Rethinking: Learning and Studying

Word Count: 2100  |  Time to Read: 8 minutes


  1. Intro
  2. The Four Steps


Across the country this fall, millions of students will descend upon community colleges, trade schools, and four-year universities for the first time. They’ll enter as bright-eyed optimists, believing they’re destined for great things and that the world is their oyster.

Most have never licked a postage stamp or seen an Amoco gas station. Google has been a constant presence in their lives, fulfilling any query that might come to mind. (Source: Beloit College.)

Despite the optimism that may be in abundance now, only 34% of students will earn a bachelor’s degree within six years at a four year institution with open admission policies (source). Among most selective colleges— accepting fewer than 25% of applicants— that figure soars to 89% within the same six year period.

The income disparity that exists between private and public institutions in the U.S. might be partly at fault. While about 46% of students at Wesleyan University receive some form of financial aid (meaning the other 54% pay the full sticker price of $63,000), more than 86% of matriculants at nearby UConn are awarded financial assistance. What’s more, in-state tuition is only $26,000 a year.

Indeed, students who come from well-to-do backgrounds will be more likely to graduate on-time or within six years. Their financial safety nets provide near constant reassurance that their attendance won’t be in question due to their family’s ability to pay tuition. Moreover, because they don’t have to work several jobs on- and off-campus to defray the costs of attending college, wealthier students gain more time to study and complete coursework, increasing their odds of graduation.

Another factor is the (sometimes ostensible) preparedness of students who gain admission to selective institutions. Though every college, especially the elite liberal arts, will claim to “holistically” assess each applicant, the process remains a numbers game. How high is your SAT or ACT score? GPA? How many years spent practicing ballet or playing water polo? How many hours spent volunteering a week?

Parents and the media will lambaste high school students for not spending more time studying or not doing more extracurriculars. The root of the problem, however, is that the overwhelming majority of students in the US— including some of those who are accepted to highly selective universities and colleges— haven’t been taught how to learn, how to study, and how to retain material in the long term

It’s one of the most blatant failures in the wealthiest nation on Earth that 25% of high school graduates are reading below their grade level and that the oft-publicized achievement gap has yet to be closed. We can continue to admonish teachers, parents, and students for not working hard enough and putting in more hours. In the process we forget that if our methods and practices are antiquated or unequivocally wrong, then any additional effort would be futile.

In this piece, I give an overview of the habits and techniques that have worked well for me and have contributed to a positive academic experience at a selective liberal arts college. I realize that there are myriad factors that are conducive to a student’s success in the college application process as well as how they eventually perform academically in a post-secondary setting.

This piece is meant only as an overview of best practices and strategies. Glean from it what you will. 


Step 1: Collect

This is the starting block for successful studying and the retention of material. Since primary school, students have learned about the necessity of taking notes and reading textbook sections before class. Instruction about how exactly to go about doing that, meanwhile, is often lost. Here are a few guidelines I use:

  • Don’t do the readings until after class. Unless the professor actively engages the material in each lecture (you should have a good idea within the first two weeks of class), wasting time reading 100 pages every other night won’t help you better retain the subject matter.  Instead, taking notes in class and then synergizing (Part 2) that information with the readings in question will prove more beneficial to long-term retention.
  • Never take notes on a laptop. I don’t care if you can type twice as fast as you write. Recent studies suggest that handwriting notes enhances learning by decreasing distractions and improving the encoding process of facts and information by forcing students to mold lectures into their own words, as opposed to typing them verbatim.
  • Develop a short hand. Inevitably, you will encounter teachers and professors who talk a mile a minute and take for granted students’ abilities to understand esoteric concepts. Thus, a set of abbreviations and symbols is central to capturing the essence of a lecture and obtaining every key point. A few examples include, fr = from, b/c = because, Δ = change. Here is a fairly comprehensive list.
  • Take notes with the end in mind. As I discuss in Part 2, the content of your notes will serve as the basis for your study material. When noting definitions, processes, time-lines, and theories remember that you will eventually be transforming this information into notecards. Determining on the fly which facts are superfluous or potentially important is a skill developed gradually. With earnest commitment to Step 2, deciding what is and isn’t salient will become easier.

Step 2: Synergize

A guideline often tauted at Wesleyan University is that each full-credit course requires 10 hours of work outside of the classroom. That is to say, each student should work a total of at least 52 hours a week ((three hours of instruction plus 10 outside hours) x 4 courses) to attain a certain level of success in their studies.

I call BS.

On the same day a lecture is held, I block off 45 minutes to review the notes from that class and highlight important concepts or points discussed. I then skim the erstwhile assigned reading, adding material to my notes as I see fit, and seal up any gaps in understanding, which sometimes involves emailing the professor.

The SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT step in studying and retaining material comes in the creation of notecards/flashcards that contain the information outlined in your notes. I live and die by a program called Anki. If you implement only one strategy from this piece, make it ANKI.

I cover Anki exhaustively in this post. Instead of conventional flashcards, which are typically reviewed one-by-one over and over again, Anki uses the principle of spaced repetition. You only study what you’re at risk of forgetting, greatly decreasing the time you spend studying and increasing the amount of material you retain.

(If you took a gander at my Anki guide and felt overwhelmed, don’t fret. There is a learning curve to be sure. Remember, a relatively small time investment of 30-45 minutes to familiarize yourself with the program will save innumerable time in the long term.)

