I've sat loads of exams from school, through medical school and some really tough postgraduate surgical exams and I've also coached hundreds of learners at both undergrad level and in work and there's definitely some trends that I've noticed between the top performing learners and the ones who don't perform quite as well, none of which have anything to do with genetics or intelligence.
Whether it's at school, college, university or in work the most effective learners possess some common habits and techniques that set them apart from everyone else.
Learning Is A Journey: Discursive and Recursive Learning
So the first thing that I noticed that the top performing or "smartest" learners do that many others don't is that they understand that learning anything is a journey. And more than that they know that the journey isn't a straight line; learning is messy and your learning journey never really ends. I first noticed this study technique in medical school where the majority of my time was spent studying and learning to pass exams. While most medical students would read books and highlight their notes with a focus on memorizing knowledge to then remember facts for exams the people who actually performed the best at the exams had a much deeper understanding of the topics they were learning and were better equipped to actually work out problems. The people who got the best exam scores were also more relaxed around exam time and this was because they focused on that learning journey rather than worrying about if they knew every single fact.
I remember I asked one of my friends who came top in 1st year how he had revised as he seemed to be way calmer and just naturally understood things. He told me that his secret wasn't his intelligence but his appreciation that you are probably never going to know every single thing when you are tested but that's okay because that's the point of exams to separate the top performers from everyone else. He told me that he looked at learning anything like an ongoing journey where you might need to go back the way you came a few times or try some different routes to help you understand what you're studying and once you've found the fastest route and you do understand the topic you'll be able to get to the end way quicker and work everything else out.
Now this was maybe a bit philosophical but if we look at the research we know that learning anything isn't a straight line. Learning is both discursive and recursive meaning we need to digress from what we are learning and then go back over what we are learning to really make learning stick. The work of Hermann Ebbinghaus and the forgetting curve shows that memories are consolidated most effectively when we come back and test our knowledge after a period of time and this is where the concept of spaced repetition comes from. And we also know from Bloom's Taxonomy that simply memorizing facts is just the start of your journey to mastering whatever you are learning as you then need to understand what you are learning and then apply it as you move up the pyramid. So top performing learners will not just memorize things from flashcards but will actively read around topics and relate new content to what they already know to more deeply understand things and be on a continuous journey of actively asking themselves do I actually understand this topic and can I explain it in simple terms.
The idea of having a Eureka moment comes from a story about ancient Greek polymath Archimedes. In the story, Archimedes was asked by the local king to determine whether a crown was pure gold or whether he'd been cheated by the goldsmith. Archimedes was going crazy as he couldn't figure out a solution. Then during a trip to a public bath, Archimedes noted that water was displaced when his body sank into the bath, and in particular he noted that the volume of water displaced equaled the volume of his body immersed in the water. He'd just discovered how to measure the volume of an irregular object, and he worked out that if he placed a weight of gold equal to the crown into a basin filled to the brim with water and then removed the gold and replaced it with the King's crown if the water rose higher and overflowed with the crown in it, they could be certain that the goldsmith had cheated the King. When he figured out how to solve the king's problem, Archimedes allegedly leaped out of the bath and ran home naked, shouting eureka meaning "I have found it!".
And it's these Eureka moments that the top performing learners focus on. Rather than spending time trying to memorize everything about a topic they are learning they will look to find the key concepts that will unlock their deeper understanding of a topic. In educational research these Eureka or lightbulb moments are termed Threshold Concepts which is a term outlined by Land, Meyer and Cousins in research published in 2003 and 2005. In this work which originally looked at understanding economics Threshold Concepts are described as core concepts that once understood, transform a student's understanding of a whole subject; and suddenly they are able to see it in a way that you weren't able to before. These concepts are often hard or troublesome for learners to grasp but when they do they unlock related topics and the subject seems much easier.
For instance concepts like gravity may unlock understanding in areas of physics, photosynthesis unlocks lots of related topics in biology and blood circulation unlocks much of cardiovascular disease and anatomy in medicine. So these are not just hard to grasp facts they are concepts or principles that sit at the heart of what you are trying to learn and top performers will actively look for these threshold concepts and eureka moments that will help them to more deeply understand things. And this all links back to top performers being better at encoding information and being more efficient with how they learn. If they can unlock hard, threshold topics first everything else will seem more relatable and will be more easily encoded to this existing knowledge than trying to learn facts in isolation. But how do top performers actually deeply understand what they are learning and have these moments when other learners don't? Well for that let's look at study technique three which is all about focused and diffuse thinking.
Focused and Diffuse Thinking
Most students know how important it is to focus but what if I told you that top performers actually day-dream and spend time relaxing to learn problems? Well most people will try and stay focused for long hours in the library and focus on reading their notes.
