How to Study Effectively: Scientifically Proven Methods
What are the best scientifically proven methods for studying and revising effectively? We provide a detailed analysis on everything from active recall to teaching your piers to whether eating blueberries is useful!
Don’t have time? Read our summary of all the main points that we talk about here, with references if you want to read more about it.
Be Healthy and Exercise Regularly
Importance of Exercise
We all know that exercise is good for the heart, bones and muscles, however, how good is it for the mind? Here are four key points you can take away:
- Exercise will give you a boost of energy
- Kick starts your brain which can improve your memory and increase your cognitive performance
- Aerobic exercise prevents depression and anxiety – an unfortunately common symptom in those with chronic exam stress. Read more about this in this study.
- Anaerobic physical activity, such as bodybuilding or flexibility training, can also reduce depressive symptoms. So pick up those weights and start working out!
Get Enough Sleep
You should be getting at least 8 hours of sleep a night.
I know, it’s hard, but you have to try.
Sleep has been shown to help with memory and alertness. Therefore by not getting the recommended amount, you will be hurting no one but yourself.
The main problem students face is getting to sleep on time.
You know that you have to wake up for 8 am for school, however, you just can’t get to bed on time.
Well here are a few things you can try:
- Leave your phone on the desk – bringing your phone into bed with you is a recipe for disaster. Leave it out of sight. If you need to use it for an alarm then put it somewhere that you will need to stand up and get it. This will help you wake up as you won’t be tempted to snooze it.
- Wake up at the same time on the weekends – if you wake up at 8 am on the weekdays, then you should be waking up at 8 am on the weekends. This will help keep you consistent in not only what time you wake up, but what time you go to sleep.
- Remove blue light – screens emit a lot of blue light which can mess up your sleep cycle. Before you go to bed, read a book for half an hour. This will help you get relaxed and prevent you from watching videos on your iPad until 2 am.
What Foods Should I Eat?
You may not realise it, but the food you have has a direct effect on your mental performance. Don’t eat pizza, burgers and fries every day if you want that A*!
- Berries (e.g. blueberries) can improve brain performance. As a bonus, they also protect against brain diseases like dementia. (2014 study)
- Fatty fish, nuts and soybeans (for the omega-3) are linked with increased brain blood flow and cognitive function. (2017 study)
- Coffee, or more specifically the caffeine, increases attention and helps with memory – not technically a food but coffee cannot be left off a list about how to study. (2013 paper)
- Dark Chocolate may help with long-term memory, but don’t start stuffing your face with it. They are still high in calories, so have them in limited quantities. (2019 review)
Make a Plan
When starting the academic year, you should ensure that you have two sets of plans, a long term plan, and a short term plan.
Long term plan
The long term plan is a general plan that includes what you want to achieve before the exam. An example would look like this:
Plan for the next day
The short term plan includes what you want to do in the next few days. An exact schedule including timings is not completely necessary but may be useful to some people.
Every night, sit down and write out a complete plan of what you will revise tomorrow. This is not a general wishy-washy plan; this is a highly specific plan of what you will do tomorrow.
I have given a good example of what you should be aiming for below.
Remember, the main thing is that you are not too ambitious and that you stick to the plan.
Now making a plan is a great idea, but make sure hours and hours are not spent wasting time on a beautiful looking timetable.
Don’t be too ambitious
Always add 50% to the time you think it will take to do something unless you are very sure about how long something will take (e.g. doing a 1-hour past paper in exam conditions, although even here 10 mins either side will be useful so setting up and the other admin that might be involved)
Being too ambitious is one of the main sins that everyone makes. Do you think you can do all your homework in half an hour? Well, you’re wrong. It’s gonna take over an hour and a half.
Ambition is good, however, you cannot be unrealistic. There are only 24 hours in a day.
Look back at last week and think about how much work you did. That is most likely how much work you’ll do next week. That means if you didn’t do anything last week, the same thing is going to happen again if you don’t do anything about it!
- Have a plan for tomorrow
- Have a plan for next week/month
- Don’t think you can do everything
- Don’t spend too much time planning – start doing!
Motivation to Study
I’m Lacking Motivation to Study
Motivation is a myth.
