Most students suck at studying because their study strategies fall flat in basically every scientifically verifiable way.
Students use strategies that just don’t work for school.
Sure… many of the ideas students have are good. They’re just not good for school. There is a massive disconnect between instinctualizing a subject and being able to pass a test on that subject.
What most students do:
- Read their textbooks repeatedly
- Read their notes
- Rewrite their notes
- Listen to lectures or podcasts or shows about the subject
The funny thing is: most of these strategies work absolutely dreadfully for tests. Students spend hours and hours using these ineffective strategies. Then they get stressed out because their grades aren’t what they want them to be despite all the effort they’re putting in.
You do not need to read your textbook repeatedly to do well on a test. Even reading your textbook a single time is probably not necessary. In fact, the time you spend reading your textbook could hurt your test prep.
The same goes for copying your notes. The same goes for listening to more lectures on the subject. The same goes for almost every form of “studying” that students choose to do. They’d often be better off skipping the studying completely.
I realize this is a bit of an extreme claim but it holds more truth than you might think.
Why You Can’t *Quite* Remember Come Test Time
Have you ever sat in your classroom during a test knowing that you should know something but not knowing it?
You know… you have the answer on the tip of your tongue. The answer is stuck somewhere in your brain like a bag of nuts stuck in a vending machine. You just want to shake it and hope that it finally drops where you can reach it.
This feeling is a symptom of a bigger problem in most student’s study routine. I spent years with this symptom never realizing the true cause.
If you’re feeling it on every single test you take then there is something wrong with your study routine. You need to change something.
That feeling you’re getting is familiarity.
You’re familiar with the answer you need to know but you haven’t locked it in an accessible place in your memory. You know it’s in there somewhere but you can’t find it.
This familiarity is good for life (in general.) In most areas you’ll do alright with a little bit of familiarity. Familiarity gives you the perspective to look information up when you actually need it.
Have you ever tried to look something up but soon realized you don’t even know how to ask the question?
This is where familiarity helps.
The thing is:
school isn’t about familiarity.
It’s about testing.
When you’re taking a test you can’t settle for being familiar with a subject. You need to know it.
The Illusion of Competence
When a student writes their notes multiple times (without changing them up dramatically,) they’re getting more and more familiar with their notes. Experiments suggest that familiarity with a subject increases a person’s confidence about the subject (even when it shows no positive effect on the person’s testable knowledge.)
Student’s develop an illusion of competence.
They think they know when they really don’t know. They get confident when they really shouldn’t be. They get familiar enough to stop studying but not knowledgeable enough to pass a test.
Tests rarely let you discuss or research your way to an answer. You need to know the answer when it’s being asked. That means the familiarity doesn’t do much to help a student remember.
Science consistently shows that the best way to develop a memory is to actively recall it. You can’t just copy information or read it.
Instead you need to:
- Read the information
- Remember the information
If you have any doubt then you need to verify you remembered the information right.
It’s really just that simple. It’s two or three steps max. Repeat it a few times and you’ll be remembering virtually all of the easy stuff. For the hard stuff, you might want to try a slightly more advanced strategy like linking.
These steps can be done in countless ways:
- Flash cards
- Closing your eyes and recalling what you read
- “Teaching” the subject to someone else
- Writing about the subject (without your notes)
- Theorizing about the subject and comparing that to reality
All these strategies emphasize the things that you don’t know. (This can make them a little less relaxing than most familiarity based study strategies. But… they actually help you remember.)
Avoid Excess Familiarization
On this blog, I recommend the 15 Minute Study Strategy (15MSS.)
One of its main advantages is that it limits your ability to become familiar and forces you to focus on active recall.
Naturally, some familiarity is required for learning anything. You need to know what to understand and how it fits together. You don’t need much of it though.
Basic familiarity can be achieved by showing up to lectures on the subject (and if you’re motivated, doing the assigned reading.) You don’t need to focus on rereading textbooks or notes. You just need to pay attention during class. (If notes help you pay attention then take notes.)
Past the most basic levels of familiarity, you’re risking overconfidence.
Familiarity based strategies are easier. They don’t require as much stress but they require significantly more time.
This is time you could be using to actively recall the subject. This active recall would be helping dramatically more than these other strategies.
Every minute you spend on a familiarization strategy comes with a cost:
- You could become over-confident.
- You could be wasting time.
- You could be limiting the knowledge you learn.
- You could be dragging your grade down.
Your life is too short to spend using ineffective study strategies.
Use active recall for virtually all your studying. It will improve your grade, increase your time, and save you from countless headaches.
Do you use any familiarity based study strategies? Do they work for you? Am I an idiot? Let me know in the comments below.
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Studying. Working. Researching. Putting in the leg work.
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