21 Scientific Ways to Learn Faster - How to Study Smart

Here are 21 scientific ways to learn faster so that you can study smarter, not harder.

21 Scientific Ways to Learn Faster - How to Study Smart
Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

You can learn faster if you link new ideas to what you already know.
Scientists Henry Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel write in their book Make It Stick that you'll learn new information faster if you connect it to existing knowledge.

For example, if you’re learning about the heart, you could relate it to the flow of water around a pump system. Blood pressure is similar to water pressure, heart rate is like the flow rate of water, your heart is a pump, and so on.

By linking and simplifying new information we're improving how our brain organises new knowledge. This reduces the germane cognitive load and makes encoding information easier, making for faster learning.

2. Use Active Recall

Let's get this one out the way early. There is a tonne of research showing that self-testing and using active recall is essential if you want to improve your academic performance.

In one experiment, Keith Lyle, a psychologist at the University of Louisville, taught the same statistics class to two groups of undergraduates.
At the end of each lecture, Lyle gave the first group of students a four- to six-question quiz. The test was based on what he had just talked about.
Lyle didn't give any quizzes to the students in the second group.
At the end of the course, Lyle found that the first group did much better on all four midterm exams than the second group.

So don’t just passively read your textbook or lecture notes. Study smart by quizzing yourself on the key concepts and equations as you go.

The problem with repeated rereading, which is what most students do to study, is that it gives you a false sense of familiarity. You feel like you know the material, but you've never tried retrieving it

As you prepare for a test, do as many practice questions as you can from different sources.

3. Read key information out loud

Studies have shown that reading information out loud can help you to learn it faster than if you read it silently in your head. (MacLeod CM, 2010 & Ozubko JD, 2010).

So why is this?

When you read something out loud, you see and hear it at the same time. When you read something quietly, on the other hand, you only see it.

And listening while reading takes advantage of something called the Modality effect which is from some research into educational psychology that shows that our brains processes visual and auditory information separately. Auditory items in our working memory do not compete with visual items in the same way that two visual items, for example a picture and some text, compete with one another and end up splitting our attention.

You don't need to read everything out but if there is something you're struggling with try saying it out loud or reciting it back to make it stick.

4. Take regular study breaks

Taking regular study breaks enhances overall productivity and improves focus according to research (Ariga & Lleras, 2011).

While studying for long hours can feel productive research shows that breaks help you to study faster in the long run. You can use the pomodoro technique to take 5-10 minute breaks after chunks of focused work or I just tend to time block out work and breaks in my calendar.

5. Reward yourself

Incentivise yourself by setting yourself a reward for getting to the end of a study session or learning goal. Studies show that reward motivation promotes memory formation via dopamine release in the hippocampus part of our brains prior to learning.  (Adcock RA, 2006).

If I'm working  or studying I tend to set myself pretty simple rewards like going to the gym, going for a walk, grabbing a snack or playing a video game.

Reward yourself at the end of every study session – you’ll study smarter and learn faster.

6. Focus on the process, not the outcome.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset shows that people who focus on the journey rather than the outcome of getting grades tend to do better.

Top performing students tend to set learning goals while average students set performance goals

What’s the difference between these types of goals?

Performance goals are what I call vanity metrics. They are things like getting a top grade or coming top in your class they focus on the outcome rather than on the journey.

Learning goals are about mastery and growth and focus on the journey. They are goals like doing 25 active recall questions everyday or practising guitar 5 times a week.

Like Carol Dweck says when I'm working towards anything I'll focus on effort, not the end result, I'll focus on the process, not on achievement, I'll embrace challenges and I'll focus on improving by putting in the hard work.

7. Drink at least eight glasses of water a day.

Are you drinking enough water?

University of East London researchers found that our brain's overall mental processing power decreases when we’re dehydrated (Edmonds, C. 2013).

The simple solution?

It's recommended that we drink around 1.2 litres of water a day or at least eight glasses. I usually keep a large water bottle with me at all times to stay hydrated.