Yes, you read that right.
Motivation doesn’t exist.
Although you believe that motivation is the way to start, it is a complete lie.
All you need is discipline.
You need to consistently do work, every day or every week for a long time to see any sort of improvement.
Do you think that every time you are going to sit down to study you will want to study?
So what do you do when you lack motivation? You trick your brain of course!
Trick Your Brain Into Studying
You can trick your brain into starting to revise by telling yourself you will only revise for 2 minutes.
It will be much easier to revise for 2 minutes and so you will easily be able to do it.
After the 2 minutes is up you can decide: should I continue studying?
In my experience, I find that once the two minutes is up I can’t be bothered to go back on my phone and so end up studying.
This results in me working for up to 30 minutes and sometimes 1 hour, even though at the beginning I told myself that I didn’t want to do any work.
Before You Start Studying
Keep it Clean
Having a clean desk and room is essential to clear your mind of any distractions.
If you need to then clean your desk/room for 5 minutes before you start studying, however, ensure you don’t waste too much time.
Drink Enough Water
Studies show that your brain’s overall mental processing power decreases when you’re dehydrated.
So what should you do?
Have a bottle of water next to you while you study. You can have something to do with your hands if you get bored plus it will keep you hydrated.
It’s always a good idea to bring a bottle to your exams too.
There isn’t any evidence to suggest that you have to drink 8 glasses of water a day, however, if you want to drink that much then it won’t do you any harm.
Tell Your Family
Tell everybody who lives with you that from this time to this time you are going to be studying.
You don’t want them to distract you in the middle of an important study session!
There’s nothing worse than your parents walking in on your after you’ve prepared yourself to do a couple of hours of solid work. It not only will ruin your mood but will get you distracted from the work you were about to do.
Note Down DIstractions on a Piece of Paper
Have some pen and paper next to you every time you are about to start your revision session.
Because you can write down every distraction that pops into your head down and deal with it later.
Suddenly realised you need to get a haircut?!
Don’t worry. Write it down.
After you are done revising, you can tackle all of the problems you wrote down one at a time.
This will help you stay concentrated on your studying and also help you make a handy to-do list!
Don’t waste your time. You’re never going to have the perfect study space, so don’t worry about it too much. The most important this is to get on with the work itself.
You’ve done all you can to prepare yourself, now it’s time to study.
Infographic: How to Study Effectively
How to Study Effectively: Scientifically Proven Methods
This is what you have been waiting for and so here it is, the best ways to revise that are sure to get your exam grades through the roof.
See my blog post for more details on active recall and spaced repetition.
Active recall is a fancy way of saying that you should be trying to retrieve things from your brain. This means that after you learn something you should take a second and repeat what you just learned.
Example: Let’s say you take notes during your class like the good student that you are. Then when you reach the end of the topic you add some question at the end. Then the next day you want to revise the topic.
So what do you do?
You try answering the questions of course!
Now, of course, answering questions takes a lot more effort than just reading.
You may feel that it takes too much effort and that you aren’t getting enough done. But trust me, once you put this into practice you will go away knowing the entire topic off by heart.
A quick note: you don’t have to always be successful when trying to remember something.
Marc Augustin states in his paper that “even unsuccessful attempts to retrieve information from memory” and “quizzing content that was never presented before” both seemed to “enhanced learning of that very content”.
What does all of that mean?
It means you should test yourself even if you don’t know anything. Even if you have never seen it before. And even if there is a good chance you have forgotten it.
The moral of the story is: keep on testing yourself! It’ WILL be beneficial.
Ask “How” and Why”
Asking “How” and Why” questions is a great way of learning.
However, don’t just stop there.
After asking these questions you should try and figure out the answer to them. By doing this you are using all of your brainpower to good effect and can make great strides in your understanding.
By doing this you are also utilising the power of uncertainty because you are always unsure if what you are working out is entirely correct.
An important note: if you use this method of studying then you should have a teacher or supervisor check over your work. If you go down the wrong rabbit hole then you may not realise how incorrect your assumption is.
See my blog post for more details on active recall and spaced repetition.
