and rapidly forget what they’ve learned.

In one study, college students used a flashcard-like program to test themselves on a subset of concepts from an introductory psychology class they were taking. There were six practice sessions, each separated by a couple days or more.

On the course exam, students scored modestly better on the practiced than the unpracticed content, 80 percent correct versus 69 percent correct.

But the real payoff came three days later, when students came to the laboratory for another test of the concepts.

Researchers expected that students had crammed for the course exam and would have forgotten most of the content. And indeed, students scored 14 percent correct on the unpracticed content questions, even though only three days had passed.

But when tested on the content they’d reviewed in those six brief practice sessions, students got 66 percent correct. On a follow-up test three weeks later, they still scored 65 percent correct.

These are striking results, but studying days in advance of an exam requires planning, and most college students don’t see the need. When surveyed about how they decide what to work on, 13 percent of college students mention following a plan. The most common answer is that they just work on whatever is due next.

This is another challenge to improving study skills: Students think some tasks are so straightforward that they don’t require a strategy.

For example, most of my students see no need for a strategy when listening to my lectures. It feels like they’re part of an audience, attending a performance. Who uses a strategy to watch a movie?

And they’re right; comprehending a movie is easy. True, they must piece together the individual scenes to understand the plot, but movies are structured as narratives, and that familiar framework helps. What’s more, movies are honed and reworked by experts to be easily understood and instantly entertaining.

Just as movie scenes must be knit together into a plot, a student attending a lecture must not simply understand facts but understand how they relate to form a theme or argument. But my lectures are not entertaining stories, devised by an expert communicator.

As they have for reading, educational psychologists have developed strategies for listening that encourage students to relate individual points to broader conclusions. That helps them discern the organization of the lecture and thus understand it more deeply.

Or would, if students knew about this strategy and were persuaded it would help them. And that seems to suggest an obvious next step: High schools should require a study skills class.

Carefully structured classes of this sort show promise, but they would be more effective if all teachers could help students tune those skills to their specific classrooms.

Often, teachers can’t, because they don’t know the best study strategies. You would think that comprehensive knowledge of how children learn would be part of teacher education, and most programs do require a course in educational psychology or child development, but the impact seems limited. Teachers in training don’t know the best study strategies, either.

State lawmakers can help by reviewing teacher licensing examinations. Most require knowledge of principles of learning, but the expectations are low and many even refer to scientifically discredited ideas like so-called learning styles.

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Most people hope that schools will encourage each child to become a lifelong learner, which means teachers must show students how to learn effectively on their own. That’s unlikely until teachers have that knowledge themselves.

Daniel T. Willingham (@DTWillingham) is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of “Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning Is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy.”

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.


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What is the best way to study effectively? ›

Part 5 – How to Study More Efficiently
  1. Take Regular Breaks. Study sessions will be more productive if you allow yourself to take planned breaks. ...
  2. Take Notes in Class. ...
  3. Exercise First. ...
  4. Review and Revise Your Notes at Home. ...
  5. Start with Your Toughest Assignments. ...
  6. Focus on Key Vocabulary. ...
  7. Join a Study Group.
Nov 6, 2022

What two ways do you think you can use to help you study better? ›

10 Steps to Improve Your Study Skills
  • Behavior modification can work for you. ...
  • Do not study more than an hour at a time without taking a break. ...
  • Separate the study of subjects that are alike. ...
  • Do not study when you are tired. ...
  • Prepare for your class at the best time. ...
  • Use the best note-taking system for you.

Why is it better to study? ›

Studying is not just important for educational development, but also builds personal skills. Having good study skills can improve your confidence, competence, and self-esteem. As well as helps reduce stress and anxiety around deadlines and exams.

Is studying the more the better? ›

More study improves grades, but not as much as you think

Over 30 years of research shows that students doing more homework get better grades.

What are the most effective studying times? ›

Although new discoveries prove that timing may not be everything, it is important if you want to create and perform at your best consistently. That said, science has indicated that learning is most effective between 10 am to 2 pm and from 4 pm to 10 pm, when the brain is in an acquisition mode.

How can I study and make the most of my time? ›

« Back
  1. Learn how you learn.
  2. Organize yourself.
  3. Make study time part of your schedule.
  4. Ask questions and get help.
  5. Don't be afraid of those difficult subjects.
  6. Study in chunks and take regular breaks.
  7. Make sure you have time to review.
  8. Study with others.

