How to Study Smartly: 15 Study Habits for Maximum Productivity | Iris Reading
How to Study Smartly: 15 Study Habits for Maximum Productivity

How to Study Smartly: 15 Study Habits for Maximum Productivity

How to Study Smartly

Studying is a crucial part of our lives. It is a vehicle for reaching our academic or skill development goals.

Unfortunately, many people do not get good study outcomes despite many hours of studying. To improve results, some study harder by increasing study sessions and pouring more time into studying. But, most often than not, studying harder does not result in any significant improvement in study outcomes.

The solution to getting better grades and other positive study outcomes is to study smarter, not harder. Studying smartly also makes learning seem effortless and even enjoyable.

How do you study smartly? This article will discuss fourteen study habits that help you study smartly and optimize productivity.

These study habits include:

  1. Create a study schedule
  2. Avoid distractions
  3. Pay attention during classes
  4. Take notes when learning
  5. Space out your studying
  6. Take regular breaks during study sessions
  7. Learn the same information in different ways
  8. Study multiple subjects each day
  9. Review what you learn periodically
  10. Test yourself
  11. Use active reading
  12. Create road maps
  13. Teach someone else what you learn
  14. Connect with other people
  15. Take care of your health.

1. Create a study schedule

A study schedule (or study plan) is a time management tool that keeps you on track and ensures you do everything required to get good study results.

Benjamin Franklin famously said, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” It means if you do not plan for something (whatever it is), you cannot have ultimate success in it. Thus, if you do not create a study plan (and stick with it), you will not likely have good study outcomes.

A great study schedule outlines study times and learning objectives.

The first element of a study plan is “study times.” Planning starts with blocking out periods of time within your schedule to study. It is not enough to say, “I’ll study three times a week.” What days of the week and what time of the day will that be?

Determining specific study times helps you align your studies with other commitments (work, chores, hobbies, etc.). You can move other activities/ tasks to other times, helping you control your distractions.

Another element of an effective study plan is “learning objectives.” After determining the study times, ensure you incorporate tests, key assignments, deadlines, and other obligations. Determine how much you’ll want to cover in a period and when to do reviews and test yourself.

For example, having to study a calculus textbook can seem overwhelming. But with appropriate planning, you can commit to studying one chapter of the material in a week. This breaks down the “seemingly overwhelming task” into smaller manageable chunks. As you study, you can begin to tick off accomplishments one by one, motivating you to go on.

Know that even the best plans will not improve your study outcomes if you do not stick to them. While it may seem odd initially, it’ll feel normal after about two weeks.

When it’s study time, make sure you study. Don’t let anything more “enticing” rob you of the time dedicated to studying. However, this doesn’t mean that plans should be inflexible.

If you have pressing needs or don’t feel like it, you may tweak plans (reduce the length of study sessions, change the time for a session, etc.). If you still lack the motivation to study or are not getting desired results, you may re-evaluate your plans.

2. Avoid distractions

A distraction is anything that can prevent you from paying attention, thereby preventing you from understanding or retaining what you are learning. Thus, avoiding distractions helps you concentrate on your studies for better results.

Distractions can be divided into two broad categories – internal and external.

Avoiding internal distractions

A study plan and a positive mindset can help you avoid internal distractions.

Internal distractions come from your own thoughts and emotions. These include thoughts about pressing responsibilities, more enticing activities, and fears/ worries.

A study plan can help you avoid many distracting thoughts. By scheduling time for every task, you’ll be assured that other responsibilities/ activities will not suffer because of your study time. This puts your mind at ease while you study.

Having a positive mindset is another way to avoid distractions (emotional distractions). If you have personal struggles, you may be unable to study, or you may be unable to learn and retain anything.

Thinking positively helps you beat anxiety, worries, and fears. When negative thoughts creep up in your mind, do not let them run wild. But arrest them and replace them with positive, reassuring thoughts.

For example, if you have thoughts like, “I may be unable to understand this,” replace it with a positive thought like, “Others have done it before, and they don’t have two heads. So I can do it.”

