Let me start off by saying I used to hate studying. Especially for finals. I would pull 12-16 hour study days every day for the week or two before and during finals. But what sucked the most was when I realized that the studying I was doing could have been so much less painful and yielded much better results.
I’m not writing to completely change your studying style. My main purpose in writing this article is to bring up ideas that everyone can apply to their unique study styles. However, if you came here looking for study models, I threw some links at the bottom of the page.
For years, I had to push my nose to the paper to get any studying done. I would find myself getting bored when I knew I had to study for the test coming up (often the next morning). This would result in me giving up studying multiple times in one night, struggling to suppress both my school-related apathy and the high entertainment value of everything around me.
Setting (your own) goals gives you a general sense of direction and motivation to fall back upon.
It is very difficult to guide behaviours without positive (meaning present, not necessarily happy) motivation. Think of a ship without a compass, map, or GPS. For most people, departing for a trip across the ocean without these tools for guidance would result in a bad time. As well, having a self-imposed goal allows for the activation of a satisfaction-motivation feedback loop. The major benefit of this is that motivation is perpetually maintained and may even grow as you get closer to and achieve your goals.
Task: Set up short and long-term goals.
Being able to set, reset, and maintain goals allows you to continue achieving, and avoid post-goal apathy. If the previous boat metaphor holds, goal modification and implementation in short and long-term scenarios is similar to being able to check your compass more than once on your journey. You wouldn’t check a compass or GPS once at the beginning of your voyage and than just leave it, so why would you only set one-dimensional goals? You wouldn’t.
Do a Little Bit at a Time
Before I start on this point, I want to emphasize there is actually a point to studying over a period of time. All of my life I’ve heard teachers, professors, and mentors repeat this over and over ad infinitum: doing a little bit at a time makes it so much easier when the test comes around. I guess I could see where they were coming from too. Great minds, elite athletes, amazing musicians, talented artists, etc all apply themselves to their craft day in and day out. Just as Michael Jordan’s training regime didn’t only consist of 8-20 hours of investment on the hardwood right before the NBA championship finals, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to study 8-20 hours directly before a big test. I understood this near the end of my high school years, but it didn’t have any relevance with me until my third year in University. Hopefully, you can learn from my mistakes and understand the importance of this one principle: Doing a little bit of studying or work every day is significantly better in the long-run.
Arguably the best thing about doing a little bit of studying or work everyday is that the retention rate is higher, meaning less hours are needed overall for a higher grade. Work smart not hard right? There are a ton of highly respected studies regarding the benefits of studying over a period of time (1 hour per day) (Donovan and Radosevich, 1999), showing roughly 67% increase in retention rate OR, by extension, 67% decrease in time for the same result. Lets do some math.
An average (B-, 70%) student may study 15-20 hours for a typical final. Typical students leave the studying to be done in large chunks within 3-4 days before the final.
16 hours/4 days = 4 hours per day per final
A typical student will study for 4 hours per day, for 4 days, chalking up to a 16 hour block of study time.
70% (Final Grade)/ 16 Hours (Time of Study) = 4.375 % (Percentage of Test per Hour of Study)
Same-Hour Distributed Option:
Let’s use the same 15-20 hours of preparation for an exam, EXCEPT we’ll use the 67% increase in retention above. For the sake of the equation, an 67% increase in retention will be translated to an 67% increase in effective hours.
You want to get 100%? Let’s use the typical study method based on typical test results and see how much time it would take.
100% (Final Grade) / 4.375% (Percentage Per Hour) = 22.86 (Hours of Study)
That means it would take you 22.86 hours with the typical study methods to get 100% on your next test. That’s fun. Here’s an easy way to increase the grade you get and decrease the time you spend.
Let’s go backwards from the 16 hours over 4 days for 70% on a final, and see how much more time we have if we just do an hour every day. We will assume that a 67% increase in retention will be translated to a 67% increase in effective hours (vide supra).
4.375% (Percentage Per Hour) x 1.67 (Increased Retention Rate) = 7.31% (Increased Percentage Per Hour)
That means if you divide your study time into hour long segments over 16 days instead of cramming in 4 hours per day, each hour that you study will result in a 7.31% grade, instead of a 4.375% grade. Talk about effective use of your time! Alright. You want to get a 70%? This is how it would work:
70% (Final Grade)/ 7.31 % (Percentage Per Hour) = 9.58 (Hours of Study)
With the new learning method, you’ll have to study 6 LESS hours to get the SAME grade! Studying an hour a day is alot easier than studying 4 hours for 4 days too; alot less mentally draining. The key is to set aside some time, the same time each day, so that you actually get your studying done.