How can I improve my study skills and memory? ›

Simple memory tips and tricks
  1. Try to understand the information first. Information that is organized and makes sense to you is easier to memorize. ...
  2. Link it. ...
  3. Sleep on it. ...
  4. Self-test. ...
  5. Use distributed practice. ...
  6. Write it out. ...
  7. Create meaningful groups. ...
  8. Use mnemonics.

How can I motivate myself to study? ›

Here, therefore, are our top tips for staying motivated.
  1. Break the task down into manageable chunks. ...
  2. Keep your end goal in mind—but also use interim goals on the way. ...
  3. Get into a study routine. ...
  4. Try different study approaches. ...
  5. Don't let your studying take over your life.

What are three reasons to study? ›

10 reasons why we should study
  • To gain knowledge. ...
  • To discover hidden talents. ...
  • To acquire critical thinking skills. ...
  • To improve communication skills. ...
  • To practice effective time management. ...
  • To develop resourcefulness. ...
  • To cultivate creativity. ...
  • To foster teamwork and collaboration.
Nov 12, 2021

What are the three main benefits of study? ›

Questions and Answers on English essay 'Of Studies' Question: What are the main benefits of study in the essay “Of Studies” by Francis Bacon? Ans: According to The greatest essayist Fracis Bacon the main benefits of study are delight, ornament and ability.

Why is more people in a study better? ›

The more people that participate, the better the study is. Having a large number of participants reduces the risk of accidently having extreme, or biased, groups – such as having all adults or all children in a study that should have equal numbers of adults and children.

Which is better learning or studying? ›

You can say studying is about observing and absorbing the content -- you understand things in a manner where you do not really engage that much with topic. Learning, on the other hand, is a lot more active -- you understand things through hands-on experience. Learning actually calls for practice.

How can I make myself study everyday? ›

10 ways to motivate yourself to study
  1. Acknowledge your resistance and difficult feelings with motivation. ...
  2. Do not run away. ...
  3. Do not blame yourself for procrastinating now and then. ...
  4. Try to understand your studying style better. ...
  5. Don't question your abilities. ...
  6. Visualise yourself starting. ...
  7. Focus on the task at hand.
Nov 13, 2015

How can I study without getting distracted? ›

6 ways to avoid social media distraction while learning online
  1. Close any social media sites & apps. ...
  2. Limit your smartphone usage.
  3. Turn off your phone or leave it out of reach.
  4. Create a social media schedule.
  5. Research where your time is going and use reminders.
  6. Replace your time on social media with other activities.

What are some effective study skills? ›

  • Read more than once.
  • Highlight and take notes.
  • Make margin notes.
  • Don't put off reading assignments until the last minute!
  • Review after reading.
  • Keep from dozing off: don't read right before going to bed, and don't read in bed.
  • Read and understand captions and figures.
  • Make a glossary of terms.

What motivates students to study hard? ›

Students may be motivated by their interest in a topic, their prior success in a specific subject, a desire to please parents or teachers or simply by their own drive to succeed.

What is the main purpose of study? ›

The Purpose of the Study statement helps the subject assess the importance of the study relative to individual values. The statement should include not only the immediate purpose of the study, but also any larger, eventual purpose.

What are three ways to prepare to study? ›

You'll study better if you take care of yourself. Make sure you eat well and get enough sleep and physical exercise. Don't reward yourself with too many sugary or fatty snacks or push yourself to study late into the night. It's also a good idea to make sure you drink lots of water when you're studying.

What is the most important factor in studying? ›


It is the most important factor influencing the learner. If the learner has no motivation to learn, any amount of force will be futile. More the motivation better will be the learning.

Why do people study differently? ›

Everyone learns differently. No two brains are alike. The brain is made up of many different networks that help learning. Some people learn better by seeing, others learn better by hearing and still others need to do something in order to really learn new information.

Do students learn better by doing? ›

Learning by doing encourages active engagement with available materials and forces you to work harder to remember the material. It's an effective technique because it helps ingrain knowledge into your memory.

How much studying is effective? ›

Most people recommend studying for 3 to 4 hours every day on a set schedule that allows your brain to work at its full capacity. You should avoid studying for more than five or six hours as this can lead to burnout and cause you to lose the information that you have learned.

What is a good quote about learning? ›

Learning never exhausts the mind.” “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” “Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.” “The beautiful thing about learning is that nobody can take it away from you.”

