Learning what science has to teach you about studying can improve your grades.

It has never been easier for a motivated student to get better grades.

There have been few subjects more thoroughly researched than the way people think and learn. Learning had to be difficult in the past. Today we have access to so many more tools that anyone can get better grades by learning just a few strategies.

The improvement possibilities are endless. These strategies can be used in college and in high school. They can be used in any university in the world but they’re almost exclusively used by a tiny minority of students.

Science can teach you how to improve your memory to the point studying is easy. You can become a straight A student in less time than it takes you to get your current grades. 

This may sound hard to believe for now. As you read through this article, you will start to understand how it’s possible. Students struggle because they’re never taught how to actually learn. Have you ever taken a class on learning in school? No? You’re not alone. 

You may be skeptical. I can’t blame you. I was skeptical too. They may be proven to work for most people but there is only one way to know if they’ll work for you. Try them.

Have you ever read an article like this and never actually followed through with the lessons you learned?

I know that feeling too.

Here is the most awesome part: once you have an effective strategy, following through becomes easy. You will follow through because you’ll see improvements. The positive reinforcement makes it more enjoyable.

Most students choose not to study because they never see the results. They study for hours and then their grades barely go up for it. Then they take the night off and suddenly score through the roof. It’s not easy to stay motivated when you don’t see the results you want from the “right” actions. That’s the curse and the blessing of an ineffective strategy. The more ineffective your strategy, the more you’re going to procrastinate.

It’s smart to procrastinate doing pointless things.

The Science Of Learning

This is going to be quite the monster of an article but it’s loaded with strategies that can help turn improving your grades from an art to a science. The strategies discussed are some of the most powerful discovered in the last 100 years.

Many of these strategies have never been used by the average student.

Learning these strategies can improve your grades. They can also help you study in less time, with less effort, and a have a whole lot more fun in the process.

No… these strategies aren’t some magical subliminal learning ritual. They’re powerful strategies that have been proven in the laboratory by top scientists around the world and published in major academic journals.

Without further ado:

1. Spaced Repetition

Memory Curve
There are many different theories related to the way time negatively effects memories.

If you haven’t heard of spaced repetition then you probably haven’t spent too much time around the modern study community.

Spaced repetition research first began in 1939 when H.F Spitzer ran a soon forgotten experiment on Iowa school children. His results introduced an idea. Testing information is a studying process in itself. Students that were tested on the information they were learning remembered information better than those that didn’t.

It wasn’t until the 60’s and 70’s that scientists began to manipulate the timing schedule of that testing process to see if they could improve H.F Spitzer’s results. (Melton, A. W. 1970. Landauer, T. K., & Bjork, R. A. 1978.)

One of the major factors that leads to people forgetting the information they want to remember is time. It’s easy to remember something you were told only a few seconds earlier (assuming you were paying attention in the first place.) It’s not so easy to remember something someone told you six months ago. The longer you wait to use the information again, the more likely you are to forget it.

Space repetition is trying to beat that curve of forgetting by retesting yourself on the information before you forget it completely. By testing yourself, you reintroduce the material you’re learning and make it significantly less likely to forget it in the future.

By regularly reviewing the material you lengthen the amount of time until you forget the information again. So, by studying information the first time you might remember it for 24 hours. By studying that information again the next day you might remember that information for a few days. By studying it again a few days later you might remember it for a couple weeks.

Spaced repetition just requires you review the information you’re learning. Once you are applying the right strategies, you should be able to remember something for the whole class with 3-6 super quick reviews. Just seeing the information again is often enough to trigger this review.

Using this strategy you can indefinitely remember information without ever worrying about time making you lose it. Since you’re tested on it regularly, you always know whether or not you know it. If you forgot it then it just means your interval was too long.

Takeaway Points:

  • Time can increase your chances of forgetting stuff (duh.)
  • Remembering indefinitely usually requires reviewing information.
  • By intermittently studying you can increase the length of time before you forget.

2. Serial Position Effect

Recency Effect
It’s easiest to remember information near the beginning and end of your study session.

People tend to remember the first and last items in their study session most effectively (Deese and Kaufman, 1957) This is typically defined as two different effects in psychology.

The Recency Effect is the tendency of a person to remember the most recent information they’ve been presented better than information presented near the middle of the session. For most people this probably comes as common sense. If you’re being tested immediately after being presented with information then you will remember what you learned most recently best.

The Primacy Effect is the tendency of a person to remember the first information they’re presented with better than information presented near the middle of the session. Considering people remember the most recent information better than information presented earlier, there are likely some counteracting forces at play. There are plenty of theories of why this happens but here is the important part for you.

