The Best Study Skills - Five Strategies You Need to Know and Use

Advice on the best study skills can be found in many books and across the web. However, these sources often gloss over certain memory-related habits that can really help you remember the material much better.

On this page I describe five proven study strategies that every student should know and use to maximize their retention of the material.

Much of my understanding of the best study skills comes from the book Your Memory : How It Works and How to Improve It by Dr. Kenneth Higbee.

According to Dr. Higbee, the study skills you should be using are:

  1. Reduce Interference Jump down
  2. Space It Out Jump down
  3. Use Whole and Part Learning Jump down
  4. Recite It Jump down
  5. Use a Study System Jump down

Dr. Higbee refers to these as "strategies for effective learning". Below I've explained each of these with examples.

When used consistently, these study techniques can help improve your understanding and memory regardless of material. The methods are effective for gradeschool, college, online courses, independent study, or any other learning environment.

Make these five best study skills a part of every study session, and you should be able to recall the information much more easily.

Best Study Skills #1: Reduce Interference Back to top

best study skills

One cause of forgetting is something called "interference". Interference occurs when information you have learned previously interferes with (gets in the way of) new material that is similar.

Interference may cause confusion when the time comes to recall the material. The brain can mix up new information with what was learned before.

For example, suppose you met several people at a business conference last week. Then, you met several more people at a party last night. Interference may cause you to confuse the names of people at the conference with those you met at the party and vice versa.

There are several individual strategies you can employ to keep interference to a minimum:

Overlearn the Material. The better you know the material, the less likely that interference will occur. To overlearn, continue studying past the point where you can just barely recall the information.

For example, suppose you need to memorize Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, a famous speech given by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Rather than stopping after you are able to remember the speech just once without mistakes, continue studying it further to achieve better mastery.

Research shows that overlearning strengthens memory for any material, and one of the ways it does this is by reducing possible interference.

Make It Meaningful. Another way to reduce interference is to make the information more meaningful. To best remember what you are learning, the material needs to make sense rather than just be learned by rote. Interference can still happen even with meaningful material, but it will occur less often.

Some ways you can make what you are learning more meaningful include:

  1. Familiarity. The more you know about a subject the easier it is to learn new material related to it. For example, experienced chess players are able to memorize new moves more quickly than other people who are not familiar with chess.

    To my way of thinking, the principle of familiarity is one of the many benefits of being a life-long learner interested in a wide range of subjects. Something you learn today may help you learn related material some time in the future.

  2. Rhymes. If you can convert the information you want to remember into a rhyme, it will be more meaningful and therefore easier to remember. You have probably heard such mnemonic rhymes as "In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue," or "I before E, except after C."

    While it may take you a few moments to construct a rhyme for a given piece of information, you'll reap the benefit of familiarity that will help you remember the material later.

  3. Patterns. In the same way that rhymes make information more meaningful, patterns do the same. Look for patterns in any material you want to learn.

    For example, when learning a list of codes, identify repeating patterns or rules that can help you quickly memorize subsections of the list.

    When memorizing phone numbers or other long numbers, break the numbers of into memorable patterns if possible. If you need remember the number 345376388391, it helps to notice that every fourth number is a "3", as in 345-376-388-391.

    Even in the absence of patterns, the direct chunking of long numbers into a series of shorter numbers aids memory.

Minimize Intervening Activity. Interference increases as the amount of activity between study time and the time to recall the material increases. A lot of intervening mental activity especially increases the chances of interference.

If you have an exam coming up, the best way to minimize interference is to go to sleep (assuming you have studied sufficiently). While this principle is important, I realize it isn't always practical as you may need to study multiple subjects at once or have other activities you need to participate in. But it is good to keep in mind nevertheless; use it when you can.

Don't Study Similar Subjects Together. Forgetting due to interference will also increase if you try to study similar subject close together. For example, suppose you need to study biochemistry, organic chemistry, and trigonometry during the next few days. Since biochemistry and organic chemistry are somewhat similar, it would be better to study trigonometry between them to lessen possible interference.

Study Different Subjects in Different Rooms. Another proven way to reduce interference is to study in different contexts for different subjects that might interfere with one another.

four color pen
Four-Color Pen

For example, suppose you are taking courses in both French and Spanish. To prevent confusion between these two similar languages, study French in one room and Spanish in a different room. Even using different colored inks for the two subjects when taking notes can help reduce interference.

When using image-based techniques to memorize similar material, create separate mental "rooms" by including a subject-anchor in your images. For instance, integrate the Eiffel Tower into your French images and a sombrero into your Spanish images.

Use Separate Study Sessions. Avoid studying all your subjects at the same time. Research shows that there is better remembering and less interference if only one subject is learned during a particular study session.

So when studying, don't skip around between English, History, Math, and so on. Instead, spend sufficient time with one subject, then study the others in separate study sessions.

