How to Study Smarter, Not Harder | 5 Ways to Study Effectively

Sitting down and studying for long periods of time might sound like the only way to learn as it's how we're taught in school. But it's important to study smarter not harder

How to Study Smarter, Not Harder | 5 Ways to Study Effectively
Photo by Nick Morrison / Unsplash

When I was studying for my medical exams I put in long study sessions in order to cover the huge amount of material required for the medical exam syllabus. Like many students I was guilty of just reading lecture material or books, getting distracted and just not really studying effectively despite spending long periods of time in the library. When I then needed to do postgraduate surgical exams around my day job as a surgeon I had to be more focused and so in today's video I'm going to give you my top 5 study tips to help you get the most out of your study sessions that I wished I new when I was studying for my first year medical exams and which you can apply to anything you are studying.

1. Plan for success

So tip number one is to plan what you are going to study. This means planning your entire study schedule over a period of months but also planning what you are going to study the following day. I've gone into detail on other videos about how to create an effective study plan and exam revision timetable so I'm going to focus on ensuring that you plan out your daily study schedule the night before in a diary or in your calendar. This schedule should include getting sufficient sleep and factor in breaks, proper nutrition and exercise and should help you to focus on what needs doing. This way when you wake up the following morning you know exactly what you need to do and where to start while also being mindful of your health and ensuring you have time to relax. We know that memories are consolidated when we sleep and that being alert and healthy means you are more likely to retain what you're studying, so don't burn yourself out and plan breaks and get enough sleep and food to ensure success.

2. Break studying down into chunked sessions

Tip two follows on from planning out your studying and is all about breaking down your study sessions into bitesize chunks. This helps you to avoid distraction and burnout and as you study you will be able to focus for longer and longer periods. For example by the end of med school I could easily do 6 hours of focused study time and still be productive as my concentration span had been built up like a muscles from lots of study sessions over the years whereas when I was starting out I'd usually limit myself to 25-minute study sessions as I knew I became less productive and my ability to study became much less effective. I've covered this concept in my video on the Pomodoro technique which is all about using a timer to do 25-minute periods of study followed by a short 5-minute break. Again this is about taking care of yourself and ensuring that the time you do spend studying is spent learning rather than getting distracted or losing your focus to keep you efficient.

3. Do the hardest topics first

Tip 3 is to study the things you are weakest at first. We naturally want to avoid topics we perceive as hard and this leads to putting them off and just learning about things that we enjoy as we already have some knowledge of them. Most of the time we find things hard as we simply haven't understood them correctly or they are newer, higher-level concepts that require more of our concentration and brain power and so we find them uncomfortable. By tackling the topics you find difficult first you'll have more time to work on them and better understand them. Getting through the toughest topics first also helps to avoid procrastination as once these are mastered you'll just have the easier topics to cover which you can do quickly. It's also worth looking at the commonly tested or high-yield topics and prioritising these since they are likely to come up at your exam or test. It might sound obvious but rather than simply going from A-Z through your lectures or study materials focusing on the hardest topics and the most high yield topics will get you the best results with the least stress.

4. Create a dedicated study area

Do you have a true “study" room or area? Most students study in bedrooms, kitchen or dining tables, or common areas. Tip number 4 is to create a dedicated study area. This is usually a desk in your home or a regular space in a library or quiet space you can work at. To build a habit around your studying and to avoid procrastination try and make sure your desk and study area is tidy and and has your study materials laid out the night before. This means that you can go straight to your desk and get to work without any distractions. If you study in your bedroom try not to study in bed as your bed is for sleeping and your conditioned to be less than alert when in bed and conversely if you do study in bed it will likely impact your quality of sleep. When studying you might also want to try mindfulness or lofi music to help get you in the zone with evidence showing that low tempo ort classical music can help reduce distractions and aid focus.

5. Study actively with active recall

Tip 5 should come as no surprise and is all about testing yourself as you study and using evidence-based methods like active recall. The more active you are in your learning, the more effective you’ll be. Remember studying is NOT reading things over and over or just rote memorization studying is about understanding a topic by testing your knowledge of the concepts and practising what you are learning such that you can actually apply that knowledge. If you are struggling with this try asking yourself “What am I learning?" or for specific concepts like those in my medical degree - “What does this bone do in the body?". If you rote-memorize facts and don't come back to them these can fade with time but if you can understand a concept and link it to your existing knowledge and put it into your own words you will remember things more effectively and for longer. To help with this try asking yourself  “What is the meaning of the concept?" something is meaningful if it relates to something you already know or understand. Your brain is like a file system or database - new entries are easier to find if they have data that links to already existing entries. I have a great video on how Richard Feynman remembered things by putting concepts into his own words and simple terms such that a child could understand. Equally active recall is not just used when revising for an exam but can be applied when taking notes in class. Instead of just highlighting things or writing down notes try creating questions or covering the lecture materials and trying to recall the concepts to actively test yourself as you study. You can then expand on these active notes and read around topics to deepen your understanding and link new concepts to those you already know. Overall test yourself at every stage of studying as active recall really is the best way to study smarter.

6. Summarize and teach what you learn

Finally as a 6th and bonus tip and following on from using evidence-based methods like active recall, one of the best ways to study is to summarize and then teach what you are learning. Teaching others reinforces learning and is a true test of whether you understand the material. By summarizing or explaining things to others you are actively recalling information and seeing whether you can easily explain things which will reveal gaps in your knowledge which you can then consolidate. If you don't have anyone to teach a great way to share information is to record a video, podcast or write a blog which you can share with others just like Austin Kleon says in his book Show Your Work.