Choosing the correct study method is a crucial part of the learning process that is too often skipped over by students. Picking the best study method for the situation can help students reach their full potential, while a poorly chosen study technique will kill any real progress, no matter how hard the student tries to study.
If you’re reading this article, you’re likely the exception, but the reality is that most students rely on ineffective study strategies. In fact, researchers have found that between 83.6% and 84% of students rely on rereading: a study method that provides very limited benefits.
There are far superior study methods out there than rereading. Methods that have been developed and researched by the world’s top learning scientists. Yet, surprisingly few students have ever heard of them. That is why being able to utilize them effectively will give you not only an edge but an entire leg up on the competition.
These are the seven best study methods all students should know about:
Spaced repetition, sometimes called spaced practice, interleaved practice, or spaced retrieval, is a study method that involves separating your study sessions into spaced intervals. It’s a simple concept, but a game-changer to most students because of how powerful it is.
To demonstrate how spaced repetition works, let’s bring a real-life example. Let’s say you have an exam coming up in 36 days and your first study session begins today. In this situation, a well-optimized interval might be:
- Session 1: Day 1
- Session 2: Day 7
- Session 3: Day 16
- Session 4: Day 35
- Exam Date: Day 36
In a nutshell, it’s the opposite of cramming and all-nighters. Rather than concentrating all studying into a small time frame, this method requires you to space out your studying by reviewing and recalling information at optimal intervals until the material has been memorized.
In the 21st century, this technique has gathered increasing popularity and it’s not without reason. Spaced repetition manages to combine all the existing knowledge we have on human memory and it uses that knowledge to create optimized algorithms for studying. One of the most popular examples of spaced repetition algorithms is Anki, which is based on another popular algorithm, SuperMemo.
For medical students, there is no better study method than Anki-based flashcard decks. In fact. there are entire online communities surrounding medical school Anki. You can get a small glimpse of that by heading on over to r/medicalschoolanki.
There, you’ll find a breadth of different medical school Anki decks to choose from, such as:
But, the power of spaced repetition is not at all only applicable to medical students. Anyone trying to become a better and more efficient learner can stand to benefit from using spaced repetition. Spaced repetition is used in conjunction with other study methods and it’s especially powerful when combined with the upcoming study method: active recall.
Active recall, sometimes called retrieval practice or practice testing, is a study technique that involves you actively recalling information (rather than just reading or re-reading it) by testing yourself, over and over. Most students dread the word “test” for good reasons. After all, tests and exams can be very stressful because they are usually the main point of measure for your academic success.
However, active recall teaches us to look at testing from another angle. Not only should we learn for tests, but we should also learn by testing. Through flashcards, self-generated questions, and practice tests, this study method uses self-testing to help your brain memorize, retain, and retrieve information more efficiently.
One study found that students who conducted only one practice test before an exam got 17% better results right after. Two more studies conducted in 2005 and 2012, plus a 2017 meta-analysis yielded similar results, finding that students who used active recall and self-testing outperformed students who did not.
If you’re practicing for an upcoming exam, there’s no better study method than active recall. By using active recall, you’re essentially testing yourself dozens of times over, and if you conduct these practice tests over a long period of time through spaced repetition, you’ll be able to ace any exam without cramming.
Keep in mind, though, that while very effective, active recall is also one of the most tiring study techniques on this list. It requires very strong mental focus, deep concentration, and intense mental stamina. Active recall is cognitively demanding, so don’t expect to breeze through your learning materials with this method.
Next up, I’ll cover my favorite time management strategy for students: the Pomodoro method.
Pomodoro Study Method
The Pomodoro study method is a time-management technique that uses a timer to break down your studying into 25-minute (or 45-minute) increments, called Pomodoro sessions. Then, after each session, you’ll take a 5-minute (or 15-minute) break during which you fully distance yourself from the study topic. And, after completing 4 such sessions, you’ll take a longer 15-to-30-minute break.
To give the Pomodoro technique a try without installing any software or buying a timer, I recommend you go to YouTube. YouTube is full of Pomodoro-based “study with me” videos from channels such as TheStrive Studies, Ali Abdaal, and MDprospect. Many of them include music, though, so if you’re distracted by listening to music while studying, you might benefit from a purpose-built Pomodoro application such as TomatoTimer or RescueTime.
There are various benefits to using the Pomodoro method: it’s a simple and straightforward technique, it forces you to map out your daily tasks and activities, allows for easy tracking of the amount of time spent on each task, and it provides short bursts of concentrated work together with resting periods.
But, it’s also worth noting that the scientific evidence behind the Pomodoro method is mostly conjectural as there is little scientific research on its effectiveness. And, another drawback of the Pomodoro study technique is that it’s not ideal for tasks that require long, uninterrupted focusing.
Despite that, though, I use the Pomodoro method on a daily basis myself and it has become an integral and irreplaceable part of my workflow.
The Feynman Technique is a flexible, easy-to-use, and effective study technique developed by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. It is based on a simple idea: the best way to learn any topic is by teaching it to a sixth-grade child.
While this concept is not as advanced as the super-optimized spaced repetition algorithms I covered earlier, it’s still a method that continues to be relevant nearly a century after its creation.