When you want to get better grades you need to understand the anatomy of your study session. The information you study first and last will be the easiest information for you to recall in the future.

In the context of word lists, early and late in your study session you may be remembering 80% of the information you’re presented with. Near the middle of your session you can only expect to remember it 50% of the time.

By starting and ending with the information you expect to struggle to remember, you give yourself the best chance of remembering that information. Instead of reviewing the stuff you already know to start or end your session, consider presenting yourself with new information and studying what you should know after you’re already warmed up.

Also take note: The longer your study session is, the more information in that study session will end up in that poor recall zone.

By taking breaks you can restart your serial position effect to bring your recall back up near its peak. That means your average recall percentage can be increased. By taking breaks you can improve your recall percentage without studying the information more.

Takeaway Points:

  •  The first and last information you study will be the easiest to remember.
  •  Study the hard stuff first and/or last to improve recall.
  •  Don’t study too long or your average recall will be reduced.
  •  Taking breaks can reinvigorate your recall percentage.

3. Von Restorff Effect

One of these things is not like the others. That’s the thing you’ll probably remember best.

Another way to increase your recall percentage of any particular piece of information is to present it in the context of unrelated information.

If you’re asked to remember a list of similar words with a single unrelated word, you’re dramatically more likely to remember the unrelated word (von Restorff, Hedwig, 1933.) The novelty of finding a unique word in the list makes that unique word significantly easier to remember.

So if you’re studying a list of body parts for anatomy but randomly throw in an equation you’re trying to remember for math, you’re chances of remembering that equation go up dramatically when compared to studying the equation with other math terms.

This is a very practical strategy for students to take advantage of when they’re studying for multiple subjects while trying to improve their grades in each class.

Don’t study the information for each class in complete isolation from one another.

That doesn’t mean that mixing all your subjects up completely will provide you with the best results (I’ve had luck with that in the past but my experience may not be yours.) It just means to not be afraid of mixing your information up a little bit while you’re struggling to remember it.

A big goal when trying to increase your scores should be to remove certain contexts from the information you’re trying to remember. That will be gone over in more detail later.

Takeaway Points:

  •  Novel information is easier to remember.
  •  Reducing the context of your studying can provide an improvement in your recall.

4. Active Recall

Flash cards are a great example of active recall.

Get better grades by actively training yourself on the information you’re learning. Your fundamental goal in studying shouldn’t be to “study” as much as it should be to remember.

Active recall is best thought about in comparison to the passive processing of information. Most students spend their time passively processing. Passively processing is listening to the lecture, reading the textbook, or anything else that doesn’t require remember anything. It’s just listening or reading. It gives you access to information from a source other than your brain.

Active recall is the process of trying to find the information that you’ve already been presented with. In one simple form it’s like reading one side of a flash card and trying to remember what’s on the other side without flipping it over to read it.

Retrieval of the study information is powerful when learning. Subjects are more likely to remember the information they’re trying to learn when they’re tested on remembering that information (Karpicke, H.L. Roediger, III , 2008.)

Students that spend more of their time studying with retrieval strategies are 50% more likely to remember the information they’re studying (Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt, 2011.)

Active recall has even been shown to be more effective than note taking despite students that take notes spending more time on the process (McDaniel et al. 2009.)

Not all of your studying can be dedicated to active recall but by making active recall a major part of your routine you’re much more likely to remember what you’re studying.

When the test ends up on your desk, you’re going to already have plenty of practice being tested on the information. You won’t end up going into the test and getting caught off guard by how little you remember because, going into the test, you’ll already know what to expect.

You already remembered it repeatedly. It starts to feel like nothing more than another study session.

Takeaway Points:

  •  Active recall should be a major component of your study session.
  •  It is more effective than note taking.
  •  Active recall is great practice for the test.

5. Active Learning

The way you learn can improve the way you remember.

After you start implementing active recall into your routine you might realize there are two typical parts of studying:

1. Encoding

This is the traditionally passive part of studying where students end up reading their textbooks for hours on end and just hoping it sticks.

2. Retrieving

This is the active recall part where you actually test to see if you understood what you learned.

With active recall, you can have part 2 down but what about the encoding process? How can you learn the information you’re supposed to be remembering in the most efficient way possible?

That’s what active learning is all about.

Active learning is actually processing the information that you’re trying to remember. Again, it’s easiest to think about this process as opposed to passively reading or listening to the material you’re trying to learn.

