I've spent over twenty years studying for exams and tests during school, med school and then in work as a surgeon and it's fair to say I've made my fair share of mistakes in how I've studied along the way. These studying mistakes have led me to the point where the habits I use today mean I'm able to learn really quickly and effectively and I've been sharing lots of these evidence-based learning techniques with you to help you learn how to learn and perform at your best.
1. Writing Way Too Many Notes
One of the worst studying habits that I had when I started medical school was that I'd write down lots and lots of notes on random pieces of paper. I'd write down everything at lectures and would literally transcribe chapters of books as it made me feel like I was being productive. And this is something that loads and loads of people do. They'll head to the library and will write out huge volumes of revision notes or will try and summarise textbooks or their own notes. As I progressed in my medical career and things got busier with clinical commitments this just wasn't an efficient way to learn and took up huge amounts of time. So when I got to about third year of med school I made a huge change to my note taking style and basically what I did was I stopped taking notes and I've never taken notes since. What I realised was that it was way more effective and efficient to focus on past papers and using practise questions and then really identifying what information was useful and what wasn't.
2. Passive Re-Reading
When I was in first year of medical school I actually failed an exam because I had no clue how to actually learn. Probably my worst studying habit that led to this was that when it came to exam revision time I was guilty like lots of other people of sitting passively and running my eyes back over every page of my notes or textbooks. Unless you can prove that the material is moving into your brain by recalling the main ideas without looking at the page, rereading is a waste of time.
This is exactly what I did when I failed an exam and what happened was although I felt like I had been productive studying I couldn't actually remember very much when it came to the exam.This is because re-reading and highlighting are passive methods of learning and our brains need to be engaged and active when we are forming memories and learning. They have been shown to be inferior in multiple research studies including that by Jeffrey Karpicke which found that testing yourself just once is more effective and meaningful than rereading a chapter four times. So if you want to get four times more effective at studying cut this terrible habit and focus on active testing.
3. Not Setting Goals
Terrible study habit number three I see pretty frequently in people learning anything and that is not setting goals or setting the wrong goals. What most people tend to do is plan out a study timetable and basically say that if I spend 8 hours a day in the library I will be able to ace the exam. The problem here is that you are focusing on time spent as the main goal rather than on actually understanding the what you're learning. I used to just set goals like reading a textbook chapter in a day but then I completely changed how I set learning goals when I needed to studying for big postgraduate surgical exams around my day job and what I did was I'd set myself a number of questions to complete in a day or a week or I'd set a goal to be able to explain a topic in simple terms and deeply understand it by a set date. All of my goals involve some kind of test to make sure I'm actually learning things and this is just a much better metric to keep you focused and to measure your understanding of a topic rather than just time spent learning.
4. Thinking You Don't Need To Study
The next terrible study habit to avoid sounds fairly crazy but it's surprising just how many people fall into this bad studying habit by simply under-estimating how much hard work is needed to study and do well at exams or tests. If you think you know a topic well it can be easy to just skip over it or if a topic is really hard you can sometimes trick yourself and say "well this isn't going to come up in the exam so I can skim over it". If something is on the syllabus it can be tested and may well come up so you need to learn it.
Practical exams in medicine are a great example of this. In professional exams like the MRCS or MRCP you get tested on your clinical ability like speaking with a patient or performing an exam or procedure. Quite a few people think that as they do these skills everyday there is no need to practise them or they can just practise them a bit and spend more time on the theory. The problem is that practical exams are very much like a driving test. What you do in work everyday may not be exactly what you need to score specific points at the exam. For example in real life, even though you should, you probably don't check your mirrors or parallel park like you do when you're being assessed at a driving test. So you need to spend time learning the formal steps that will score you points against the examiner's mark scheme and practise so you look slick.
5. Studying Harder Not Smarter
The next bad study habit to kick is all to do with mindset. I still see people on my newsletter or via instagram and twitter saying that they aren't that clever and they are just not that good at a subject and are going to fail it. This bad habit is called having a fixed mindset where people blame their genetics and intelligence on not being able to learn and they then associate learning as hard work and end up not bothering to study.
Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck killed off this idea in her book Mindset where she talks about the power of having a growth mindset. While there are some elements of genetics that play a role in our abilities like intelligence if you commit to long term deliberate practise and learn how to study you will get better quickly and probably surpass those who might be more intelligent on say an IQ test but who themselves haven't practised and don't know how to learn.
6. Letting Highlights Overwhelm You
Highlighting your text can fool your mind into thinking you are putting something in your brain, when all you’re really doing is moving your hand. A little highlighting here and there is okay—sometimes it can be helpful in flagging important points. But if you are using highlighting as a memory tool, make sure that what you mark is also going into your brain. I remember going to the library with one of my friends who studied geography at university. What he's do was basically take a textbook and then just read and highlight the actual textbook. When it came to the exam he went back through and he couldn't find anything or remember anything as he'd highlighted almost every word. His book and notes were just one giant rainbow of highlight colours where ironically nothing stood out. I'm a fan of using mindmaps for planning out a curriculum structure but I won't spend ages procrastination by using loads of colours on mindmaps or notes. A few highlights of key words or folding over the page in a book to bookmark the page is great when you are priming your knowledge and skimming over a new book to pre-read but don't overdo it as again highlighting has been proven to be less effective than self-testing and active recall.
7. Going straight to the solution
This bad habit is for everyone learning topics that are equation-heavy like maths and physics and this next terrible study technique to quit is just glancing at a problem’s solution and thinking you know how to do it. This is one of the worst errors students make while studying. You need to be able to solve a problem step-by-step, without looking at the solution. Using worked examples are really effective ways to reduce our cognitive load and help us to understand the method of reaching a solution. The problem is that unless you try it yourself or you use a partially completed worked example you can give yourself a fluency effect when you just superficially know the steps for that worked example rather than being able to apply it yourself in real life without the solution there to guide you.
Now on this topic I've been asked about how you apply encoding and active recall to things like math and physics and any equation-based subjects and I have some videos on these topics coming out soon so be sure to hit that subscribe button to find out how to correct this bad habit in more detail.
8. Waiting until the last minute to study
Would you cram at the last minute if you were practicing for a sporting event? Your brain is like a muscle—it can handle only a limited amount of exercise on one subject at a time. If you leave things right till the last minute your learning isn't going to be effective and your brain won't be able to take advantage of evidence-based study techniques like spaced repetition that require you to come back and re-test yourself at set intervals. Now I was really guilty of cramming in my first year of medical school. I remember one cardiology test I basically just didn't want to revise and was overconfident that I could stay up all night and cram the night before and that all the information I'd need would then be in my memory. Unfortunately for me this didn't work out so great as I ended up running on a few hours of sleep as I'd stayed up all night cramming and then I couldn't actually remember everything as our short-term memories have a very limited capacity. I now always jump into self-testing early on even if I have no idea about what I'm learning to prime my knowledge and get going early so I have loads of time to improve.
9. Solving the same type of problems
To quit the next terrible study technique you are going to have to mix up how you study. If you just sit around solving similar problems during your practice, you’re not actually preparing for a test—it’s like preparing for a big game by just practicing your dribbling. Repeatedly solving problems of the same type that you already know how to solve is not challenging your brain and like any good game when learning you need to be testing yourself actively and at an appropriate difficulty. This means that as you start to master topics you need to challenge yourself with harder questions and also mix up the types of questions.
For example I'm learning Japanese right now on a variety of language learning apps. I'll start off by just learning vocab and words using missing-word style questions but then I'll challenge myself to write out sentences and then to actually say a phrase. When I next go to Japan I'll be mixing things up further by understanding different accents and responding in real time to actually become proficient. So ditch that bad habit of just doing similar, easy questions and mix things up.