Even if you don't have several days to separate your studying, it helps to take even a short break. For instance, after studying Math, get up and take a break before starting English. Get a snack or drink of water to help re-set your brain in preparation for the next subject to be studied.

Best Study Skills #2: Space It Out Back to top

study schedule

The second of the best study skills recommended by Dr. Higbee is to space out the studying for any particular subject. In other words, for best remembering it would be better to study your Math chapter in three 1-hour sessions than in a long 3-hour session.

As every student knows, trying to learn all the material in one study session is called "cramming". While cramming might get you through the test the next day (or not), research shows it is a very poor way to actually learn.

In the same way that breaking up the material of several different subjects into multiple, separate study sessions enhances memory for the material, breaking up the study of a single subject does the same. However, to do this successfully requires that you budget your time. Many students fail to plan ahead in their studying, and they pay for this with poorer learning and academic performance than they are capable of.

If you want an advantage over your classmates, start studying ahead of time, and separate your studies for each subject into more than one session. There are at least three reasons why this spaced learning is better than cramming:

  1. The Limits of Attention. Quite simply, there is a limit to how long you can focus on a given set of material. If you try to learn too much at once, your ability to concentrate on the material as you are learning suffers. Lack of concentration and attention leads to poor recollection of the material.
  2. Consolidation During Breaks. Research suggests that your brain strengthens memories during breaks. When you try to cram everything at once, there are no significant breaks, and less consolidation of memories occurs.
  3. Differing Contexts/Moods. Memory is aided by environmental context. In other words, the room you study in, the type of pen or pencil you use when studying, or even your mood can link what you learned during studying with what you can recall of the material during testing.

    Therefore, the more study sessions you have for one subject, the better the chance that your mood or some other factor will match the environment during your test time. And this can subconsciously aid memory.

Due to these three factors, the actual time required to master the material when you space out your learning is less than when cramming. However, there is a limit to the benefit of spacing. Dividing 3 hours into 18 ten-minute study sessions is not likely to be efficient.

As a rule of thumb, set shorter periods for harder subjects and longer periods for easier subjects. Also, the more mature you are or the more advanced with the subject, the longer you can probably study per session.

Best Study Skills #3: Use Whole and Part Learning Back to top

whole learning

The third of the best study skills is knowing when to break up the material.

For example, if you need to study and remember a long chapter in your history book, should you try to learn everything in the chapter straight through, or study the individual chapter sections carefully one by one?

The best approach is often a combination of the two.

Some options you have include:

  1. Whole Method with Extra Studying for Parts. With this approach, you first use the whole method to get a good grasp of the material. In other words, read straight through everything carefully once or twice. Then you separate out the more difficult sections for extra study and reinforcement.
  2. Whole-Part-Whole Method. First go straight through all the material a couple of times quickly. Then break up the material into logical parts that you study separately. At the end, go back and review everything from beginning to end. This method is particularly effective for long and difficult material.
  3. Progressive Part Method. With this approach, you break up the material into sections and begin studying the first part. Then you move on to studying the second part but you study the first part again along with the second part. When studying the third part, you also review the first and second parts.

    You continue this way all through the material. This progressive learning approach helps prevent you from forgetting the material you learned at the beginning as you go along, and it also helps you organize all the material conceptually in your brain.

    In other words, it's easier to remember "the big picture" as you progress through what you are studying using this method.

Serial Position Effect. DID YOU KNOW? The order in which items in a list are organized can affect how easy it is to learn them. This is known as the serial position effect. "Serial" simply means something in a line.

It turns out that items at the beginning and the end are easiest to remember, while the items in the middle are the hardest to remember. Also, the last few items are easier to remember than the first items.

So when studying a list or group of items, do this:

  • If you are allowed to rearrange: If the items do not need to be in a certain order, arrange your list so the more complicated, less meaningful items are at the beginning and the end of the list. Put the simpler, more meaningful items in the middle.

  • If you are not allowed to rearrange: If you can't change the order of the items, spend more time and effort studying the items in the middle.

So the next time you need to learn a list or group of facts, such as a list of spelling words or material from a lecture - try rearranging the information, or spend more time studying the middle.

Best Study Skills #4: Recite It Back to top

recite

The fourth of the best study skills is recitation, which means saying back to yourself the information you just learned.

Every so often when studying, pause, look away from the material, and try to remember the facts of what you just learned. If you cannot, it's an indication you need to go back and re-read it.

There are various ways you can do recitation to improve your memory of the material. For example, consider repeating the information out loud as Abraham Lincoln famously did for memorization tasks. Verbal repetition forces you to pay better attention.

How to Proceed. When starting your study session, begin by reading through the section headings of the chapter. After doing so, look away and try to recall them. If you have trouble doing this, consider linking them using the image-based Link memory system.

You can use the headings themselves as a memory aid. Recall each chapter heading, then try to explain to yourself the contents of that chapter section. If you cannot do so adequately, that's a signal you should spend more time studying that section.