Students that take the time to analyze and interpret the information they’re learning remember more (Renkl, A., Atkinson, R. K., Maier, U. H., & Staley, R. 2002.) In fact, many of the strategies discussed in this article relate to this fact and use it to help you pump up your GPA.

By getting yourself to pick apart or put together the information you’re learning you increase your chances of understanding and remembering it. Instead of trying to learn what you’re being taught you might try and learn what you’re not explicitly being taught. You can ask questions like, “what does this combination of facts imply?”

In one particular experiment, students educated using active learning techniques in the classroom showed double the improvement of students taking a traditional lecture based course (Richard Hake, 1998.)

Active learning relies on thinking creatively about what you’re learning. This can be provoked through discussions about the subject, making jokes about the subject, looking for connections to something you already understand, trying to solve problems, or using similar strategies. Or… it can just come down to thinking about the material instead of reading about it.

(Writing an essay can be a seriously powerful method of active learning. It’s not applicable or practical for most subjects but it requires you dig into your brain and make connections you’ve never thought of before.)

Take advantage of active recall and active learning to maximize your ability to learn and remember information for class.

Takeaway Points:

  •  Active recall may be more powerful but you can learn actively too.
  •  Replacing your encoding with active learning can improve your results.
  •  Thinking about the subject (beyond superficial) can help improve your grades.
  •  Active learning can double your ability to encode what you’re learning.
  •  Use active learning and active recall to maximize your study efficiency.

6. Mnemonic Strategies

Thinking hard for a little while can help you think less hard every time you want to remember something.

People that use mnemonic strategies remember things better than people that don’t (Levin, Joel R.; Levin, Mary E.; Glasman, Lynette D.; Nordwall, Margaret B. April 1992.) Despite that, one study suggested that only 20% of medical students use mnemonics (Brotle, D. Charles, 2011.)

Most of you have probably already heard of mnemonics at some point in your life. Despite their ability to help you get better grades, most of you still don’t use them on a regular basis.

A mnemonic is a strategy designed to make hard to remember information easier to remember.

For example, remembering the North American Great Lakes is as simple as remembering “homes.” Each letter in the word represents one of the lakes. (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.)

Remembering the planets is as easy as remembering “My very educated mother just served us nachos.” The first letter in each word is the first letter to one of the planets. (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.)

I understand why people don’t use mnemonics.

They’re usually not that easy to create. When you have a list of information you need to remember it can be tough to create a good and memorable acronym. It can take time. It’s more difficult than just reading the information but this is the difference between active learning and passive learning. Do you make it happen or do you hope someone hands it to you prepared to fit perfectly in your brain?

You don’t even have to invent most of your mnemonics. Try searching online for mnemonics for what you’re trying to remember. (Seriously, try “mnemonics” and then your information subject like “bones in the foot” or “United States Presidents.” You might be surprised.)

Takeaway Points:

  •  Mnemonics improve a person’s ability to remember.
  •  They’re worth the extra time investment required.
  •  They’re often as easy as a search online to find.

7. Forget Learning Styles

Personality types
What are you? Wow… that was fun. If only it was practically useful.

Learning styles have to be one of the most over-hyped theories in recent psychology.

The basic concept underlying learning styles seems sound. No two students are the same. Every student learns differently. Since every student learns differently, it stands to reason that by fitting students into categories based on how they learn best, you’d see a significant improvement in the way they learn (or at least they’d get better grades.) This is a wonderful theory.

In the 1960’s the mother daughter American Psychological theorist team Meyers and Briggs created a thought provoking cash cow called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It was meant to categorize people based on whether a person fits better as:

  • Thinking or feeling
  • Extravert or Introvert
  • Sensing or Intuition
  • Judging or Perceiving

These theories have been popular ever since despite a rather loud howling from virtually every researcher not invested in the business of making money off it. The problem isn’t this individual theory though. The problem is the general idea of categorizing people caught on like wildfire.

New programs and theories exploded onto the scene every decade since. One of the most popular of these theories was the idea of learning modalities. You’ve probably even learned this idea in school.

Some students learn best visually. Some learn best kinesthetically. Some learn best auditorily.

There is absolutely virtually no consistent science to back this theory up.

Learning styles haven’t shown a consistent improvement of a student’s ability to learn information. (Kavale & Forness, 1987; Stahl, 1999; Zhang, 2006)

On top of that, virtually no consistent learning style methodology has any serious research behind it. By the time one learning style theory has been almost completely proven to be pseudo science a new one shows up with the exact same flaws.