Water accelerates the chemical reactions in our bodies and can quicken the rate at which our brains process information. Dehydration, on the other hand, can cause fatigue, forgetfulness and sluggishness. So make sure you're drinking regularly and turn it into a habit as you study and work.

8. Exercise at least three times a week.

A study done at the University of Georgia in 2008 found that young adults who did just 20 minutes of low-intensity exercise 3 times a week experienced both higher daily energy levels and much lower levels of fatigue.

Exercise improves memory by priming the molecular process involved in the encoding and consolidation of newly acquired information according to the research. (Roig et al., 2013)

Regular exercise has also been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends 30 min of moderate- to high-intensity exercise for at least 5 days a week for all healthy individuals as regular exercise significantly reduces causes of mortality by up to 30% for men and women.

I prioritize exercise always and I usually feel energised and more focused after exercising. I'll usually do a HiiT class, Crossfit or go for a walk in the morning as a break to set me up for the day and on other days I'll hit the gym for a weights session. Whatever you do whether a walk or a quick 20-minute HiiT class from home make sure you get it in.

9. Sleep at least eight hours a night, and don’t pull all-nighters.

Dozens of studies have confirmed that memory depends on sleep and if you've ever got to bed late you'll know that waking up to study when feeling tired is a real struggle and you often lose concentration and are just not that great at retaining information.

Research from the National Sleep Foundation suggests that we need at least seven hours of sleep to function at our best so make sure you prioritise a good night's sleep when studying and don’t pull all-nighters. Psychologist Pamela Thacher’s research shows, students who pull all-nighters get lower grades and make more careless mistakes.

The research shows that if you get enough sleep, you’ll be more focused, you’ll learn faster, and your memory will improve. You’ll also deal with stress more effectively.

10. Learn the same information in a variety of ways

Research from Willis, J. 2008 shows that different media stimulate different parts of the brain. The more areas of the brain that are activated, the more likely it is that you’ll understand and retain the information.

If you're faced with a difficult topic coming at it from multiple different angles will aid our understanding. Instead of just reading and getting stuck jump into an online video, listen to an audiobook on the topic or try methods like teaching others or creating self-test questions to come at the information from different angles.

Learning isn't linear, it's a winding journey where you need to go over things again and again and come at things from different angles to master it.

11. Interleave multiple subjects Study multiple subjects each day, rather than focusing on just one or two subjects.

According to research from the University of South Florida it’s more effective to study multiple subjects each day, instead of focusing on just one or two subjects. (Rohrer, D. 2012).

If you have lots of exams it might seem sensible to just focus on maths for a single day and then physics the next. So why isn't this the best way to learn?

Well according to researchers we tend to confuse and mix up topics and concepts that are similar. Whereas different subjects are more defined. For example by studying maths and then English on the same day the content you're learning is significantly different and reduces the chance of you mixing up things like algebra and formulae which you might do if studying just maths all day.

By interleaving and tackling a mix of related concepts in a study session you're forcing your brain to work hard and learn more effectively.

12. Space learning, instead of cramming.

Spacing is essential if you want to move information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. This will help you get better exam grades.

As the research (Cepeda, N. 2008) shows, spaced repetition of topics beats cramming everytime.

Our brains naturally forget things and to beat the forgetting curve we need to test ourselves periodically after the first learning event. The time of spacing intervals depends on how long you want to retain the information for but roughly re-testing on days 1, 3, 7 and 21 has always worked for me if I'm studying for an exam 6-8 weeks away.

13. Sit at the front of the class.

While lots of learning has moved online. Studies show that students who sit at the front tend to get higher exam scores (Rennels & Chaudhari, 1988) with grade scores varying based on seating position (Giles, 1982):

  • Front rows: 80%
  • Middle rows: 71.6%
  • Back rows: 68.1%

These were teacher-assigned positions too so it wasn't just that the more motivated students chose to sit at the front. So why was this?