Spaced repetition sounds complicated but all it is is the process of spacing out when you revise. If you learn about the pumping system of the heart one day, then the next day you should revisit it, then one week after that, then the week after that.
When something is learned you start forgetting it straight away. Initially you forget it very quickly, however, if you revive/recall the information the next day, your level of forgetfulness decreases. This is all based on a fancy thing called the forgetting curve. We won’t go into detail about it now.
Practice makes perfect.
That’s how the saying goes at least, and it’s true.
In 1980, K. Anders Ericsson published a paper that described a student who practised recalling random digits that an examiner listed to him. After more than 230 hours of practice over 20 months, the student was able to increase his memory span from 7 to 79 digits.
This means that in under two years, he learned to remember 79 consecutive numbers that were listed to him at random. Incredible!
The author states that “his performance on other memory tests with digits [was equivalent to those with] lifelong training”, meaning that he also improved other number-based tests.
If that does not show you the power of practising then nothing will!
Study Multiple Subjects Per Day (Interleaving)
Rather than cramming for an exam the day before, it is much better to revise for many days in advance.
We all know this. However, there is another benefit of doing this that you may not have heard of. You end up studying more than one topic on any given day.
By studying multiple subjects per day, you are using a scientifically proven method of studying called interleaving.
Why does interleaving work?
In Yana Weinstein’s paper, he states that interleaving works because it “allows students to acquire the ability to choose the right method for solving different types of problems rather than learning only the method itself”.
That essentially means that you are learning the topic rather than brute memorising.
Connect The Dots (Elaboration)
When you learn something new, you should try and connect that new piece of information to something that you already know.
This is a difficult and active process that can sometimes take a lot of effort, however, it can produce great results.
By “connecting the dots” in your mind, you are forming better neural connections with what you are learning and what you have already learnt.
So how do you use this elaboration (connecting of dots) technique in your studying?
When you learn something new that seems like it might connect to another piece of information you should stop and think about it.
For example, if in a physics lesson you learn that weight and mass are not the same things, you may be initially confused. However, if you think about this piece of information long enough, you may remember that people on the moon were lighter (and therefore weighed less) while still having the same mass.
By connecting these ideas your understanding of the topic will increase your learning much more than your peers.
Ultimately, the greatest potential benefit of accurate self-explanation or elaboration is that the student will be able to transfer their knowledge to a new situation.
To learn more check out this 2006 study.
Taking breaks improves alertness and helps you concentrate over the long term as you will not get fatigued and exhausted as often.
You can either take a 5-minute break after 25 minutes or take a 10-minute break after 50 minutes.
As I have gotten more and more used to working and revising over my years at Medical School, I have not felt the need to take a break as often. So you can use this as gentle motivation to keep on trying. You might end up like me and end up enjoying the work that you do!
GCSE and A-Level Tips
Sit at the Front of the Class
Studies show that students who sit at the front tend to get higher exam scores.
It also increases eye contact with your teacher which is also shown to increase participation.
By sitting at the front, you’ll be able to see the board and hear the teacher more clearly, and your concentration will improve too.
You’ll also be less likely to talk with your friends as the teacher is more likely to catch you.
There are so many benefits from sitting at the front of the class. All you have to do now is do it!
Practice questions are very important when it comes to GCSEs and A-levels.
As we read above, doing questions is one of the best ways of revising out there.
Therefore past papers are an incredibly useful resource when it comes to revision.
Not only do past papers let you know what sort of questions will be coming up in the exam, but they help you learn how to answer the question in the right way. This is called exam technique.
Other than doing practice questions, there is no other way of getting better exam technique. So you need to incorporate this into your revision.
So how should you plan to past papers?
Initially, only do practice questions from the questions you have just learnt. There is no point doing an entire past paper when you only know half the content.
Then, once you have covered all of the content in class (or at least over 80%) you can start doing past papers.
Do them from oldest to newest.
Eventually, when you have done all of the past papers, you can start doing them again. You only want to be doing this if you have genuinely exhausted all the past papers as it is not as effective the second time you do it (however, still beneficial)
University Study Methods
The iPad is a great way of taking notes in University. Not only is it digital and helps saves trees, but it is also great at organising your work and documents.
The important thing to realise about taking notes though is that it won’t necessarily help you revise.