“We do students a serious disservice by implying they have only one learning style, rather than a flexible repertoire from which to choose, depending on the context” (Henry, 2007)

In fact, even learner preferences is a poor predictor of how well a student learns information (Kirschner, 2013)

Takeaway Points:

  •  Don’t expect your learning style to help you because no one can even define learning styles.
  •  Just because you prefer a style, it doesn’t mean it’s the best way to learn it.
  •  Context can help dictate the most effective strategy of learning.

8. Skepticism And Error Related Negativity

brain activity
Scientists are able to use modern tools to produce even more interesting theories about the way people think.

When a person is motivated to find errors in what they do, they’re more likely to find those errors. Finding your own errors is one of the most powerful ways you can increase your scores. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s the students that catch them that end up doing the best.

Error related negativity is a response in the brain related to an error. This is a response measurable on a brain scan. When a person makes a mistake and they notice that mistake consciously, their brain receives a signal.

This makes sense. Where it gets a little crazy sounding is that this response can still be measured when a person doesn’t consciously know they made a mistake (Nieuwenhuis, S.; Ridderinkhof, K. R.; Blom, J.; Band, G. P.; Kok, A. 2001.)

Have you ever had a stupid moment?

You know what I’m talking about, right? One of those moments where you suddenly can’t think of the answer to a really easy question. Maybe you can’t remember how to spell “the” or something.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you’re completely nuts. It’s a “brain fart” as my grandfather so eloquently put it. Everyone makes those mistakes. Many of those brain farts never even get noticed. I make them all the time (as anyone that politely points out stupid spelling errors I make can confirm.)

This research suggests that some of those mistakes you make aren’t made because you’re stupid but because you’re not completely conscious in the moment. A person’s sensitivity to errors can be increased with a conscious awareness.

When a research subject was asked to focus on accuracy their error related negativity increased. Subjects could also be motivated using financial incentives. (Gentsch, A.; Ullsperger, P.; Ullsperger, M. 2009. Pailing, P. E.; Segalowitz, S. J. 2004.)

The higher a person’s error related sensitivity was measured to be, the more motivated the subject was.

This actually gels well with a strategy I’ve used consistently.

It’s important to be skeptical in everything you’re trying to learn. When you accept information as fact, you’re not giving your brain the chance to consciously look for errors. Since you’re not motivated to find errors, you won’t consciously be able to close unresolved loops in your mind (even if your brain notices them without the courtesy of informing you about it.)

Be motivated by the love of skepticism. Think critically about information you’re presented with (particularly when you came up with it yourself) and you’ll end up more aware of the subject than if you choose to accept everything as fact.

Takeaway Points:

  •  Being motivated to find mistakes can increase your awareness of those mistakes.
  •  Skepticism is a powerful way to motivate yourself to look for errors.

9. The Real Cost Of Procrastination

The real costs of putting it off another day are difficult to see. Science can help illustrate them.

One third of variation in test scores can be attributed to procrastination (Tice et al., 1997.) It’s virtually impossible for a student to get better grades without first tackling their ability to get things done when they need to get done.

That third doesn’t have to do with intelligence. That third doesn’t have to do with previous educational skills. That third doesn’t have to do with study strategies.That third is only related to the time that a student puts off studying until. The more they procrastinate the worse their grade ends up being.

Procrastination has been correlated with worse performance during testing (Steel, P., Brothen, T., Wambach, C., 2001.) The strong correlation is believed to relate to the effect this procrastination has on a student’s ability to complete available practice for their exam.

Procrastinating reduces the time that a student has to spend preparing which tends to lead to worse grades.

In fact, students who procrastinate are even more likely to cheat (Patrzek, J., Sattler, S., van Veen, F., Grunschel, C., Fries, S. 2014.) When a student is desperate to complete something they’re much more likely to get the urge to copy other people’s work, create fraudulent data, or bring cheat sheets into the exam.

Procrastination can feel like a minor issue (I mean, you get the work done right) but it’s a constant drain on your potential. It would almost be better for you not to complete the work. At least in that case you’d feel the pain of failing and learn to spend a reasonable amount of time completing the assignment in the future.

If you’re really stuck into a rut of procrastination, consider tutoring. That means you’ll have someone else showing up to get you started.

Takeaway Points:

  •  One third of test score variation comes down to procrastination.
  •  Procrastination reduces your grade.
  •  Procrastination can lead you to making some very poor decisions.

10. Picture Superiority Effect

I don’t know what the heck is happening in this image but it was on Wikipedia and I think it looks awesome.