How do you keep motivated? ›

How can I stay motivated?
  1. Regularly review your goals and progress. ...
  2. Continue to set new goals. ...
  3. Keep the momentum up. ...
  4. Find mentors, for example, someone you look up to who is experienced in the habit you want to change. ...
  5. Surround yourself with positive people.

What is the 123 method of studying? ›

The most common use of 3-2-1 I've seen is in response to a reading or lesson–usually 3 things you learned, 2 things that made you curious or confused, and 1 most important thing you learned or should do with what you've learned.

How can I study better with ADHD? ›

Don't wait until you 'feel like' doing something
  1. Set a deadline. This will help you manage your time and get things done on time.
  2. Do one thing at a time. ...
  3. Study during short periods of focused time. ...
  4. Set small, achievable, and realistic goals. ...
  5. Break up larger projects. ...
  6. Use lists. ...
  7. Take breaks. ...
  8. Reward yourself.
Nov 14, 2022

How many hours a day should you study? ›

Most people recommend studying for 3 to 4 hours every day on a set schedule that allows your brain to work at its full capacity. You should avoid studying for more than five or six hours as this can lead to burnout and cause you to lose the information that you have learned.

What is the 50 50 method for studying? ›

While understanding and learning a person tends to finish the concepts in one-go, but in case of the rule; one should learn for half of the time and share what they have learned in the other half. Sharing can be in anyway. The learner can write the key points, or can explain to someone a friend, or a family member.

What is 1 2 4 7 study method? ›

What is 1247 Technique? Its a memory technique wherein you should revise whatever you have studied thrice after the 1st study. So effectively, you will study 4 times in 1-2-4-7 order.

What is one way to study? ›

Preview: Preview the information before you start reading to get an idea of the subject. Skim the material and read only the headers, subheadings, and highlighted text. Question: Ask yourself questions related to the topic, such as, What do I expect to learn?

How do you study when you can't focus? ›

Methods to improve your focus
  1. Keep calm. If you're distracted and can't concentrate, take a slow deep breath to help you calm down. ...
  2. Isolate the problem. ...
  3. Manage the cause. ...
  4. Create a study schedule. ...
  5. Get a head start. ...
  6. Create accountability. ...
  7. Quick tips for effective study. ...
  8. How can I force my mind to study?
Nov 24, 2022

How can I study without getting bored? ›

10 Ways to Have Fun While You Study
  1. Listen to good music. ...
  2. Turn it into a game for yourself. ...
  3. Turn it into a game with others. ...
  4. Use nice stationery. ...
  5. Try roleplay. ...
  6. Study somewhere different. ...
  7. Challenge yourself. ...
  8. Write comics, short stories or songs.

How do you study when you don't want to? ›

10 ways to motivate yourself to study
  1. Acknowledge your resistance and difficult feelings with motivation. ...
  2. Do not run away. ...
  3. Do not blame yourself for procrastinating now and then. ...
  4. Try to understand your studying style better. ...
  5. Don't question your abilities. ...
  6. Visualise yourself starting. ...
  7. Focus on the task at hand.
Nov 13, 2015

How many hours can your brain study? ›

The human brain is able to focus up to two hours, after which it needs a 20-30 minute break. The average American spends about 9 hours a day at work. According to the NeuroLeadership Institute, work focus equals about 6 hours a week.

How many hours do top students sleep? ›

Sleep is crucial to physical health, brain function, and learning. Eight hours of sleep a night is ideal, but some students need closer to nine.

How do you know when to stop studying? ›

When to stop studying – 3 ways to know you should call it quits
  1. You know your material. This one may seem obvious, but you should stop studying when you know the material. ...
  2. You are exhausted. Of course we are all exhausted. ...
  3. You have already been studying for an hour.
Feb 13, 2019

What are strong study skills? ›

Get up early to get stuff done. Reward yourself when tasks are complete. Schedule your “me” time (so it doesn't eat up study time) Read the syllabus and make plans from it. Prioritize and schedule what you need to do – be realistic!

Which skill is important to study? ›

Problem-solving skills are important both for studying and for practical reasons when you're a student. These skills help you overcome challenges and find solutions so that you're able to study successfully. They also help you answer questions and form ideas.

What are the three studying strategies? ›

These three study techniques that have worked well for me, and hopefully they can help you reach your academic and career goals:
  • Taking notes by hand. Since we live in such a technological age, some people might be surprised to know that it helps me to handwrite my notes. ...
  • Having a quiet place to study. ...
  • Read, write, recite.


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