10 highly effective study strategies to help you ace your tests and exams

Posted on Posted in Exam preparation, Habits, Study strategies, Study Techniques

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If you want to achieve solid marks at school, you need to be strategic. Ditch your highlighter pens. Stop re-reading your books and notes. These are incredibly boring and passive ways to study. You need new study strategies.

Below are 10 highly effective study strategies that can be applied to any subject area.


1. Dual coding (using words and pictures)

effective study strategies mind maps

Dual coding is when you use both words and pictures to learn information. This gives you two ways to learn the information (via the words and the pictures).

Here are some different ways you can dual code when you study:

  • Create an infographic summarising the topic
  • Make a comic strip
  • Doodle on a blank sheet of paper as you read
  • Create a mind map (you can learn how to mind map here)
  • Look at the pictures in your textbooks and compare them to the text. Ask yourself the following question:
  • Is the picture conveying something that the text isn’t?

    Think this strategy is only for visual learners and artistic types? Think again. Dual coding has nothing to do with learning styles and being a visual learner, which some people argue is an educational myth. Dual coding is for everyone.

    2. Retrieval practice

    effective study strategies

    Without looking at your books and notes, try to recall the information. Ask yourself, What did I study in human biology yesterday? Force yourself to get the information out of your brain.

    The simple act of bringing information to mind helps to reinforce it in your brain.

    You see, it takes effort to transfer information into your long-term memory. You don’t just hear information once in class and … BOOM! That information stays in your brain forever. Sorry, it doesn’t work like that.

    We are incredibly forgetful so we need to revisit the information to help cement it in our brains. Retrieval practice is the best way to do this.

    Let me make one thing clear: Retrieval practice is not the same thing as repetition.

    Repetition is easy (you just read the information over and over again). But retrieval (forcing yourself to bring specific information to mind) is hard. It strains your brain. But it’s a good kind of muscular strain.

    Just like it’s good to push your body at the gym, retrieval practice is the ultimate workout for your brain. It will help shift information into your long-term memory so you can access it when you need it.

    Here are some different ways you can practice retrieval:

  • Use flashcards: Try to answer the question before flipping over the card and reading the answer
  • Do practice tests and past exam papers
  • Try explaining a concept to a friend, your pet or the wall
  • Grab a diagram you need to learn the terms of, white out the terms and test yourself
  • Do a brain dump: Take a blank piece of paper and draw out everything you know about a particular topic
  • When you get to the point where you can’t recall anything else, that’s when it’s okay to take out your books and your notes. Check for any mistakes and gaps in your knowledge.

    As Dr Barbara Oakley says:

    “Getting clear on what you don’t understand is 80% of the battle.”

    It’s also important to know that you’re retrieving the correct information (otherwise, you’ll be reinforcing the wrong stuff!).

    If you’re consistent with your retrieval practice and incorporate it into your study sessions, you’ll see dramatic improvements over time.

    3. Spaced practice

    highly effective study strategies

    Rather than doing 5 hours of study right before your exam (i.e. cramming), it’s much more effective to space out those 5 hours of study over 2 weeks. You learn more by spacing out your study.

    Now if you’re used to the cramming approach, spreading out your study over 2 weeks will probably feel strange at first. It will require a little planning. But the more you do this, the easier it gets. Before you know it, it will become a habit.

    When you sit down to do spaced practice, keep in mind you only need to do 15-20 minutes of study before taking a break (not hours and hours of study).

    The spaced practice approach usually means you’ll:

  • Be less stressed
  • Get more sleep
  • You’ll remember the information for a lot longer
  • Why? Because you won’t need to stay up late or pull an all-nighter to study for your test or exam.

    4. Pretend to be 4-years-old

    effective study strategy ask why

    Have you ever spent time with a 4-year-old child? If so, you’ll notice they ask Why? a lot. It’s this natural curiosity that makes 4-year-olds like sponges, soaking up information from absolutely everywhere.

    When you sit down to read your textbook, you want to ask Why? and How?

    Ask questions such as:

  • Why is this the case?
  • How does this idea relate to the idea that was mentioned earlier?
  • How does this work?
  • How do these ideas relate to my own life?
  • Asking questions will help you to stay engaged with the material.

    5. The power of examples

    effective study strategies

    For some subjects (e.g. economics and psychology) you’ll need to learn lots of definitions of abstract ideas and concepts. If you’re like most students, you probably memorise these definitions by repeating them over and over again.

    But if you do this, two things are likely to happen:

    1) You’ll probably feel like a robot; and
    2) You won’t fully understand the concept, which will make it hard to remember.

    We can get ideas on how to learn definitions more effectively by looking at how professional actors learn their lines. Professional actors don’t learn their lines word for word. Instead they try to understand the character’s motivations and needs. Gaining a deeper understanding of these factors helps the actor to learn their lines more efficiently.

    Similarly, gaining a deeper understanding of an abstract concept will help you to learn and memorise it. So the question is, what is going to help you to deeply understand the abstract concept?

    Good examples. And lots of them.