Contrary to what learning styles might lead you to believe, people remember pictures better than words or sentences (Shepard, R.N. 1967.) This phenomenon is referred to as the picture superiority effect.

The human memory is extremely sensitive to images. There is significant debate as to why this is the case but it’s been shown through experiment after experiment (McBride, D. M., Dosher, B.A. 2002. Defetyer, M. A., Russo, R., McPartlin, P. L. 2009. Whitehouse, A. J., Maybery, M.T., Durkin, K. 2006.)

If you’re looking to get better grades and remember more you need to consider which ways you’re memory is designed to remember information. Words and sentences may be convenient for your studying process but images are dramatically more powerful.

Naturally, you can’t physically witness most of the information you’re learning in class. You can’t watch Ghengis Khan storming through Asia (not that you’d want to) or an electron orbiting around a nucleus.

At times, you can look at pictorial representations of this image. You may be able to look at the painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware but most information you’re learning won’t have those kinds of resources. You’re going to have to learn to do without them in most cases.

This isn’t a problem though.

The human brain is well formed to create images out of nothing using your imagination. By creating images of what you’re learning in your mind you dramatically increase your ability to remember that information.

On top of that, this process helps you understand the information you’re learning even better. It’s a process that’s fundamental to the learning process (Norman 2000. Brian Sutton-Smith 1988, Archibald MacLeish 1970.)

It is dramatically easier to read and try to commit words to memory but it’s also dramatically less effective. If you’re not vividly imagining something then you are not studying as well as you could be.

But what if what you’re studying isn’t as easy to imagine as history or a visible process?

You can still find ways to visualize obscure information.

If you’re studying math you might want to try and imagine the process you’re creating in a physical sense. This is easy if I tell you to imagine adding 2 apples with 2 apples. It’s dramatically more difficult to imagine the square root of 63. What would it look like? If you can imagine it then you’ve virtually already solved the problem.

Moving this strategy into calculus and further is possible if you’re willing to invest the time into it. Using the right approach in math class can make a huge difference.

Imagine you’re studying obscure and random words that have no physical representation. So, imagine you need to remember, “Colanography.” Is it completely hopeless? Not if you’re willing to get creative and imagine a bottle of cola on the front of a dirty magazine stripping off it’s label (ever so slowly.) Just combine Cola and pornography and it’s memorable. This is slightly less effective for understanding but it gets you 90% of the way to knowing it.

Takeaway Points:

  •  Images are easier to remember than words.
  •  Find images of anything you can to help you remember.
  •  If you can’t find images, create images based on what’s happening.
  •  If imagining a realistic image is impossible, don’t be scared to make up silly images to remember the tough stuff.

11. Confirmation Bias

What you already know colors what you’re trying to learn. You can suffer from it or you can learn to take advantage of it.

This is a particularly fun strategy for those that enjoy politics.

Have you ever heard the old idea not to talk about politics over polite company? The following is a good reason not to. It’s also a good strategy you can take advantage of to get better grades.

Evidence is significantly more likely to be interpreted and remembered to confirm what a person already believes (Hastie, Reid; Park, Bernadette 2005.) If that evidence is directly counter to what a person believes then it’s much more likely to be ignored and forgotten about.

This is a natural irrationality that can be considered a hindrance. I know everyone wishes (or thinks) they would be completely rational but that thought in itself might be considered irrational. We’re all humans (well, other than you robots and trained sharks.) We should expect to have these same irrationalities.

Instead of fighting them, it’s a whole lot more fun to learn to take advantage of them.

When you’re looking to remember something, focus on how that information confirms something what you already believe. Virtually all evidence can be interpreted in a way that favors something you believe so find a way to learn what you’re learning in that way.

To stay firmly away from the political: If you want to imagine finding something that confirms 2 x 2 = 4 you might think this: If you have two of something and then you have two of it again and add them all together you’ll have 4 of them. Confirmed.

That is a silly simple and non controversial example but it helps improve your ability to remember it because you’ve officially dragged the thought process through your mental wringer and squeezed out the excess.

This may be thought of as the “stay cocky in your head strategy.” If everything you learn confirms what you already believe you’re going to be significantly more confident. Naturally, you’ll never reach that level of perfect confidence but what you can do it with will improve.

Naturally, this should come with humility once you start trying to present your thoughts to other people. With that increased memory you’re likely to end up with silly biases in your interpretation. You need to be conscious of them or they can become a problem.

Takeaway Points:

  •  It’s easier to remember stuff that confirms your beliefs.
  •  Anything can confirm your believes if you think about it enough.
  •  Controversial beliefs are easier to remember.
  •  Control this interpretation and use it when you learn it (not when you use it.)

