7 Counterintuitive Study Tips They Don't Tell You
Here are seven counterintuitive learning strategies I wish I'd used from day one. These strategies aren't obvious and they were pretty much the opposite of what I thought you needed to do to study at university.
When I started my first year of medical school, I was a bit of a disaster. I was constantly behind in my lectures, the workload was way more intense than I had ever imagined and my grades were just terrible. I'd stay out partying with friends until 5 AM, barely sleep, skip lectures and this ended up with me failing an exam.
This was a bit of a wake up call for me and so, I decided to take university seriously. I began using a few strategies that totally changed my learning experience. Thanks to these techniques, I went from bottom of the class to coming first in medicine and surgery while also having time to socialise and build a 7-figure business on the side.
Don’t Do All of Your Reading
Before I even got to medical school the university sent out a huge reading list and like most students I ended up spending a load of cash on large textbooks I'd never heard of. When it comes to learning we're taught that you should read a book through from the first chapter to the last and then put it onto our bookshelf as we've finished that book.
In my first year I realised pretty quickly that reading academic textbooks on topics like human biology was not really my thing. Some parts were interesting but I found I just got overwhelmed by the volume of content and passively reading wasn't really helping me to learn the topics tested at exam time.
There was one simple change that I made to my life that I've done ever since then for the last like 10 years, which has been completely transformational and which has saved me a tonne of time when learning anything.
And that change was essentially to treat books as reference materials rather than reading them cover to cover before moving onto the next book.
So before I started doing this I'd focus on a single book and read it cover to cover before moving on to the next. I just kind of assumed that's what everyone did. But then after reading a bunch of blogs and books about productivity what I realized was that most productive people who read lots of books each year typically jump between books and never really finish a book. They find the sections that are relevant acively learn the information and then put the book down.
This way if I'm learning anything I usually have two or three books on the subject or topic I'm learning and then I dive into specific chapters that help me to deeply understand a topic. I might bookmark pages or sections on my Kindle or in a physical book and save any key messages to my Notion book notes.
Most books have a lot of filler content around key concepts that just isn't worth your time reading and this subtle change has saved me a crazy amount of time over the last 10 years when it comes to learning pretty much anything.
Build Study Systems
Counterintuitive study tip number two I actually discovered in my second year of medical school. Once I'd made a decision in first year to take things more seriously I had this grand vision of myself in the library, surrounded by stacks of books, tirelessly absorbing knowledge and becoming a master of my subject. But as I quickly discovered, this romantic notion of studying was far from the reality of my experience.
I used to approach studying the same way most people do – by cramming endless hours of reading and note-taking into my schedule, trying to memorize every detail and concept. The problem was, no matter how much time I spent in the library, I would forget most of the material I'd learned by the time exams rolled around. And that was just incredibly frustrating.
Then I stumbled upon a book called Make It Stick that introduced me to a whole new way of studying. The authors described how, instead of trying to memorize every detail in a linear fashion, they would focus on understanding the core concepts and creating a system to easily recall that information. This was an absolute game-changer for me.
From that moment on, I ditched my old method of studying and started building study systems that prioritized understanding the key concepts and efficiently retaining information. Instead of passively reading textbooks and taking endless notes, I became an active learner. I'd create active recall questions, use mnemonic devices to improve encoding, and engage in active recall to help solidify the information in my brain.
For example, when learning about a complex topic in endocrinology, I'd start by identifying the main concepts and breaking them down into smaller, more manageable chunks. Then, I'd use techniques like spaced repetition and past paper questions to help reinforce the material over time. I'd also make connections between different topics, helping to create a web of understanding that made it much easier to retrieve the information when I needed it.
This new approach to studying completely transformed the way I learned, and the results were nothing short of amazing. Not only did I save a ton of time by focusing on the most important material, but my grades improved significantly, and my confidence in my ability to learn skyrocketed.
So, if you're tired of wasting countless hours on ineffective studying methods and want to see real progress in your learning, I highly recommend building study systems that prioritize understanding and retention and switching from passive study techniques like reading and highlighting to active methods that feel a bit more uncomfortable.