Well researchers suggested that by sitting at the front, you’re able to see the board and hear the teacher more clearly, and your concentration will improve too. This all mans that our attention is more focused leading to better processing and encoding of information. The only down-side is that you might get asked a question as you can't hide in the front row.

14. Don’t multitask

Multi-tasking is one of those myths where the research shows that juggling too many tasks at the same time actually makes you less productive and effective not more efficient as many people are led to believe.

And this makes sense right? If we're not focused on studying our brains won't filter the information and we're increasing the extraneous cognitive load by filling our brains with unnecessary information and tasks.

Top performing students focus on just one thing at a time and ditch any distractions like mobile phones or notifications.

So pop your phone into another room and focus on studying.

15. Use Mnemonics.

Mnemonic devices like acronyms help us to reduce our cognitive load by linking new information to easy to remember words, phrases, objects or rhymes which are easy to recall.

For example to learn the names of the Great Lakes, the acronym HOMES can be used with each letter representing the name of a Great Lake: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior.

Memory palaces and peg number systems used by memory masters work on the same principles of relating new information to organized, memorable schema in our brains.

So study smart by using mnemonic devices whenever possible.

16. The pen is mightier than the keyboard

Research has shown that writing notes and completing questions by hand may be more effective than using our laptops and typing on a keyboard. (Mueller, P. 2013).

So why is this?

Studies suggest that when we take notes by hand we tend to process and reframe the information in our brains in a more active way. We're actually considering the information. When we take notes using a keyboard we often just transcribe what a teacher or lecturer is saying which is a much more passive process.

If you take notes by hand on iPad or in a notebook or even better if you write recall questions and take no notes you'll perform better at exams.

17. Journal Your Thoughts

Exam nerves or worrying about studying can adversely impact our performance at exam time. So what's the best way to reduce pre-exam worry?

Well researchers at the University of Chicago discovered that students who wrote about their feelings about an upcoming exam for 10 minutes performed better than students who didn’t. The researchers say that this technique is especially effective for habitual worriers.

Journalling helps us to express negative feelings, which then reduces the distraction causes by those feelings.

To be less anxious, take 10 minutes and write down all the things related to the upcoming exam that you’re worried about, you’ll get better grades.

18. Eat enough choline

Choline is the precursor to acetylcholine, which is a neuroreceptor essential for the formation of new memories.

Researchers at Boston University found that people who had diets high in choline performed better on memory tests.

What foods are high in choline?

Chicken and eggs (the egg yolk contains 90% of the total choline in the egg) and if you're vegan or vegetarian don't panic as almonds, sunflower and pumpkin seeds also have a high choline content too and are great for snacking on during study sessions.

19. Eat blueberries.

A great study or work snack to have at your desk are blueberries. Blueberries are rich in flavonoids, which strengthen connections in our brains and stimulate the regeneration of brain cells.

Researchers at the University of Reading found that eating blueberries improves both short-term and long-term memory (Whyte, A. & Williams, C. 2014).

They are also delicious too and are easy to snack on during work sessions.

20. Eat omega-3 fatty acids

Diet and exercise are essential for keeping our brains healthy and forming memories. Omega-3 fatty acids in particular are critical for brain function according to research.

In one study (Yehuda, S. 2005) researchers found that giving students a mix of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids made them less nervous about tests and helped them focus better.

Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in pumpkin and flax seeds as well as fish like salmon and sardines.

21. Mindfulness and Nature

A study of 191 students by Bakosh et al in 2015 demonstrated that listening to just 10-minutes of guided mindfulness audio a day significantly enhanced students’ quarterly grades in reading and science, compared to a control group.

Getting out of your head and going for a walk in nature can boost your memory function too.

One study reported better working memory scores after a walk in a natural environment, and there is even evidence that simply looking at nature scenes on a computer can help be restorative.

I'll usually combine these with taking breaks between work and study sessions.