12. Self Reference Effect

Until you can figure out why you want to learn something, you probably shouldn’t be trying to learn it.

“I’m never even going to use this,” ever so many students have told their teacher just to be brushed off with a mediocre answer.

If there is one idea that teachers should learn to respond to, I think this should be the one. If they want to motivate their students to get better grades and learn more then this is one way they can make a huge impact.

People remember things that relate to them more than they remember things that don’t relate to them (Rogers, Timothy B.; Kuiper, Nicholas A.; Kirker, W.S. 1977.) When a student mentions they’re never going to use some subject, they’re addressing this exact concern. They’re virtually begging the teacher to answer “what’s in it for me?”

If you want to learn something, one of the first things you should focus on is how that information relates to you.

If you’re a student planning to become an engineer then it’s probably easy to recognize why you need to take Physics. It’s probably a little bit harder to figure out why you’d want to understand English Lit. It is possible though.

At the very least you could focus on this: If you can’t graduate without passing a particular class then it is essential whether you like it or not. Just focusing on this will often be enough to get you to stop procrastinating and do what you need to do.

If you can’t do that then you could think about it in terms of your grade. Getting a low grade isn’t a good sign. It generally sucks. This is another relatively shallow motivation but it can often be enough to push.

For serious motivation, you need to start getting intellectually curious about the subject. Maybe you don’t like English Lit but you love watching movies. English lit is just a different form of storytelling. You might notice reading is actually pretty fun once you spend a little time at it. (And, if that doesn’t work, just tell yourself you’ll watch the movie. It’s not ideal but just watching the movie can get you curious enough to benefit.)

Curiosity is intrinsic. Grades are external. Intrinsic motivations are more effective at provoking action (Whyte, Cassandra B. 1979.)

This doesn’t only help your ability to remember though. Imagine the effect knowing what’s in it for you will have on your procrastination or your ability to get focused.

Takeaway Points:

  •  Figure out why YOU want to learn something.
  •  The more intrinsic that motivation the better off you’ll be.
  •  Once you know why you need to remember it you’ll remember it better.

13. Zeigarnik Effect

Interruptions aren’t the end of the world when it comes to studying.

Kurt Lewis, a gestalt psychologist prompted the first studies into this subject based on an observation he made.

While dining at a local restaurant, he noticed the waiter could remember unpaid orders really well.

It’s kind of an impressive task if you think about it. The waiter might have dozens of people’s food orders to worry about but when they get back to the table they always seem to remember who to drop the food off to. (Well… usually.)

Anyway, he noticed that this memory tended to disappear once the order was paid for. As soon as the person completed their transaction the waiter no longer needed to hold onto that information so it went away.

This led Bluma Zeigarnik into researching the subject. This research eventually came to suggest that people are better at remembering interrupted tasks than completed ones (Zeigarnik 1927.)

When a task is interrupted, in theory, it leaves a tension behind that holds onto the information you’re required to remember.

So… if you were studying using the Pomodoro technique (a timer set to expire ending your study session.) Whatever that timer rings while you’re studying is more likely to be remembered than something you completely finished studying.

This isn’t always the case. Motivation in the situation can play a significant role. If you’re unmotivated to remember something (even in contrast to whatever the interruption was) then you’re going to struggle to remember it as well.

This is also thought to be significantly more stressful for a person dealing with notable consequences like grades. (Einstein, Gilles O.; McDaniel, Mark A.; Williford, Carrie L.; Pagan, Jason L.; Dismukes, R. Key 2003.)

Take advantage of breaks and pomodoro style strategies and this will help you get better grades. Don’t expect constant interruptions to have quite as useful an effect.

Takeaway Points:

  •  Interrupting your flow states can help you remember.
  •  Interrupting it too many times increase the difficulty and stress involved.
  •  You need to be motivated to take advantage of this.

14. Context Dependency

If only you could take the text while surfing the web, reading your textbook, playing on your phone, and sitting in bed.

To get better grades you need to learn to control your brain’s natural context dependency.

Have you ever noticed it’s a whole lot easier to remember something when you’re right next to your textbook?

It actually is.

When a student sits down and pulls out their textbook they’re unintentionally creating a minor cue for their memory. Their memory sees the textbook and relates what you’re trying to remember with that textbook. That textbook is a context you can use to remember.

Studies have shown that remembering information is a whole lot easier if you’re being tested in the same environment that you’re studying the information (Smith, S.M. 1984.)