What about if you wanted to get 100%?
100% (Final Grade) / 7.31% (Percentage Per Hour) = 13.68 (Hours of Study)
On paper that means by spending 14 days studying, an hour per day, you’re going to get a higher grade than if you study 4 hours per day for 4 days straight. Of course changing variables come into play with these equations; distractions, level of focus, etc.
See! It makes very little sense to cram when you have the option of distributed practice. It doesn’t even make sense if trying to slack as best as possible. So don’t do it.
Eat and Sleep
ROCKSTAR! COFFEE! TIMS! STARBUCKS! VENTI ORANGE MOCHA FRAPPUCINOS! SUGARCANDAYBAKEDGOODS!!!! NOSLEEPLOTSOFSTUDYMAKESGOODGRADESAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH
Eating and sleeping are two huge factors that you can easily make work for getting a higher grade in school.
Did you know that your brain consumes roughly 25% (Dullo and Jacquet, 1998) of your entire body’s energy? Machines need electricity, cars need gas, and your brain needs glucose. While it wouldn’t be reasonable to do a 180 with studying lifestyle and expect you to become a health nut overnight, you should be aware of what in your body has a direct and profound effect on how effective you are able to study. Different foods provide different levels of energy to your body over different periods of time, with high-protein foods being great before a big day of studying. I’m not going to get into math again, but what if I suggested that your “hours” studying were only 50% as effective as regular hours you put in? Could you imagine your 12 hour awesome study day actually only be as effective as 6 hours of studying with food? Isn’t time something you have a lot of during finals? Oh wait.
Sleep is another huge factor that people often overlook when studying. The hippocampus is a major brain area associated with the formation of new memories. It works a lot like RAM in your computer. Memories (data) are stored in your hippocampus (RAM), and than transferred to permanent memory (hard drive) when you sleep. To that end, an increase in sleep (specifically, REM sleep) has been shown to increase the transfer of information to permanent storage. There is overwhelming evidence showing the role of sleep on hippocampal action and memory, and I’ve included a few links below for the science-inclined. It should be noted though, that while sleep is important, cramming all night is significantly better than relying on what you “learned” in class and doing nothing.
The Next Level
You can increase retention rates and how much you remember by studying when you wake up.
The hippocampus (RAM) is “cleared” and best utilized after periods of sleep (Buzsaki, 1990). Although lifestyle often does not support studying when you just wake up (who REALLY wakes up at 6 am to study before classes?), it is much easier for your brain to process and remember information when it is the first thing to enter that RAM storage. While I am a big believer in integrating good habits into lifestyle for perpetual benefits, I think that many people could probably pull their sleep back 2-3 hours and get up that extra 2-3 hours earlier than they usually would. I’ve been experimenting with this one for a long time, and the two biggest benefits I’ve seen are, one, my nights are free to chill, and two, it’s so much easier to study when it’s not at the end of a long day of work, driving through traffic, etc.
I hope everyone reading this can find the value I have found within these ideas, and that it takes your studying to more effective levels. If you want to talk about these ideas in more depth, drop a comment below or hit me up on Facebook. I love hearing about what works (and what doesn’t) for other people, so don’t feel shy ;).
If this article has motivated or inspired you to start developing your lifestyle, be sure to browse the other pages or shoot Cam and Kevin a message.
Best of luck.
Buzsáki G, Chen LS, Gage FH (1990). “Spatial organization of physiological activity in the hippocampal region: relevance to memory formation”. Prog Brain Res 83: 257–68.
Donovan, John J; Radosevich, David J. A meta-analytic review of the distribution of practice effect: Now you see it, now you don’t. Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol 84(5) Oct 1999, 795-805
Dulloo, A. G, Jacquet, J. (1998). “Adaptive reduction in basal metabolic rate in response to food deprivation in humans: a role for feedback signals from fat stores”. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 68 (3): 599–606.
Litman, L.; Davachi, L. (2008). “Distributed learning enhances relational memory consolidation”. Learning & memory (Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.) 15 (9): 711–716.
Willingham, D. T. (2002). “Allocating Student Study Time: “Massed” versus “Distributed” Practice”. American Educator. American Federation of Teachers.