The Feynman Technique is a powerful learning tool that requires the learner to step out of their comfort zone by breaking down even the most complex topics into easily digestible chunks. Digestible enough for the average sixth-grade child.
This may seem like an easy task at first. After all, how difficult could it be to explain something to a child? In practice, it can be very difficult because you have to simplify and explain everything in an age-appropriate manner. When you start using the method, you’ll quickly realize that unless you have fully mastered the topic, meeting a child at their level of understanding is not easy in the slightest.
To explain something clearly, you need to define all unfamiliar terms, generate easy explanations for complex ideas, understand connections between different topics and sub-topics, and articulate what is learned in a clear and concise manner. The Feynman Technique forces you to learn more deeply, think critically about what you are learning, and that is also why it’s a very powerful learning method.
The Leitner System is a simple and effective study method that uses a flashcard-based learning strategy to maximize memorization. It was developed by Sebastian Leitner all the way back in 1972 and it was a source of inspiration to many of the newer flashcard-based methods that succeeded it such as Anki.
To use the method, you’ll first need to create flashcards. On the front of the cards, you’ll write the questions, and on the back the answers. Then, once you have your flashcards ready, get three “Leitner boxes” big enough to hold all the cards you’ve created. Let’s name them Box 1, 2, and 3.
Now, you’re all set to start studying with your flashcards. In the beginning, you’ll place all cards in Box 1. Take a card from Box 1 and try to retrieve the answer from your memory. If you recall the answer, place it in Box 2. If not, keep it in Box 1. Then, you’ll repeat this until you’ve reviewed all the cards in Box 1 at least once. After that, you’ll start reviewing each box of cards based on time intervals.
Here’s an animation that shows how the Leitner System works:
Besides card placement, another important detail of the system is scheduling. Every box has a set review frequency, with Box 1 being reviewed the most frequently as it contains all the most difficult-to-learn flashcards. The Box 3, on the other hand, will contain the cards that you’ve already recalled correctly, and that is why it does not need to be reviewed as frequently.
If you’ve never heard of the Leitner system, you might be surprised to hear that some of the world’s biggest learning platforms such as Duolingo use a variation of it to teach hundreds of millions of students. It’s particularly effective at language learning, due to the ease of creating translation-based flashcards.
While I love the Leitner System for its simplicity, I don’t use it often anymore due to the lengthy setup process and as other flashcard study methods such as Anki tend to be more time-efficient. But, if you prefer physical flashcards over their virtual counterparts, you should definitely consider using the Leitner system. It’s a beautiful study technique that has stood the test of time.
PQ4R Study Method
The PQ4R is a study method that was developed by researchers Thomas and Robinson in 1972. The name PQ4R stands for the steps used for learning something new: Preview, Question, Read, Reflect, Recite, and Review. It’s commonly used for improving reading comprehension and it’s an irreplaceable method for students with reading disabilities.
However, the usefulness of PQ4R is not restricted to students with reading disabilities. The same six steps can be taken by any student trying to better understand what they’re reading. Improving reading comprehension is an excellent goal for any student and if you need to read through a massive textbook for an exam, the PQ4R method offers an effective framework. It will allow you to better understand all the passages of text, and it will help you to retain the information better.
Through improving our reading comprehension, we can become better at synthesizing information and interpreting text. However, we must be careful to not let this strategy consume too much of our time in study sessions. Many modern learning scientists consider reading a passive and ineffective study strategy, and it’s best to rely on other methods when you have the chance to do so.
While I don’t use this study method as frequently as most others on this list, I still consider it an important strategy in my skill set. Whenever I need to extract the most important details from a large textbook, I bring out the PQ4R to help me get through the information quicker while boosting memorization and retention. The PQ4R is a good study method to have ready, but it’s not something you should view as your primary strategy.
SQ3R Study Method
The SQ3R study method is the predecessor of the PQ4R method and it was developed by Francis P. Robinson in 1946. It’s a time-proven studying technique that can be adapted for virtually any subject and the name stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review. The method can be used to study anything quicker, better, and in a more structured way than conventional methods.
While groundbreaking for its time, the SQ3R study method has the same drawbacks as the newer PQ4R method. For one, it’s mostly used for improving reading comprehension, and reading is not considered an effective study strategy anymore. Another problem the method faces is that it lacks the “reflection” component that the newer PQ4R study method brings to the table.
In addition, three out of the five steps of this method involve a passive approach (surveying, reading, and reviewing) rather than an active one, and modern learning theories suggest that active retrieval is far better for information retention than passive reading. Thus, I recommend using this study method only during times when you don’t have the time to use a more robust method such as spaced repetition.
SQ3R is best used when you have a limited amount of time to study and your main source of information comes in a textbook. In such cases, the technique can be very helpful for summarizing the key points written in the source material.
Now, it’s time to start wrapping up this article.
In conclusion, there are many excellent study methods you have to choose from as a student in the 21st century. The best one for you will depend on your learning style, the material that you are studying, and how much free time you have. When possible, I recommend you study using a combination of spaced repetition, active recall, and the Pomodoro method. But, the other strategies listed here certainly have their uses as well. Above all, try to be flexible and keep an open mind. In doing so, you’ll be able to maximize your learning potential.