Don’t Study in Your Room
Tip number three is all about your study environment. When I was at med school I had a really awesome room with my gaming computer, I had a cozy reading nook set up with a soft armchair, a lamp, and a small table for my textbooks and notes. I was ready to tackle every assignment and exam in my bed of at my desk to reduce any time getting to the busy library and I had my housemates and kitchen close by for breaks.
In the beginning, it was fine. I would spend hours in my room, pouring over my textbooks, highlighting passages, and taking notes. But over time, I began to notice a shift in my focus and productivity. My room, which was supposed to be my study sanctuary, was becoming a place of distraction and procrastination.
One day, I stumbled upon an article discussing the importance of separating your study space from your living space. It struck a chord with me, and I realized that my room was no longer the ideal place for me to study. It had become a place of rest, relaxation, and entertainment, making it difficult to concentrate on learning.
That's when I decided to make a change. I began searching for different study environments, from libraries and coffee shops to outdoor parks and quiet campus nooks. I discovered that by separating my study space from my living space, I was able to focus more intently on my work and retain the information I was learning much more effectively. Something else interesting happened too. By switching up my enviornment I actually found I was enjoying studying more too. The different locations were like mini-adventures. I'd plan where I was going to study from and have some back-up ideas if that place was busy.
Whenever I needed to study, I choose a designated spot outside of my room. I rotated between different locations to keep my mind fresh and engaged. Not only did this improved my focus and productivity, but it has also made my room a more enjoyable space for relaxation and leisure and my sleep improved too.
If you're struggling with focus and productivity while studying in your room, try seeking out alternative environments. You may be surprised at how much of a difference it makes in your learning process. Now I can pop on my noise cancelling headphones, open my laptop and work from pretty much any location you can think of from sat on the beach working on my businesses to travelling on a plane.
Study With Others Only Once You've Mastered How To Study
Okay tip number four is going to seem pretty counterintuitive and borderline anti-social so do stick with it.
I'm a big fan of studying with others as it's fun and you can learn new things from their perspectives. When I was revising for practical or oral exams in medicine working in groups or pairs was pretty much essential. We gathered at the library, found a quiet corner, and opened our textbooks, ready to tackle our upcoming exam together. But more often than not in these group study sessions as the hours passed, I began to realize that I wasn't as prepared for group learning as I thought.
You see, back then, I was still figuring out how to study effectively. I had no solid routine or strategy in place. I spent most of my time trying to keep up with the group and understand their methods, rather than focusing on my own learning. I left those study sessions feeling overwhelmed and a little bit discouraged. We'd often end up getting distracted and on reflection probably weren't being as efficient as we could have been.
Over time, I started to reflect on my study habits and realized that I needed to master my own approach to learning before I could effectively study with others. Getting the most out of studying in a group is a whole study technique in itself. I realised that I needed to be a little more selfish and focus on the key topics that I would get the most benefit from. For example when practising medical examination there was no point me studying with people who were behind me and hadn't grasped some of the basics. It was better to study with people who were top 1% students and to prepare for those sessions as I'd get more out of them.
So I approached the next group study sessions with a newfound sense of confidence and self-awareness. I was better equipped to contribute to the group discussions, ask relevant questions, and share my insights, all because I had first mastered how to study on my own.
Now, whenever I join any kind of learning group, I make sure I have a strong foundation in the subject matter and a clear understanding of my personal study methods. This allows me to engage more effectively with my peers and benefit from our collective knowledge and experience.
So, if you're considering joining or forming a study group, first take the time to develop your own study skills and habits. Master how to study independently, so you can truly maximize the benefits of studying with others. Trust me, it's a game-changer that will elevate your academic performance and make your group study sessions much more rewarding.
Keep a Work-Progress Journal
Counterintuitive study tip number five is a bit of a meta-learning strategy that isn't obvious at all. And that's to keep a work-progress journal. Now when I first heard about journalling, I was skeptical. Who has the time to jot down their daily progress when they're already swamped with assignments, exams, and extracurricular activities? But trust me, this little habit can make a huge difference.
