The Study of How to Study
Or: How to Learn to Study,
So You Can Learn What to Study
By Faith Walessa
Many people don't get nearly as much as they could out of their education, because they never learn one thing: how their own minds work. We've got a few leads on that.
Knowing how to study is an essential skill to succeed in (and benefit from) education, but it is unfortunately frequently overlooked. Teachers assume their students know how to study, and students assume they also know how to study, because it can’t be that complicated—right?
Sort of. Studying doesn’t have to be complicated, but there also isn’t a cookie-cutter guaranteed solution. There are lots of methods that are proven to help some people better understand and memorize information, and though not all of them will work for you, once you find the ways you learn best, you’ll save yourself a lot of time, trouble, and tears. So I’ve created a list of the top five study tricks and habits that I’ve found incredibly helpful to myself and/or large groups of my peers, in hopes that some of them may be exactly what you need!
- Teach the subject. Round up your favorite sibling or your best friend, sit them down, and try to explain a few of the topics that are most important for your next test. This is an excellent way to see how deep your understanding of the content actually is: by teaching someone else, you’ll be highlighting areas you find difficult, since you have to be able to break it down into terms that someone who knows less about the subject than you do can understand it. If you find that you can’t teach the material effectively, review it and try again until you succeed. By teaching others, you’ll teach yourself.
- Mixed media memorization. Not everyone’s mind works the same way—don’t make yours work harder than it has to. Find the medium that you absorb the easiest, and pursue that. To do that well, you need to experiment: try flashcards, both typing and handwriting notes, watching YouTube videos, reading the material out loud, or going back over chapters in the textbook. Your preferred method may vary by subject as well. You can also mix any and all of these methods. After exposure to the content in so many different forms, your brain will quickly accept it as important, and allow you to retrieve it more easily on tests.
- Plan out your studying timeline. Try to start studying at least three days in advance of an exam (earlier for subjects you find difficult). This allows you time to resolve unexpected problems and come to your teacher with questions. Unless you have a teacher who’s uncannily prompt on their email, they won’t be able to help you with last-minute questions that you discover the night before a test. Furthermore, all time is not created equal; distributing your study time over several days is important to help your brain absorb the information into your long-term memory. One hour of studying a day for three days is exponentially more effective than three hours for one day. If you cram, your short term memory may carry you through the next day’s test, but you’ll be struggling by finals time because you didn’t properly digest the content.
- “Leap-frog” studying. I coined this term sometime in my first year of high school to explain my method of doubling back. Basically, as the semester went on, I would continually revisit old material. After test two, I reviewed my notes from test one. After test three, I gave the first unit notes a glance and reviewed the second unit notes more carefully—and so on. By working like this, no material really becomes old to you, which means your exam review won’t be as stressful and will take far less time. I chiefly use this method with the classes I find the most difficult, as it is a bit of a time commitment, but it’s a great relief to face your hardest exam knowing you’ve been preparing for the entire semester—not just a couple days.
- Don’t just use, but optimize your resources. If your teacher gives you a practice test, time yourself, and grade it like a real test. If you get a study guide, look for repeated terms and ideas and emphasize them accordingly as you study. Find senior students who have already taken the class you’re in and ask them about extra websites that helped them understand the content, the kinds of projects you can expect in that class, or anything else that could help you prepare. Your teacher is also there to help you, so never hesitate to find them during office hours to ask them questions about the class or confirm your grasp of a topic. If you’re nervous, remember: it’s their job to ensure that you’re learning the material, and they’ll likely respect you more for valuing your own learning enough to meet with them.
Faith Walessa is a rising senior from Ontario, Canada. She hopes to study English at Hillsdale College, write books, and someday travel to England. She loves fanciful poetry, theater, reading by flashlight, and mint chocolate chip ice cream.
We have a lot more tips and essays on college preparation here at the Journal, contributed by Miss Walessa and many other authors. You might also enjoy our series on the great ideas of the Western world—we have posts on animals, the “four loves,” monarchy, physics, Scripture, and many more, all with suggestions for further reading. And speaking of great conversations, don’t miss out on our podcast, Anchored, hosted by CLT’s founder and CEO, Jeremy Tate. Thank you for reading the Journal!
Published on 29th November, 2023. Page image of a plaque erected by the Toronto Recursive History Project (source); the plaque’s text reads as follows:
“THE TORONTO RECURSIVE HISTORY PROJECT OF TORONTO’S RECURSIVE HISTORY. This plaque was commemorated on October 10, 2018, to commemorate its own commemoration. Plaques like this one are an integral part of the campaign to support more plaques like this one. By reading this plaque, you have made a valuable addition to the number of people who have read this plaque. To this day and up to the end of this sentence, this plaque continues to be read by people like yourself.”