Among university undergraduates, there’s an existing shibboleth that success in one’s academic pursuits is really just a function of one’s intellectual prowess. That the top students in class are almost always the eggheads. And consequently the more intelligent a student is, naturally, the more likely it is that they’ll pass their exams with flying colors. While this particular view isn’t entirely incorrect, yet, it’s only half the story. Because the outstanding students at uni don’t just rely on their brains to succeed, but combine this well with just the right study skills and constantly strive for improvement. Not only that, but they also understand the importance of hard work and are ever ready to put in the needed quality hours in reading to understand the subjects taught at school at a much deeper level. And with this much groundwork to learning having been laid and the discipline to sustain these study skills being all a matter of course, the attainment of academic distinction is almost inevitable for such students. By the same token, if you wish to be outstanding in your studies as a student, then you’ll do well to adopt this same study skills. But what exactly are they? Read on, as Nela Canovic, a growth mindset hacker and an avid reader walks you through this.
It’s not the quantity of time you put into the work, but rather the quality of the effort you put into studying that matters in the long run.
This rule should apply to any work you do over the course of your life. If you force yourself to sit at a desk for hours doing anything, it doesn’t mean your brain will perform better. It doesn’t mean you’ll achieve greater focus. And most important, it doesn’t mean you’ll master any skill faster just because you feel that you must work this way.
So what is a smarter way to study?
Here are 10 study tips that can make a difference. Pick one to try at first, then when you make it a part of your daily study routine, move on to the next one. Or, try them all this month! Then see which results you will notice.
Study tip #1. Set the right tone to your day with good brain food.
Boost your brain power ahead of a busy study day with food that will give you energy, improve your focus, and optimize your brain function.
- Mix it up with 1 tablespoon flaxseeds, 1 teaspoon peanut butter, sliced banana or other fresh fruit, and some walnuts or almonds on top. Flaxseeds are an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a healthy fat that boosts cerebral cortex function and helps to build and protect neurons.
- Beet and berry smoothie. The natural nitrates in beets can increase blood flow to your brain which improves mental performance. In a blender, combine 1/2 cup orange juice, 1 cup frozen berries, 1/2 cup diced beets (raw or roasted), 1 tablespoon granola, 2–3 dates, 1/4 cup coconut water or plain low-fat yogurt, and 3 ice cubes. Blend for one minute.
- Parfait: Layer 1/2 cup of yogurt, 1 tablespoon granola, 1 cup fresh fruit (sliced or diced), and a spoonful of nuts such as walnuts and almonds. Almonds are beneficial for increased attention and awareness necessary for learning, as well as restoring memory and cognitive function.
- Eggs are a powerful mix of B vitamins (they help nerve cells to burn glucose), antioxidants (they protect neurons against damage), and omega-3 fatty acids (they keep nerve cells functioning at optimal speed). Have two eggs either soft or hard-boiled, or make an omelette with some mushrooms or spinach.
Study tip #2. Make a commitment to reach one study goal a day.
The best way to get your mind on board to concentrate on studying is to start the day with a question: “What is the one thing I am committed to completing today?”
- Here’s why. This question will encourage you to think strategically about the day, keep you focused on your top study goal, and force you to prioritize the one goal that you want to reach by the end of the day. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have many study goals, but it does means that you can finish one today (read a certain number of chapters or practice exam questions, for example), so that you can concentrate better on your other goals in the days that follow.
- Here’s how to practice it. Write the question in big bold letters on a sheet of paper and hang it on your bedroom or bathroom wall. Pick a location where you can easily see the question as soon as you wake up (next to your bed or the bathroom mirror, for example). Then, read it out loud as you start your day. Take a few moments to think what you want to prioritize, and then come up with an answer and say it out loud too. Later, as you go through the day, make sure you’re working on completing what you’ve identified as your study goal for that day.
Study tip #3. Build a mental model for your study day.
Building a mental model sounds fancy and somewhat abstract, but it’s actually straightforward. You imagine in detail how you expect things will go during your studies and even when you get to exam time. By telling yourself a story, you train your brain to anticipate your progress. Here’s how to start.
- Begin your day by visualizing your success with studying. Do this before you begin your study session, and set aside about 5–10 minutes for this activity. You can do it either before you get up in the morning, while you’re having breakfast, or right after breakfast as you’re sitting with your eyes closed.
- Be detailed in thinking about all the steps you will take. This can include covering the chapters and exercises planned for that day, to taking the time to review the material, to writing out an outline of important concepts, to practicing exam questions and knowing the answers.
- Anticipate and identify which parts you will find challenging to understand and remember. This helps you prepare for problems so you don’t end up getting surprised because you don’t understand a part of the lecture. Then, come up with ways to resolve this (for example, by asking a classmate, reaching out to the professor during office hours or via email, or by designating a little extra time for review).
Study tip #4. Do the most challenging cognitive tasks first.
- Here’s why. It’s about taking advantage of your circadian rhythm, which dictates which activities we’re more likely to do best at certain times of the day. For most people, your brain’s peak performance happens 2-4 hours after you wake up. This is the time when your brain can focus on analytical thinking that requires the most concentration. For studying, this can be reading, writing, coding, analyzing, critical thinking, or problem solving.
- Here’s when. If you wake up at 8, your peak times are between 10 and 12. And just because it’s noon, it doesn’t mean you have to stop; feel free to extend this time for another hour or so to maximize your peak performance and wrap up an important section, chapter, or lecture.
- Here are the benefits. Doing your hard work early in the day allows your brain to focus fully on the problem at hand, with fewer distractions, less inputs from your environment, and with a lot of energy that you’ve gained from a restful night. It’s the opposite of what can happen if you leave your toughest studying for nighttime, when you are exhausted, both mentally and physically, from the day.