10. Group Study Distractions
Studying with others is one of the most effective ways to learn anything. Checking your problem solving with friends, and quizzing one another on what you know can make learning more enjoyable, expose flaws in your thinking, and deepen your learning. But if your joint study sessions turn to fun before the work is done, you’re wasting your time and you might want to find another study group. Letting study sessions with friends turn into chat sessions is an easy habit to fall into and you need to kick this terrible studying habit by being lazer focused on getting started and sticking to an agenda when you come together as a study group. If you are testing each other start right away and then block in a time to catch up when you take a break. Hold each other accountable and try to reduce group distractions.
11. Not Priming
Would you dive into a pool before you knew how to swim? Or even if you could swim would you dive in without checking the depth of the water? Well neglecting to read your course curriculum or quickly skim read new content you are learning before you start working problems is the next terrible study habit to quit that will improve your grades. Lots of people don't bother reading a book's contents page and won't look at an exam syllabus or mark scheme. The problem is that if you don't do these things you will struggle and waste your time as you won't understand what is relevant when you start learning. Whatever you are learning, before you begin, take a quick glance over the chapter or section to get a sense of what it’s about. Skim through any video or lecture notes and try and get a feel for important concepts and relate these back to what you know. This all helps you to encode more effectively and basically organizes what your learning and makes it more relevant.
12. Being Too Scared To Say You Don't Get It
Whatever you are learning you aren't going to understand everything on your first pass. Learning is recursive which means we need to go over what we're learning and come at it in different ways to really understand something on our own terms. Whether you are learning in a class or with friends or even by yourself online the next bad study habit to quit is being too shy to ask for help. Not checking with your teachers or classmates to clear up points of confusion can cause you to waste time for the sake of not wanting to appear like you don't get something. Learning is a journey and it's absolutely fine to ask for help whether that's online or live in a lecture. Teachers are used to students asking for guidance, it’s their job to help you. Sometimes you just need things explained in a different way or in more simple terms and this is where friends and teachers can really help you.
Thinking you can learn deeply when you are being constantly distracted is a bad study habit you need to quit right now. Every tiny distraction from an instant message notification or a conversation means you have less brain power to devote to learning. I've been guilty of this too. When I was studying for my surgical exams I was pretty tired coming to revise after night shifts and busy on calls and I would look for any excuse or any distraction other than getting down to work. One huge change that I made that massively improved my ability to focus and get down to work was to apply what I call the 3-second rule. This is where as soon as the idea of studying pops into my brain I'll act on it immediately, open my laptop and get down to business. I'll also use lofi music and a set studying routine and keep that phone switched off. I'll be diving more into focus and staying productive in future videos too.
14. Not getting enough sleep and exercise
One bad study habit that can creep up on many learners is not looking after yourself when you are studying. We naturally want to be lazer-focused on getting through everything we need to learn to pass exams and it's easy to do that at the expense of going to the gym, eating well and getting enough sleep. The problem here is that these three things are actually essential to us learning effectively and consolidating memories.
Your brain pieces together problem-solving techniques when you sleep, and it also practices and repeats whatever you put in mind before you go to bed. Prolonged fatigue allows toxins to build up in the brain that disrupt the neural connections you need to think quickly and well. If you don’t get a good sleep before a test, nothing else will matter. And the same goes for exercise and food if you aren't fit and healthy you won't be as effective when learning or on the day of your test. When you are planning out your study sessions make sure you factor in gym time, food breaks and set a wind-down routine to switch off before going to be.
15. Panicking and Nerves
The last terrible study technique to kick is about letting anxiety get the better of you. Studying, especially for exams can be stressful and if you skip a day or get behind or start overthinking about exams it can lead to stress. If you get stressed when studying it can cause you to procrastinate and not be productive and if you panic on a test day you might even flunk the test because of your nerves even if you know the subject really well. I still get a bit nervous before I need to give a speech I've learned like my TED talk but I'm able to manage my nerves by visualising success, blocking out any negative thoughts and reminding myself that the exam, test or talk isn't such a big deal in the grand scheme of things and that I have prepared as well as I can in the time frame. So yes you're going to get nervous before an exam but if you can kick overthinking things, takes some breaths and focus on doing your best you will likely do really well.