    Whenever you have to memorise an abstract concept, collect as many different examples as possible.
    Get examples from your teachers, from your textbooks, etc. Plaster those examples over your wall and in key locations in your house (e.g. on the mirror and fridge).


    6. Mix things up: a) Ideas and b) Location

    effective study strategies for students

    a) Ideas

    If you were going to a barbeque, you wouldn’t bring along veggie kebabs that only contained zucchini on the skewer. That would look cheap and nasty! One of the joys of kebabs is the variety of vegetables (e.g. tomato, onion, zucchini, capsicum). So you’d want to mix things up to make the kebabs appetising.

    The same thing applies with your studies. Don’t just study one concept for a long period of time. Mix things up. Study one idea and then jump to another concept in the same subject.

    For extra bonus points, you could pretend to be 4-years-old and ask yourself, How are these two ideas similar? and How are they different?

    b) Location

    Don’t always study in the same place. Sometimes study in a quiet café, a library or at the kitchen table. Research has found that changing your surrounding environment slows down forgetting and enriches learning.

    7. Take notes by hand

    take notes by hand

    Want to remember more information? Ditch your laptop and work with pen and paper.

    A study called The pen is mightier than the keyboard found that students retained more information when they took notes by hand than when they took typed notes on their laptops.

    When you take notes on your laptop, you tend to write word for word what the teacher is saying. This is because you can type at the same speed the teacher is speaking at.

    But when you take notes by hand, you can’t write as fast as the teacher speaks. This forces you to put the information in your own words. This makes it easier for you to understand the information, which explains why you tend to remember more of it.

    8. Listen to (certain types of) music and/or create your own songs

    should you listen to music when you study

    Why is it that some people with dementia can’t remember the names of their friends and family, but they can remember the lyrics to hundreds of songs?

    It’s because music touches many different regions and lobes of the brain, which helps to cement the lyrics into our brains.

    This makes music an incredibly powerful learning tool. Certain types of music can motivate you to study and complete tasks that you typically perceive painful and would prefer to avoid doing.

    But more importantly, music can also help you to learn important concepts.

    Jump on YouTube and you’ll find a range of educational songs (check out the circulatory song Pump it up! and this quadratic formula song. You can even learn how to make a lasagna with music.

    Here are some ideas on how you can use music to help you study:

  • Watch and learn educational songs on YouTube
  • Create your own song using the content you need to learn
  • Take a pre-existing song and change the lyrics to help you learn important concepts
  • Have some fun and use humour wherever possible.

    9. Enter the diffuse mode

    Working on a difficult problem? Feeling stuck? Then take a break. Allow your brain to go into what Dr Barbara Oakley calls the ‘diffuse mode’ of thinking.

    In the diffuse mode, you relax your attention and allow your mind to wander. Let your subconscious mind do the work for you.

    You often hear stories of famous scholars coming up with groundbreaking theories while relaxing under an apple tree, going for a walk or having a shower. In these diffuse mode states, their brains are still working away on the problem, which ultimately leads to these ‘Eureka!’ moments.

    Some activities that will help you to enter the diffuse mode of thinking are:

  • Walking
  • Listening to music
  • Meditating
  • Napping
  • Drawing
  • Having a bath/shower
  • It may seem like you’re wasting time in the diffuse mode but you’re not. Your brain is still working quietly in the background on the problem, even though you’re not actively focusing on it.

    10. Get a good night’s sleep

    effective study strategies

    Okay, so this isn’t exactly a specific study strategy but it’s critical to all of the strategies listed above. You see, when you sleep, your brain doesn’t just turn off. The opposite actually occurs. Your brain gets busy doing the following:

  • Clearing out toxic waste products that have accumulated while you’ve been awake
  • Rehearsing tougher information you’re trying to learn
  • Strengthening and consolidating important information
  • This is why going over important information before you take a 90-minute nap or go to sleep at night can be beneficial for learning. Your brain is more likely to rehearse this information and strengthen it while you sleep.

    Most importantly, it’s critical that you get a solid 8-10 hours of quality (undisturbed) sleep each night. If you’re sleep deprived, these effective study strategies cease to be effective.

    Getting sufficient sleep will ensure that you can concentrate and recall information more easily in your tests and exams. So if it’s approaching midnight and you’re thinking, Maybe I can squeeze in another hour of study … think again. Always prioritise sleep over study. Your brain will thank you for it the next day.

    Final thoughts

    To get maximum benefit from these ten study strategies, you need to be able to focus when you use them. Why? Because distraction is the enemy when it comes to learning information. If you’re trying to study complex information while checking your phone and watching a Netflix series, you’re wasting your time.

    So before you sit down to study, deal with any potential distractions. Do this …

    the best study strategies

    Turn your phone off. Place it in another room far, far away. Close your bedroom door so you can’t be disturbed.

    The aim of the game is to form effective study habits. This isn’t hard to do and it’s never too late to give it a shot. It just takes practice, perseverance and being willing to try something new.

    Found this blog post useful? Want to learn more ways to enhance your study experience and boost your grades? Check out my latest book, Study Hacks: Your Survival Guide for High School.

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