Your brain is constantly creating contexts for the information it’s learning. If you learn something in your bedroom then you’re brain is going to think it’s most important when you’re in your bedroom. Once you step into your classroom, your brain no longer has the context it used to decide when the information was important to remember. That makes it harder to recall.

There are two quick ways to combat this:

1. Get used to imagining you’re sitting where you typically study while you’re taking the test. If you vividly imagine you’re in your bedroom then you can provoke your brain to trigger that context for remembering.

2. Stop studying in a consistent location. If your brain can’t create a context of where it’s studying the negative effect of context dependencies are reduced.

I personally prefer the first strategy for convenience but the second strategy may be appropriate for a person that doesn’t have a good quiet consistent place to study.

On a related note: State dependent learning has been shown for some drugs like caffeine (WL Kelemen – ‎2003.) When a person studies using caffeine, they’re more likely to do well during the test if they’re using caffeine during the test as well.

Takeaway Points:

  • You’re always creating context to the information you’re learning.
  • By connecting the studying context to the testing context you can remember more.
  • If you use caffeine to study then use it to test.

15. Peak End Rule

Students that dread their study session usually don’t do their study session.

How do you judge the enjoyability of an experience?

Let’s imagine your study session had three main feelings throughout your session. In fact, let’s scale them from 1 to 10. 1 being a bad experience and 10 being an amazing experience. You had these three emotions in chronological order:

1. You felt good because you answered some questions right. 7/10
2. You felt even better because you were on a roll getting every question right. 9/10
3. You felt a little frustrated you missed a couple answers. 4/10

Given only these three emotions during your study session, how good do you think you’ll feel after the study session?

From just those three experiences you might think it was pretty good. 21 total divided by 3 emotions gives an average of 7 out of 10.

The human brain doesn’t work that way though.

People don’t judge experiences based on the average emotion they felt. They judge it by one of two criteria (Kahneman, Daniel; Fredrickson, Barbara L.; Schreiber, Charles A.; Redelmeier, Donald A. 1993. Redelmeier, Donald A; Kahneman, Daniel 1996.)

1. The Extreme Emotional State

So if you feel a 1 out of 10 during any point during your study session, you’re much more likely to judge your experience based on that extreme feeling.

2. The End State

In this example, odds are, you’re going to feel like you had a 4 out of 10 study session. That’s below average despite the real average being a 7 out of 10.

The solution to this is simple. Do your best to end strong.

While interruptions and Pomodoros are good, don’t be afraid to cheat yourself into a winning scenario if it helps improve your outlook on the experience. Spend an extra 30 seconds to finish an easy flashcard. Or maybe choose to accept your 90% right answer as correct (for the moment.)

If you notice you’re struggling near the end of your session you might want to pull out a little bit of easier material for a few minutes.

This decision making seems silly in the short term but this change in emotional states can improve your overall opinion of studying in general. By enjoying studying more you can help prevent procrastination, increase focus, and stay motivated through the tougher moments.

Most people hate studying because they make studying such an impossible task to ever complete successfully. At the end of their session they look at the information they failed to learn and start wondering how they’ll ever pass (let alone get better grades.) Often they’ll just end their session by throwing their work down in frustration. This is an easy way to kill any motivation that you have to study next time around.

Takeaway Points:

  •  End your study session strong if you’ve had a tough session
  •  Try not to get too negative about your mistakes at any one point.
  •  More enjoyable study sessions are study sessions you’ll actually want to repeat.

16. Sleep And Memory

This cat represents what I respect when it comes to studying. Regular readers know what I’m talking about.

This is a big problem for the classic crammers out there.

You cannot sacrifice your sleep and expect to do better on your test. It’s completely irrational. Long and short term memory improves significantly after you sleep (Walker, M.P.; Stickgold, R.; Alsop, D.; Gaab, N.; Schlaug, G. 2005.)

On a more immediate basis lack of sleep can hinder your working memory (Casement, Melynda D.; Broussard, Josiane L.; Mullington, Janet M.; Press, Daniel Z. 2006.) A reduction in sleeping time can also reduce the speed that you think and your ability to switch between tasks.

Considering the reduction in all forms of memory, it can dramatically damages your ability to learn the material you’re trying to study.

Do not sacrifice sleep for studying.

Most successful all-nighters aren’t related to the all-nighter being useful. They’re related to the student already being partially prepared and being seriously motivated to do well. Even after succeeding, you have to ask if you would have done better by just getting a full night sleep. (Or, better yet, not needing to cram in the first place.)