There’s no evidence to suggest that note-taking in and of itself helps you remember things over the long term.
However, note-taking is great for helping you concentrate in those boring, endless lectures; and if you are concentrating, you are learning more than someone who is doodling.
See this video for more information about taking notes on an iPad at University.
We know that questions are one of the best ways of studying. Therefore how do we try and incorporate this into University exams?
Well, it is a bit tricky however, you can do it.
Write questions after you do your notes.
What do I mean by that?
After writing down your notes, you should write down questions.
You shouldn’t write the answer to these questions as those can easily found in the notes.
Instead, you want a list of questions that covers almost everything that you wrote.
What’s the point of doing this?
Next time you go to revise the material from that lecture/class, you should try and answer these questions. DO NOT just read the notes.
Reading the notes is a complete waste of time.
Instead, utilise active recall (read more here), and try and answer the questions that you wrote for yourself.
How to Know what Information is Important in Lectures
When I first started University, I tried to learn everything on the lectures.
This resulted in me being able to do only 3/4 lectures in a full day worth of studying. Definitely not efficient.
However, eventually, I realised that you don’t need to know everything in the lectures.
Only some of the information is important.
So how do you know what is important?
Well… it just comes with practice. I know, I know, not the answer you were looking for. But being able to spot the true points in a lecture is more of an art than a science.
The reason it is difficult is that you have to realise that the lecturer is likely to think everything they are talking about is important.
So what you need to listen out for is where the lecturer emphasising the importance of a point. If they start saying things like “essential to know” or “likely to come up in exams” then you know you’ve found a nugget!
Hopefully, the lecturer will only be saying these sorts of phrases a few times in the lecture.
When they do, note this down as a key point. And there you have it! The most important things from a lecture all concisely written down into simple notes. Beautiful!
For more detail about Anki see my blog post.
Never heard of Anki? In brief, Anki is a piece of software that helps you memorise things over a long time. It uses flashcards that you can either make on your own or download from the internet.
You can easily use Anki for lectures and University, especially as there is often a huge amount of facts that need to be memorised in a short time.
When copying a lecture into Anki you need to know what the relevant information is important (see above). All too often, students try and stuff everything into Anki and end up making 5000 cards.
Well if you make too many cards you know what is going to happen?
You will never end up doing half of them. And all of that effort you made in making the flashcards will have gone to waste. You can’t know everything.
Rather, what you do is find out what the important information is. Put that down on the flashcard, and leave everything else.
Best Tips If Your Studying Medicine
This study by Marc Augustin concluded that Medical Students should “test themselves while learning, actively recall information, and retest the facts at expanding time intervals to make learning in medical school most effective”.
The author goes on to state that Medical Schools should do a better job in teaching the science of learning while also applying these methods by telling students to re-study material at 7, 15, 30, and 60 days.
Therefore it would be advisable to do as suggested. At 7, 15, 30, and 60 days, you should review your content as this would include spaced repetition into your revision.
If you are willing to be consistent, then Anki is by far and away the best way to study. It does require a lot of work, however, if done properly, it will help you get into the top 10%.
Below I have listed all the sources that I used to get the information for this article. There are also some great articles linked if you wish to read further about the topic.
- Acquisition of a Memory Skill (1980)
- Caffeine as an Attention Enhancer: Reviewing Existing Assumptions (2013)
- Dark Chocolate: To Eat or Not to Eat? A Review (2019)
- Eye Contact and Grade Distribution (1998)
- Harnessing the power of uncertainty to enhance learning (2015)
- How to Learn Effectively in Medical School: Test Yourself, Learn Actively, and Repeat in Intervals (2014)
- Neuroprotective effects of berry fruits on neurodegenerative diseases (2014)
- Physical activity and mental health: the association between exercise and mood (2005)
- Promoting Transfer: Effects of Self-Explanation and Direct Instruction (2006)
- Quantitative Erythrocyte Omega-3 EPA Plus DHA Levels Are Related to Higher Regional Cerebral Blood Flow on Brain SPECT (2017)
- Subjective thirst moderates changes in speed of responding associated with water consumption (2013)
- Teaching the science of learning (2018)