Focused thinking is a highly attentive state of mind where the brain uses its best concentration abilities in the prefrontal cortex to ignore all extraneous information. And because of this, it's the preferred method for studying (and memorizing) knowledge-intensive subjects. When we are in our focused mode of thinking, it’s like we have a one-track mind for the matter at hand. And whether we are practicing a specific skill like free throws or slogging through a specific math problem, focused thinking allows us to zoom directly in on the most pertinent information. Now top performers are definitely able to focus and they build habits to prevent procrastination as we'll see shortly but they will also use something called diffuse thinking.
Diffuse thinking, on the other hand, doesn't zoom in on one particular thing. Rather, it looks at the "big picture" the 50,000-foot view of a task, topic, or problem. Diffuse thinking happens when you let your mind wander freely, making those random connections that are essential for creativity. Your brain has the opportunity to consider all information (and therefore connect the dots) outside of that limited, hyper-focused view.
Usually, we employ diffuse thinking when we do non-work tasks like taking a shower or going for a run. But—and here's the interesting thing—while focussed thinking is most often employed when we work or study, our greatest creativity and problem-solving happens when we are thinking diffusely. Just think about Archimedes he had his Eureka moment not while banging his head against the wall focusing on how to work out the problem, the problem came to him when he was relaxing in the bath.
An experiment published in Nature, looked at subjects who were taught a complicated algorithm for solving a math problem. Secretly, however, there was a much easier way to solve that problem, which none of the subjects discovered first time around. When they were re-tested 12 hours later, before going to sleep some figured out the easier method and some didn’t. But, if you test them after a night’s sleep at that same interval (12 hours), the rate of discovery of this “easier” method of solving the problem more than doubles suggesting that while sleeping our brains better connect information and helps us to solve problems.
So top-performers will make sure they stay efficient and will take breaks, exercise and get sufficient sleep to give themselves time to think diffusely and more deeply understand what they are learning in addition to lazer focused study sessions which tackle those high-yield threshold concepts. Diffuse thinking also links back to learning being a journey and us needing to go over certain topics to deeply learn things. And this brings us to study technique four of high performers which is all about focus.
Focus, Chunking and Good Encoding
The way that we learn depends on our brains focusing on something and bringing it to our attention and then this concept entes our working memory and then we encode it and store it into long-term memory. I've talked about the concept of cognitive load before and the fact that our working memory can only hold around 7 items at a time so if we get overloaded we're less likely to remember what we're studying.
Top performers know this and will learn efficiently by focusing on the most high-yield and challenging information and things like the threshold concepts like we mentioned. When focusing top performers will get excited about learning and will have a set routine that beats procrastination and helps them to study effectively for focused periods of time. When I had to study for surgical exams while working as a surgeon my time spent studying had to be efficient and I'd sometimes need to study around oncall periods or at work when it was easy to get distracted. One thing I've seen in everyone who does well at exams or is efficient at learning anything is that they will look at the big picture and what they need to learn and will then break down what they need to learn into chunks of information. For exams this might include mapping out an exam timetable that breaks big topic down and they will also break down complex topics into bitesize chunks to aid encoding. Once they have mapped out how and when they are going to study they will form a habit by studying at a similar time or in a similar location at regular intervals and will reward themselves for hitting their study goals. And this focus applies to how they approach learning book chapters and their daily study routine which we'll look at in technique 5.
The top performers and most efficient learners won't just be lazer focused but will also build regular habits that they use all the time that help them learn pretty much anything. When learning something most of us will also be attending lectures or learning online or learning from experiences at work or in school but what a lot of us don't do that the top performers do do is to spend time ahead of those learning opportunities to prime our knowledge and get the most out of those learning opportunities. Now I've been guilty of this myself as it's so easy just to rock up to a lecture and expect to be spoon fed or feel productive taking notes but actually this isn't very efficient and is a bit of a waste of time.
While many students will sit in a lecture learning things for the first time, top performing students will have spent time before the lecture reading what is going to come up and actively testing their knowledge so they can get the most out of the session. And this doesn't just apply to lectures. If you are learning from a textbook or a video priming is our ability to look at a piece of information and quickly scan the text first, rather than take it all in at once, and get a framework on how to approach learning the material before we even know what to know. Top performers will scan headings, diagrams, important images and example questions to give a simple overview of how the big picture comes together. Rather than getting sucked into all the detail they will scan and skim read for those Eureka moments and prime their existing knowledge so that new information can be more easily encoded. If you're interested in seeing this in action I have a great video I'll link to where I go through how I encode effectively and mind mapping is also great for mapping out big topics at a 50,000ft view. But encoding is only one part of learning effectively and top performers also do something else that many other learners don't and that's all about using active recall effectively.
