The Study Strategy Guidebook: Techniques that Work with Your Brain

The following is a guest post written by Bella Abdurachmanov, educational writer and writing instructor. Bella enjoys writing, in all of its forms, as a spiritual endeavor and means to self-growth. If you would like to submit a guest post, please contact us.

Studying can be a pleasurable experience. Yes, that’s right—“studying” and “pleasurable” in the same sentence!

“How?” you may ask.

When you work with your brain during a study session, you not only create a greater chance of having a successful study session—by remembering what you are reviewing–but you also engage your brain’s natural curiosity.

Research in Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) science has shown that there are certain study strategies that work with your brain. These techniques stand in contrast to study strategies that have been in use for far too long—such as cramming and simply rereading notes—which work against your brain.

Consider this your official Study Strategy Guidebook. We will cover six proven strategies for mastering the content you are studying in a fun and successful way. We will discuss timing your study sessions, varying your topics, asking higher level questions, using visuals, providing examples, and recalling information.

In fact, these strategies are so effective, there is an entire website—The Learning Scientists—dedicated just to them. The National Council on Teacher Quality also produced a 46 page report devoted to bringing these strategies into the classroom for teachers to practice with their students.

Timing Your Study Session

Have you ever heard of the Pomodoro Technique? This is a time management system that focuses on working (or studying, in our case) for 25 minutes and taking a short 5 minute break after every session. Once you have reached 4 sessions, you would take a longer break. In the scientific world, we call this “spaced practice”.

Spacing your study sessions in this way helps the brain with long-term retention. When you cram for an exam, you are not allowing the information that you are studying to be retained in long-term memory. In contrast, with spaced practice, you strengthen the connections that have been made in your memory.

In order to use spaced practice, you should schedule 30 minutes per topic. 25 minutes would be for studying with complete focus—that means no checking emails, Facebook, or grabbing a snack. 5 minutes would be for your break, and it is important to actually take that 5 minute break. It would be helpful to get up and do an activity during your break time, such as stretching or walking, since exercise has a positive impact on your ability to learn. You should also reward yourself with something you have been waiting for during your break period, such as 5 minutes to check your Facebook updates or grab that snack!

Varying Your Study Topics

Timing your study session properly goes hand-in-hand with varying your study topics. Just like it sounds, when you vary your study topics, what we call “interleaving” in the MBE community, you study a few different topics from one subject within the same study session, while mixing up the order of those topics that you study. This is as opposed to “blocking” where you study one topic per session.

Switching the order in which you study a certain topic, and studying a few different topics during one session, allows your brain to make new connections between the material. Furthermore, alternating the order of the topics helps your brain to remember it for the long-term. Studies show the profound effects that interleaving has on retention:

“The interleaving effect is long-term—lasting on the order of months—and the advantage over blocking actually increases with the passage of time (in other words, there’s less forgetting).”

In order for interleaving to be beneficial, you must do it properly, spending just enough time per topic. For example, you should choose three different topics that you’ve learned for English. You should then spend a limited amount of time studying Topic A, then move on to Topic C, then Topic B. The next day you should alternate the order, perhaps studying Topic C first, then Topic B, and finally Topic A. Just be careful that you understand the basics of a concept before using the varying technique.

You will notice that the more you alternate the order of what you are studying—and by studying different topics within each study session—you will begin making more and more connections between the material, cultivating an interdisciplinary approach to viewing the world.

Asking Higher Level Questions

Asking probing questions is the most common strategy covered in textbooks for new teachers. So, how does this apply to studying? As a student, college will teach you to hone your critical thinking skill set. Learning how to ask higher level questions is one component of that.

You will learn which questions to be asking yourself, how to ask them, and how to use them to review your notes and other study material. As you study, you should be asking yourself—out loud—higher level questions:

  • You might compare and contrast two different ideas in your notes.
  • You may ask a “why” or “how” question related to your subject.
  • You might ask how one idea connects to another.

Ask questions that are beyond the basic “yes” or “no” answer. Work on giving long, well-thought out answers to your questions. Also, try to connect what you are studying to your own experiences. Tying something new that you want to remember to an already well-solidified memory helps keep the new information anchored. Through this “elaboration” technique, you force yourself to better understand a concept.

Using Visuals

Also known as “dual-coding”—a theory of cognition developed by Allan Paivio in the early 1970’s—visuals help reinforce what we’ve learned. It works because visuals and words are processed differently in the brain. Thus, by using both visuals and words in your study session, you have more of a chance to remember what you are reviewing.

Look at the visuals you have in your notes and try to explain them. Create visuals for yourself, not just pictures, but diagrams, graphs, infographics, timelines, and others. See how many different ways you can illustrate a difficult concept. It is important that the visuals relay the information in a manner that helps you to better understand the topic you are studying.

Providing Examples

Abstract ideas can best be grasped through concrete examples. Try to find examples that you will remember for each abstract idea you encounter. Walk yourself through the analogy from the beginning to the end, really making sure you complete the analogy and understand the comparison. This will help you to further grasp and remember the abstract idea you are trying to comprehend.

If you get only partially through a comparison and it doesn’t work, try again. You may want to check your ideas with peers or a professor to make sure you are using correct examples. The more ideas you are able to generate, the more you are stretching your executive functioning skills.

Recalling Information

Flashcards, anybody? If you use flashcards to study, it is a form of recalling information. Try to push yourself beyond using flashcards just for definitions, and come up with cards that ask and answer those “higher level questions” we discussed previously.

Beyond flashcards, you should sit with your notebook out and start recalling as much information, in as much detail, as possible. Once you have finished writing as much as you can, look back through your notes to make sure everything matches up and to see what you may have missed. This is also known as “retrieval practice”. When we go back into our memory to recall information, we further reinforce that memory in our brains. This is a way to assess yourself before you have your test, quiz, or state exam.

You have officially finished the Study Strategy Guidebook. Now, you are prepared to take on the world of studying!


Author’s Bio: Bella Abdurachmanov is an educational writer and writing instructor. Bella teaches college writing and creative writing at Touro College, hoping to impart a love of learning to her students. As editor of The Learning Mind, a project of Kars4Kids, she studies the science behind how people learn best. She enjoys writing, in all of its forms, as a spiritual endeavor and means to self-growth.

Reference herein to any specific commercial products, process, or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise, does not constitute or imply an endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by Touro College.

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