The most pertinent material to Step 2 comes in the second section of the Anki guide, which details how to transfer information from your notes into Anki.

I’ll typically review Anki anywhere from 20 minutes to one hour each day. In an average week, I’ll use Anki for 5-6 hours, roughly covering 1.5 hours per course per week. With other assignments and the creation of notecards (45 minutes three times a week) taken into account, most classes should require only 5 hours of work outside the classroom. That means a whole lot more free time for extra-curriculars, athletics, and socializing with friends.

Step 3: Rehearse

Taking good notes and making concise notecards alone is not enough to guarantee scholastic achievement. As you learned from the Anki guide, diligently reviewing certain material from each of your classes on a daily basis is the only assurance of your brain consolidating and retaining information in the long run.

Shaping your study environment to allow for the most efficient rehearsal of material is a crucial part of the equation. At the same time, everyone prefers different environs. In my experience, sticking to the following conditions has worked the best:

  • Cut off all distractions. I use Self Control, an OS X app that blocks access to certain websites, to ensure I won’t happen upon Facebook while I should be reviewing my Anki cards. I also set my phone to airplane or ‘do not disturb’ mode so that errant texts or calls won’t divert me from studying.
  • Find a quiet, isolated place. In this respect, I might go against the tide. I usually study far away from friends (and even simple acquaintances) to further decrease distractions. Moreover, some people enjoy a veritable cacophony when studying whereas others prefer dead silence. I identify with the latter group.
  • Form a study group. Such groups don’t only fill in a student’s gaps in understanding certain concepts. They also present the opportunity for students to teach others about subject matter, which in turn helps to solidify it. In order to teach a particular idea, you have to understand it on a very deep level. Thus, by helping others better understand a concept, the teacher obtains an even firmer grasp on it.
    • A word of warning: don’t come to over rely on these groups. Ultimately, the work you do on your own will have the largest impact on your retention of material.
  • Take sips of water to stay energized. Despite the advice of our parents and advisors, college students tend to get the majority of their work done after the sun goes down. Instead of succumbing to the siren song of a cup of coffee, regularly sipping from a bottle of cold water proves sufficient for staying awake and focused.
  • Periodically take breaks to relax the mind. I use a time block system when I’m studying, writing papers, or doing other schoolwork. Before starting, I put my phone on airplane or ‘do not disturb’ mode and restrict my access to social media. I then set a timer for 45 minutes and work earnestly through that period, not answering text messages or checking emails.

    Once the 45 minutes are up, I take a five minute break in which I typically stretch, head to the bathroom, or crank out a set of push-ups. After the completion of four time blocks, I take a 15 minute break to check email and destress.

    In more visual terms,

    45 minutes work, 5m rest, 45m work, 5m rest, 45m work, 5m rest, 45m work, 15m rest

    I typically study/work for about three hours each evening, the sum of four times blocks and breaks.

    This system allows me to minimize distractions while also ensuring that I don’t burn out with appropriate breaks interspersed in between periods of work. While this structure might appear tedious and extreme, it maximizes your efficiency when completing coursework while minimizing the time actually spent working. What’s not to love?!

Step 4: Do

According to the American Test Anxiety Association, roughly 20% of students suffer from test anxiety while another 18% are affected by a more moderate form. Though accommodations can be made for these students, there is no single panacea to decrease the incidence of anxiety.

What helps me most before taking an exam or writing a paper is practicing a routine that calms me just enough and places me in a positive mental state.

  • Listen to upbeat or empowering music. Directly before taking the ACTs in high school, I would blast “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins in an empty classroom, complete with air drums à la Mike Tyson. The rush of blood to my extremities energized me like a double espresso for the three-hour exam. Recently, “Hall of Fame” by the Script is a favorite.
  • Jog your memory by jogging (a lot). In a study by the NIH, researchers tested the effects of exercising before taking a battery of memory tests and mental health surveys. The results suggest that exercising consistently for four weeks prior to and including the final test day significantly improved recognition memory and decreased perceived stress levels. (Note that a single bout of exercise without previous training had no effect on memory and actually increased stress levels.)
    • Participants in the study walked or jogged on a treadmill for 30 minutes a minimum of two hours before taking the memory test.
    • Typically, I do tabatas on the morning of an exam.
  • Power pose directly before starting the exam/assignment. Psychologist Amy Cuddy’s 2012 TED talk— one of the most watched in its history– discusses the incredible effects of holding a certain pose for two minutes. A simple change in body language can greatly increase one’s levels of testosterone, leading to heightened feelings of confidence, while reducing cortisol and anxiety. Five of Professor Cuddy’s “high power poses” are shown below,
  • Use the same seat/desk for lectures and test-taking. Countless research has been conducted on the phenomenon of context-dependent memory (CDM). Though everyone’s physiology works differently, literature routinely produced significant improvement in memory recall when a student keeps his/her context constant for learning and taking assessments.
    • A further extension of CDM would involve chewing gum both during lectures and testing. The addition of a physical action can help trigger memory pathways, not unlike in a memorable scene in Akeela and the Bee.

This brief overview on study habits will be updated periodically as I test new techniques and methods. In the meantime, I hope you found reading about my antics helpful and potentially impactful.

Happy learning!


1 thought on “Rethinking: Learning and Studying”

  1. As usual, very informative, well written (easy to read) & enlightening, no matter if in the academic or business setting. Based on the interesting data brought forth, it seems this advice would also serve well as a Guide to Success in most any venue.

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