So study technique number 6 of top performing learners is that every single top performer actively engages with the content they are learning and spends the majority of their time testing their knowledge and identifying weaknesses ahead of tests and exams. One of my friends who aced her surgical exams in medical school would never take any notes and only wrote out active recall questions during lectures. When I first saw her doing this I thought it was pretty crazy but after I started doing this myself my grades went through the roof and I never took notes ever again. While passive notetaking makes you feel productive if you're not actively engaging with what you are learning and noting down questions you perceive will be hard you're unlikely to learn effectively. In cognitive research psychologists talk about the primary learning event as a key opportunity to engage with topics and learn efficiently. When I had to learn lots of information around my day job as a surgeon for exams like the MRCS I would go direct to doing active recall questions in focused study sessions and chunk these up based on the surgical specialty I was learning. By using past papers and question banks I was ensuring that the information I was learning was relevant and in the same format as the exam but that it also challenged me at the appropriate difficulty level. In video games getting players hooked and engaged depends on the controls, difficulty level and feedback loops to get players into a flow state where they love playing and it's the same for learning and top performers know this. Whether reading and asking themselves what they can remember from the last paragraph of text or testing their peers in a group learning session the top performers will all default to using active recall.
A literature review from Kent State and Duke University in 2013 which analysed hundreds of separate studies about effective revision techniques concluded that active recall is be better than mind-mapping and note-taking since it is extremely efficient for committing details and ideas into one's memory.
And in a 2011 study from Karpicke et al researchers split 80 students into 4 groups with each student tasked with learning the same material before being tested on what they learnt.
In both the verbatim test – when asked to recall facts – as well as the inference test – when asked to recall concepts – the active recall group significantly outperformed the other groups. This study shows that testing yourself just once is more effective and meaningful than rereading a chapter four times.
But there is one final thing that top learners do that few others do and that is that whenever they have finished a primary learning event or even finished an exam they will reflect on their process and aim to get better.
Reflection and reviewing information after learning is absolutely essential. Hermann Ebbinghaus noted that the most effective way to reduce the effects of the forgetting curve and retain information for longer is to use active recall to test our knowledge at set intervals after the initial learning event. Top performers don't just use spaced-repetition with flashcards though. When I worked as a trauma and orthopaedic surgeon I was lucky enough to work with some amazing surgical trainers. One of the best pieces of advice I received early on was to write out a short reflection at the end of every procedure when I was writing the operation note. This would immediately get me thinking what went well and what I could improve upon next time and also meant I would reply the steps immediately in my mind along with how I felt to help personalise the learning experience. In fact the surgeon I was training under had done this throughout his career and still did it to the day and was one of the best surgeons I have ever worked with.
When reflecting and reviewing top performers will deliberately mix review methods in a similar way. Writing a reflective piece or teaching someone else or creating recall questions or a mind map will be far more effective than simply re-reading notes taken at the original learning event as they are more active and more challenging which engages our brains. The other important point to take from this example is that it's important to review new information within 12 hours of the original learning event. This is based on the research of Ebbinghaus and making a habit of reflecting and reviewing is something that all top performing students do. Whether that is reviewing the previous study session's main points through active recall and asking yourself what you can remember at the start of the next study session or ending your day with a daily review making reflection and reviewing what you are learning is technique number 7.
Take Responsibility For Your Own Learning
As a bonus 8th study technique of top performing students I'm actually including what I think is the most important study technique and it takes us right back to study technique number 1 which was that learning is a journey. Stanford Psychology professor Carol Dweck has shown that while talents like sporting ability or intelligence have some elements of genetics related to them they are by no means fixed and everyone is capable of improving. Top performers understand that they need to have a growth mindset and that hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. By watching this video you are already taking responsibility for your learning by actually learning how to learn which is great, but very few people do this. If they get a bad test score they take it personally and get upset while also blaming everyone except themselves. When you are learning anything there will be ups and downs as with any journey but people who take responsibility while not taking things too personally and then focus on getting better will see the most gains and this growth mindset
People like Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution has made him one of the most influential figures in human history, are often thought of as a genius. You may be surprised to learn that Darwin actually flunked out of medical school and ended up, to his father's horror, heading out on a round the world voyage as the ship's naturalist. Out on his own, Darwin was able to look with fresh eyes at the data he was collecting. Approaching material with a goal of learning it on your own, can give you a unique path to mastery. Often no matter how good your teacher and textbook are, it's only when you do things by yourself and look at other books or videos that you begin to see that what you learn from a single teacher, or book, is only a partial version of the full subject, which has links to still other fascinating topics that are of your choosing. Taking responsibility for your own learning is one of the most important things you can do and will help build your confidence to learn anything. Sometimes bad teaches might even tell you you can't do something or that you're not that smart, well top performers believe in their ability to learn and ignore this negativity and focus on being the best they can be.
So to summarize the seven study techniques of top performing students are:
- Learning is a journey
- Eureka moments
- Focused and diffuse thinking
- Chunking and good encoding
- Priming Your Knowledge
- Active Recall
- and a bonus 8th - taking responsibility for your own learning