How to study

Over the years I’ve seen some students who can study very well, and others for whom studying is very difficult. I’ve even had one student who wrote down notes in different fonts. She used one font for headings, and a smaller one for details. Handwritten.

Everyone is different, and different methods will work better for some than others. That being said, here are my thoughts on how students should study.

One thing that I see all the time is a student says “I know the answer. I just can’t quite pull it out of my memory.”. That’s because they’re familiar with the material, but doesn’t really recall it. Familiarity is when you read about it, or are asked a question about it, and you think “yeah, I saw this yesterday”. That’s not good enough. You need to recall the information. You need to know it. That takes more than just reading the information.

What’s Most Important?

How do I know what’s important to study?

Try this: For each class, imagine that the teacher has just announced a pop-quiz. What question would you have the most trouble answering? That’s what you need to study.

Don’t Cram

First off, don’t cram for the test. It’s not effective. You’ll be much happier if you study a little bit each day, and you’ll know it better.

Manage Your Time

Adults need to have time management skills, and so do students. Plan when you will study and do homework. Note that I separated these things. Homework is not studying. Homework helps reinforce the classroom, but it’s not studying.

Cramming before a test isn’t good, in fact, it’s pretty much the worst way to learn. You won’t remember very much. Studying is best done in multiple short batches with breaks in between. Ideally you would spend some time each night studying as you learn a chapter. By the time the test comes up you will have already done a bunch of study bursts on different days and you’re mostly done.


To start out with, what is your study environment? There should be few distractions. That means none of the following:

  1. TV
  2. Music with lyrics
  3. Social Media
  4. Texting
  5. Phone

TV and music with lyrics are bad because they demand time from the language centers of the brain. This means that it’s hard or impossible to concentrate with them around. I think that students who study with the TV on, or with most music playing, aren’t studying. They’re pretending to study (also herehere, and here).

That doesn’t mean that music is bad. Music without words is fine. Try this YouTube Channel. Classical music, jazz, house, and trance are all good forms of music to study to. Just don’t listen to things that have words. You may also want to try an online sound generator; take a look at the links in the sidebar.

Interruptions break your train of thought and make it harder to get back to where you were. There should be as few interruptions as possible. Social media is full of endless sources of distractions. This make it hard to study and retain knowledge. If you use your computer and the Internet while studying, make sure that you’re logged out of these distractions. Consider using one browser for regular internet use, and another that you only use while studying. This way you can be logged into Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Discord, etc. on Chrome, which you use casually. But when you want to study you switch to Firefox, in which you’ve never gone to any of these sites, so there aren’t any cookies from them.


Structured reading — Some books, especially textbooks, are written in a structured, hierarchical method. There are big, bold, headings; and there are subheadings. My science books have big red headings, and smaller blue subheadings. Before reading, look at the headings and subheadings. The idea is to get a framework or foundation ready that you will fill in more detailed information as you read the whole text.

If you have a summary of the text available read that before reading the main text. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that reading the summary is a substitute for reading the textbook. Summaries tell main points, but leave out loads of details. That’s why they’re called summaries. So you should still read the main text. But as a refresher, I recommend that you read the summary page every day.

If you can print out from an online book or can photocopy your textbook you can take notes in the margins and highlight parts that your teacher thinks are especially important.

PQRST reading — Preview, Question, Review, Summary, and Test. This works with texts that are structured with headings.

  1. Preview: Glance at the headings and subheadings in the textbook.
  2. Question: Turn each subheading (or heading if this heading doesn’t have subheadings) into a question.
  3. Read: Read the book, paying particular attention to information that answers the questions you came up with before.
  4. Summary: Summarize the topic, bringing in your own understanding. Make notes, diagrams, mind maps, etc.
  5. Test: Answer the questions you made during the question step.

This will help you actually remember the material, instead of merely being familiar with it.

Fiction reading — Other books, such as literature, are written in regular prose. Try summarizing each page as you finish it. Then, when you finish the chapter, summarize that. Writing this chapter summary down will help too.


Reading is different from recall – Reading the text is nice, but it isn’t enough. Most students think they know the material better than they really do. Recalling (what you will do on a test) uses different areas of the brain than reading. So reading isn’t enough. You need to practice recall.

In particular, the standard of “knowing” is the “ability to explain to others”, not “understanding when explained by others”. That is, you need to be able to explain it well, not have someone else explain it to you and you say “yes, I know that”.

Read-Recite-Review — Instead of just reading the chapter, try this: Read it. Then set it aside and try to recite out loud as much as possible from memory. Then read the text a second time. The more you practice recalling the material, the better you’ll do.

Flash Cards — Flash cards are a tried and true method for memorizing facts and definitions.

Have someone quiz you — Find someone to help you study. They should ask questions from your notes and the text.

Make mnemonics — If you need to remember a list of things, you can make a mnemonic that helps you remember the first letter of the items. I can remember the levels of classification in biology with “Dear King Philip Came Over For Good Spaghetti”. This gives me the first letter for Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. I still remember the stellar classes from college astronomy with “Oh Be A Fine Girl (or Guy), Kiss Me” OBAFGKM (O stars a big and bluish, M stars are small and red/brown (our sun is a class G star)).


When actually studying for a test, figure out what is important. Look over your notes and see what the teacher emphasized. Is any of it not in the book? If so, make sure you pay attention to it.

Now use the various techniques above. Do the Read-Recite-Review. Try to recall your notes. If you’ve used the Cornell Method for your polished notes, use them for review. Come up with mnemonics. Remember, recalling is different from just reading. Actively try to recall things. The more you do it, the better you’ll be for the test.

Make sure you get a good night’s sleep before the test. If you’ve been doing a little studying every day, then you won’t be trying to cram the night before (it doesn’t work well anyway), so you’ll have time to go to be early. Face it, you don’t get enough sleep, so following these tips makes this easier.

Make your own test — Make your own test in a format similar to what your teacher uses. Have a few true/false questions, some multiple choice, fill in the blank (especially for key terms), and a short answer or essay. Try to make them more than just simple recall. How might the teacher reword it? Try to see how to make some questions about higher order thinking skills (see below). Then take your test and check your answers. Since you just made your own test, you should do well on it. Don’t expect an A on this to translate to an A on the real thing. Even better, trade with a classmate and take each other’s tests. The purpose of this is to try to think about the material in a different way and exercise your brain more.

Higher Order Thinking

But tests aren’t only about recalling facts. Memorization isn’t enough. You will also need to be able to synthesize knowledge — that means coming up with new information. Look for connections from the material to your daily life; these can become questions on tests. Many times new information in class will connect with previous lessons. Look for these connections even if the teacher doesn’t point them out. Here’s an example:

You know that hot air rises, and that it’s hot near the equator. You’ve also just learned that as air rises it cools, and clouds form, especially if the air is humid. From these you should be able to figure out on your own that the skies around the equator are usually cloudy. In fact, land near the equator is normally rain forest due to this effect.

This is synthesizing knowledge, a higher order thinking skill. This is also why a teacher won’t explicitly teach these connections in class; you are expected to be able to come up with them on your own.

Studying can be hard work. Every time you remember something new you are forming connections between neurons in your brain. When you reinforce that knowledge, you are making more of these connections. No wonder school is hard work. But it’s your job. Take is seriously.