Study Aids. Research supports the use of flash cards as an effective means of creating a strong memory of the material. Flash cards are small, blank cards, often 3" x 5" in size (in the U.S.). You can make your own flash cards or use premade sets of cards. Here's an example of a vocabulary flash card that I made:

Index Card - Front   Index Card - Back

I've written the fact I want to remember on the front of the flash card and the definition on the back. Quickly flipping through a stack of flash cards is a great way to quickly recite and test your memory for a large amount of material.

Flash cards can be made for many types of subject matter. Other common examples include math flash cards to memorize basic math facts, and sight words flash cards to memorize how to spell basic English language vocabulary.

Use a Partner. Another good recitation strategy is to get with a partner and quiz each other. This is most effective when each partner has already done significant studying, of course. Not only should each partner ask for simple facts from the material, but it is especially helpful if partners make up questions for the other partner to answer.

Recitation is one of the best study skills because it forces you to do several important things that aid memory:

  • Active Learning. Recitation is active learning which engages more than one of your senses;

  • Feedback. Recitation gives you feedback so you know what part of the material you need to spend more time on;

  • Concentration. Recitation forces you to concentrate and pay attention to the material.

Not only that, but reciting is actually good practice for exam time. Think about it; recitation is exactly what you do when being tested. During the exam, you try to recall the material as accurately as possible from memory. It makes perfect sense to practice during your study sessions what you are going to be doing on the test.

You should spend as much time reciting as possible. Rather than re-reading the chapter over and over, recite the facts in the chapter from memory until you know them very well.

Best Study Skills #5: Use a Study System Back to top

study system

The fifth of the best study skills is the use of a "study system". A study system is simply a standard method of approaching the study of any material.

Quite a few of these systems have been created over the years. One of the oldest and best-known study system is "SQ3R".

SQ3R is an acronym that stands for the steps of the system, which are Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review.

Here is how to perform each step of the SQ3R study method:

  1. Survey. This is similar in concept to the "whole learning" mentioned above. However, instead of trying to learn the material in detail, when surveying you just want to understand the framework of the information.

    To survey the material, read the various structural parts quickly without digging too deep. It's almost like forming a mental outline.

    Read the preface, table of contents, and the chapter summaries. Read all the main headings and subheadings within the chapters. Carefully examine any graphs or pictures, and read the captions. When surveying you want to study everything except the actual meat of the material.

  2. Question. After completing your survey, again go through the same parts you just surveyed and ask yourself questions about each one. For example, if you are beginning to study a math chapter on the quadratic formula, ask yourself questions like "What is the quadratic formula, and why is it important?", "Is this formula useful in real life?", or "Why is it called 'quadratic'?".

    Thinking of questions keeps you focused and really engages you with the material. Even before reading the details, you will already be thinking deeply about the content.

  3. Read. After surveying the framework of the material and thinking of questions related to it, it is now time to read the paragraphs and other detailed sections. Many students jump right to this step without first surveying and questioning, which makes it much harder to place the material into your memory in an orderly way.

    Read straight through everything without taking notes. Makes sure to read through the graphs, chapters summaries, etc. again as well. Use speed reading techniques, especially during your first pass through the material, to save time and increase comprehension.

    You probably want to avoid underlining as you read through the first time. The reason is that on first reading you can't really judge what is most or least important to remember. Underlining the wrong things can actually hurt your memory of the information.

  4. Recite. As discussed above, reciting means to ask and answer questions about the information. Go through the chapter and read each heading and subheading. Ask yourself questions about the headings, and answer from memory without looking at the book.

    You may want to recite out loud the specific facts you want to remember. Research shows this can boost your memory by 25% or more. Reciting aloud to another person (for example, your study partner) increases the strength of the memory even further.

    Reciting step by step through the chapter will give you a very accurate picture of how well you know the material. Experts recommend you spend at least half of your time reciting.

  5. Review. The review step should take only a few minutes. The review consists of reciting your way through the material again. The more times you can review before your exam, spaced out over hours or days if possible, the better you will likely remember the material.

    Never end a reading session without reviewing the main points of what you have just read. This is one of the most important tips for remembering any material.

    This same idea of reviewing information from a book you are studying also applies to notes you take during lectures. Use the same SQ3R steps when studying your notes.

The SQ3R method can be used with a wide range of material, including English, History, Science, Math, and related subjects. As with most study skills, using the SQ3R method takes a bit of extra time, but in the end you save time.

By using it you remember the material faster and better. Use of study systems like SQ3R has been shown to improve reading rate, comprehension, and performance on exams.

As I mentioned above, there are other study skills you may know about, but these five - 1) reducing interference, 2) spacing it out, 3) using whole and part learning, 4) reciting, and 5) using a study system - are some of the best study skills you will ever come across.

I highly recommend that all students, regardless of their learning environment (school, work, or self-study) use and master these five best study skills. You won't regret it!

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