When I started recording my daily study progress, something incredible happened. I began to gain a deeper understanding of my own learning process, my strengths and weaknesses, and the areas where I needed to improve.
Before this I'd just study right up until bedtime and then go again the next day without really thinking - am I learning anything? Or are my current study methods helping me to deeply understand the topics that are going to come up on the exam.
Journalling helps give perspective to what you are learning and kind of forces you to zoom out, take a breath and look at the bigger picture.
Each day, I would take a few minutes to reflect on my study sessions and write down what I had accomplished, what challenges I had faced, and what I had learned. This simple practice helped me identify patterns in my productivity levels, recognize when I needed to adjust my study strategies, and celebrate small victories along the way.
Over time, keeping a work-progress journal transformed my approach to studying. I became more organized, focused, and intentional with my time. I was able to set realistic goals for myself and track my progress towards achieving them. Most importantly, it helped me develop a growth mindset and a sense of accountability for my own learning.
So, if you're looking for a game-changing study habit that will boost your productivity and self-awareness, give the work-progress journal a try. It might seem counterintuitive at first, but trust me, the insights you'll gain are well worth the effort. You can download the link to the Notion template that I use for journalling below to help you get started but you can also use a physical journal or your favourite iPad note-taking app of choice.
Go Straight To Past Papers
Okay study tip number six was probably the most counter-intuitve for me and the one that took me the longest to get my head around but which gave me the biggest returns.
And that tip is to go straight to past exam papers rather than building knowledge first and then testing yourself. When I first tried this approach, it made absolutely zero sense. It felt like jumping into the deep end without learning how to swim. But trust me, this strategy is insanely good for boosting your learning performance if you're studying for exams.
In my early med school days, I spent hours studying textbooks and taking nice-looking notes, only to find that I was unprepared for the actual exams. The questions were different from what I had studied, and I struggled to apply my knowledge.
That's when I decided to dive right into past exam papers. If you prepare using the same question format and difficulty level of questions as appear at the real exam you'll ensure there are no surprises when the exam comes around.
Instead of focusing solely on the textbook material, I began practicing with real exam questions. This helped me understand what to expect, identify my knowledge gaps, and learn how to apply my understanding to specific scenarios.
By tackling past exam papers early on, I became more confident, targeted my studies more effectively, and improved my exam performance. This can be applied for anything you're learning beyond exams too. Learning to code? Dive straight into a coding project and learn as you go. Learning to play guitar? Figure out what a chord is by analysing your favourite song.
So, if you're looking for a smart, efficient study strategy, give past exam papers a try. It might seem daunting at first, but the results can be truly transformative.
Nothing Good Happens After 1am
And that brings us to tip number seven which is more advice than a specific study strategy and that is nothing good ever happens after 1am.
Like most medics I loved staying out late and partying and I also believed that late-night cramming would somehow boost my academic performance. But sacrificing sleep for studying not only isn't effective it can also actively harm your brain's ability to learn.
With lots of late nights I found that my grades were suffering, and my mental and physical well-being were taking a hit too.
That's when I decided to rethink my late-night study habits. I started setting a strict bedtime, ensuring that I got at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night. I began to focus on quality study sessions during the day, rather than dragging them out into the early morning hours. I also focused on setting a hard bedtime if I was hanging out with friends. If it got to midnight and I needed to work the next day I made a conscious decision not to stay out late as it would impact the following day.
From this small habit change the results were pretty crazy. I discovered that being well-rested meant my brain was far more effective at retaining information and staying focused during study sessions. My academic performance improved, and I found myself feeling more energized and motivated throughout the day.
If you're in the habit of staying up late to study, consider giving yourself a bedtime and prioritizing sleep. It might seem counterproductive at first, but the benefits of a well-rested mind far outweigh the extra hours spent studying late at night. If we look at the science sleep is when our brains consolidate memories and we need exercise and rest in order to solve problems and apply what we've learned effectively.