Takeaway Points:

  • Losing sleep can hurt your:
    – Long Term Memory
    – Short Term Memory
    – Working Memory
    – Thinking Speed
    – Ability To Switch Tasks
  •  Don’t expect all-nighters to provide results comparable to a good consistent study routine.

17. The Most Important Experiment To Get Better Grades

Get better grades with science!
Mwahahahaha! I shall bring life to new study strategies!

The most important experiment isn’t any single experiment that’s been done on studying.

In fact, it’s an experiment that may not have officially kicked off yet. (If you’re a regular reader to this blog then I hope it has.) It’s an experiment with huge implications on what your final grades are going to be (and how much you enjoy the process.)

You’ve been getting results from this experiment for years now but you probably have never appreciated them for the value they provide.

This, drumroll, is the experiment of living your life. Your results are the grades you’re getting.

Every single day you have the opportunity to learn new and more powerful ways to study better and they don’t take a blog on the internet to start using. They’re the creative juices flowing through your skull and your willingness to take chances.

The scientific method is often touted as something designed for intellectuals to solve problems. It can be used for that but the amazing thing about the scientific method is how simple it’s basic ideas are.

You test an action. You see the result. You learn connect the action to the result. The more often you see the action and result connect the stronger that link becomes.

Take control of the way you think and learn.

Look into the way you think about how you try to get better grades.

Do you actively watch the actions you take and the results you get?

Most students test new strategies but, instead of watching the results, they check how they felt about the process to decide whether or not to continue. Not feeling like you were getting it isn’t the same as demonstrably not getting it.

Some students watch their results but never have the courage to change their behavior. If they normally study for an hour a night then they don’t want to ruin their grades taking a risk and cutting that study time (even if it could improve their life or grades.)

Take control of both of these aspects of your study routine and you’ll have most of what you need to make informed decisions about your studying. Your routine will be in the never ending process of improving in effectiveness and enjoyability because you’ll have the verifiable proof of what works for you…

Lets face it. Learning styles had one thing right. No two people respond exactly the same to the exact same strategies. What works for you may not be what any particular study says. It’s reasonable to assume it’s close but a personal experiment provides you strategies that work for you (and considering they’re only for you, you’re the only person that matters.)

Don’t let the study experiments end at the end of this article. Start one of your own and begin the never ending process of getting better grades.

If you’re interested in designing your own study experiments then in the members area you can learn The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned About Running A Quality Personal Study Experiment.

Do you want to know how to study better, learn faster, and get better grades than ever? That’s what this blog is all about. Be sure to follow along, check out the ebooks in the sidebar, and check out the archives to learn more.

Do you want full access to Smart Student Secrets members only section with exclusive advice for even more powerful results? You can check it out here.


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How To Get Better Grades With 17 Scientific Strategies

How A “Dum” Guy Got Straight A’s

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9 thoughts on “How To Get Better Grades With 17 Scientific Strategies

  • December 4, 2018 at 2:40 pm
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    It’s a pity you don’t have a donate button! I’d without a doubt
    donate to this outstanding blog! I guess for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account.
    I look forward to new updates and will talk about this blog with my Facebook group.
    Chat soon!

    Reply
  • June 13, 2016 at 5:25 pm
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    I love this stuff!

    It’s crazy to think how this kind of stuff is never brought up in school. It’s like they’re not even trying to teach students. A ton of these experiments are from decades ago but I’ve almost never heard a teacher bring this kind of stuff up.

    Reply
    • June 13, 2016 at 5:41 pm
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      Thanks for the comment.

      Reply
  • June 13, 2016 at 5:18 pm
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    12…. so true so true

    It wasn’t until I started to realize how much slacking off on my grades was really hurting me that I started to see anything change.

    Reply
    • June 13, 2016 at 5:41 pm
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      This one was a big one for me too.

      It seems kind of obvious looking back but it was something that I let hold me back for years. It’s great to see I wasn’t alone in this.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Reply
  • June 13, 2016 at 5:02 pm
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    I always have my good luck pen with me for tests. I think that might have some context dependency value instead of just crazy superstitions. At least that’s what I’ll tell myself.

    Reply
    • June 13, 2016 at 5:41 pm
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      Interesting point. Perhaps a few experiments are in order?

      Thanks for the comment.

      Reply
  • June 13, 2016 at 4:33 pm
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    I don’t know why I think this but I love that shoe picture… and the cat. You’ve outdone yourself on this one. haha

    Reply
    • June 13, 2016 at 5:42 pm
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      The people love cat pictures. Therefore… I give the people what they want. (And by people I probably only mean myself.)

      Reply

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