Study tip #5. Work in short increments and use a timer.
For most efficient studying, you don’t need to be sitting at your desk for hours. Use a timer to better manage your study session. That way you allow your brain to focus in a more targeted and effective way. Here are some examples.
- Read and review study material. Set the timer to 30 or 60 minute increments to maximize concentration; or, for really short bursts of study, try the Pomodoro technique which consists of 25 minute blocks of time, followed by 5 minute breaks.
- Practice exam questions. Use the review questions from your textbook or you can create your own questions based on the most important concepts from each chapter. Write the questions down on a sheet of paper. Then, use the Pomodoro technique to rehearse for the exam. Give yourself only a short time to answer each question.
- Take breaks. When you’re done with one timed segment, step away from your desk and do something completely unrelated to work: get some fresh air, stretch, have a snack, grab a cup of coffee or tea.
Study tip #6. Take notes.
Don’t just sit and read the textbook passively; write stuff down! This improves your brain’s cognitive skills, makes retention of information easier, and boosts memory.
- Note down what’s relevant.This includes key concepts, ideas, and topics. Don’t waste time writing down every single word, Instead, boost your critical thinking skills by identifying what is relevant to the topic. Don’t know what’s the best way? Try the Cornell Method.
- Use bulleted lists. This saves time, enables you to skim the material when you need it, helps you locate information faster, and makes the review process easier.
- Use color.Get notes more organized with multi-colored pens, markers, or highlighters to emphasize the most important sections. Use specific colors to highlight top priority concepts, then pick other colors to identify second level priority items such as examples and additional information.
- Make additional information easily visible. When you find more information you want to add to your notes later, draw an asterisk (*) next to the concept that you want to expand on, then add the new information in a footnote at bottom of the page.
Study tip #7. Declare war on all distractions.
You might know this scenario: you think you’ll spend ten minutes checking Facebook or Twitter, and next thing you know two hours flew by without you noticing. Then you start feeling overwhelmed and stressed out because you don’t have a lot of time left to review or study. Here’s what can help.
- Check your email and social media apps only 2–3 times a day(around lunchtime, later in the afternoon, and evening).
- Set your phone to Airplane modewhen you need to focus, or simply turn off the volume and put it away for a few hours.
- Avoid browsing the Internet or reading the daily news; leave these activities for later after you’ve completed all the items you need to cover.
- Set expectations with othersby letting them know you won’t be available in the next few hours; this can apply to family members, classmates, and close friends.
Study tip #8. Boost memorization with the teaching technique.
One of the most powerful memory techniques is recalling newly learned information by teaching it to someone else or simply retelling it to yourself out loud. This helps you review, recall, and retain what you’ve learned better than just silently looking over the material. Here’s how to get started.
- Create your own audience.It can be a close friend, study partner or family member. Too shy to speak to anyone? Pretend you have a couple of invisible students who really need to learn what you just covered, or use the family dog to be your attentive listener!
- Set up your classroom.Take a large sheet of white paper (or tape together several sheets for a bigger writing surface), then tape it to your bedroom wall at eye level. Be sure you have some leg room to stand in front of it. Have a pen handy, and a thick black marker (or different colored highlighters) to underline important concepts.
- Get to work. Write an outline of the most important points in the chapter you just covered, then go over the concepts aloud one by one. Make your “lecture” come alive by drawing diagrams on the side and by providing a few examples. At the end, summarize the key parts of your lecture and highlight these sections with your thick marker to help you recall details and solidify what you’ve learned.
Study tip #9. Use your evenings for strategic thinking.
This is typically the time of day when the brain slows down and is more likely to do some creative thinking. That’s why it’s a good idea to use this time to focus on strategic activities. For example:
- Set your study goals for the week so you’re always thinking two steps ahead.
- Strategize ways to optimize your learningby finding new learning tools, resources or apps that can help you study smarter.
- Review your schedule for the next day so you know what’s coming up.
- Contemplate the big picture with questions such as: Where you would like to be once you’re done with your exams? What are your long-term goals? What is the career you want for yourself? What are the steps you’ll need to take to get started on the next phase of your professional development?
Study tip #10. Get enough sleep to help your brain absorb what you’ve learned.
- Here’s why. Neuroscientists believe that sleep can help us learn and memorize better, and also give our brain time to get rid of unnecessary waste. Conversely, chronic sleep deprivation can reduce our cognitive abilities, can impact our concentration, and can even reduce IQ.
- Here’s how to optimize your sleep. Adjust your sleeping position so that you sleep on your side. According to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the brain’s glymphatic pathway (the exchange of two fluids, the cerebrospinal fluid in your brain and the interstitial fluid in your body) helps to eliminate “brain junk,” and this process of elimination is most effective when we sleep on our side. The result? You wake up more refreshed the next day with a clear mind.
- Here’s what can help you unwind faster in the evening. Step away from electronics (mainly your computer and TV screens), because the light may be keeping you alert without you even being aware of it. Have a cup of herbal tea, some warm milk with honey, or a magnesium supplement. Then, do something relaxing 15–20 minutes before bedtime: listen to some music, read a chapter of that book you’ve wanted to start, or just close your eyes and breathe deeply for 10 counts before you turn out the lights.
A youngish lawyer with penetrating insight, Patrick Herbert is the Editor-in-Chief and founder of Lawstudenthub, a site dedicated to helping new wigs find their footing in a trickily slippery legal profession and stay current with emerging developments in the legal industry. He holds an LLB from the University of Benin and a BL from the Nigerian Law School, Abuja. In his spare time, Patrick doubles as a professional writer and copyeditor.
If you have any urgent enquiries, you can email him @[email protected]