Writing about your feelings can also help you avoid emotional distractions. In one study, students who wrote down their feelings about an upcoming exam performed better than those who didn’t.

The researchers explained that writing gave those students an opportunity to release the distracting emotions, allowing them to concentrate better when studying.

Avoiding external distractions

External distractions are things that originate outside of you that can prevent you from concentrating when studying. These can come from an uncomfortable study area, background noise, technology, etc.

Some ways to avoid external distractions include:

  • Choose a conducive study area. For example, you may not study effectively if your study space is too hot, cold, or noisy. Plan to study in a space with the right conditions for you to do so.
  • Keep the study area clutter-free. Disorganization drains our cognitive resources by reducing our working memory. This leads to an inability to focus effectively. 
  • Keep electronic devices away. Turn off your phone when studying and put it away. At the very least, silence the phone and turn off all notifications. Do not make the mistake of pausing to check and reply to messages when reading. It breaks your focus and reduces your productivity.

3. Pay attention during classes

Studying may be defined as applying the mind to learn or understand by means of reading books. But good studying habits for optimizing productivity are not limited to reading.

You lay the foundation for good study habits by paying attention during classes and taking notes when being taught.

As a student, attention is the first step in the learning process. You cannot learn, understand, or remember something if you do not first attend to it.

4. Take notes when learning

Taking notes when learning is one strategy that helps you engage your mind in identifying and organizing the main ideas of lectures.

Note-taking promotes learning during classes and in private study sessions.

Some college students do not take notes during lectures because the instructor will make the materials available. However, taking your own notes during classes supports your listening efforts.

It helps focus your attention and avoid distraction. You’ll process information more deeply to take notes, so you’ll become an active learner instead of just a passive listener.

In private study sessions, isolate the main points and put them down into words and phrases that make sense to you.

Taking notes gives you something you can review later. Reviewing condensed notes (written in your own words) is more efficient than re-reading whole texts and learning materials.

One of the most popular and effective note-taking strategies is the Cornell method, invented by Professor Walter Paul of Cornell University in the 1950s.

The Cornell note-taking method provides a clean format for organizing key concepts and prioritizing ideas. The Cornell method divides your page into four separate sections, allowing you to put down thoughts in a way that facilitates learning.

  • The first section. A block at the top of the page for an optional title. 
  • The second section. A smaller left-side column at the center of the page for keywords and questions. It is also called the “cue” or “recall” column because you can use it as an outline to pinpoint where you put down each bit of information. 
  • The third section. The bigger right-side column at the center of the page is called the note-taking column. It is where you put down the actual notes from the lecture or your study.
  • The fourth section. A block at the bottom of the page for a brief summary of the content of the page.

Cornell notes encourage mindfulness and promote active summarizing. Instead of writing down every little thing, you pull out key points from a lecture or study materials. You go a step further to condense these main points into a concise summary.

Cornell notes make revising easy, as the cue section points you to where you write down specific information.

5. Space out your studying

To study smarter instead of harder entails making studying seem effortless. Interestingly, nothing does that better than spreading study sessions over several short periods of time over several days and weeks instead of having study marathons.

That is, two hours of study every day for five days will serve you better than studying nonstop for 10 hours a day. The total amount of time spent studying will be the same, but distributing learning over time helps you learn materials more deeply and retain the information better.

Many college students do marathon studying just before a test or an examination. They do little or no studying in the weeks before a test, only to try packing everything into their heads when they have one or two days to go. 

However, studies show that such marathon studying rarely works. One study published in 2009 in Applied Cognitive Psychology compared students who studied in spaced-apart sessions over four days and those who covered everything in massed sessions in a single day. Though both groups spent the same time overall, the first group did better in tests.

Marathon sessions give poor results because it is difficult to maintain concentration throughout a long study session. As the study stretches, you lose concentration, and learning becomes less and less effective.

Also, you can miss or gloss over important details when rushing to absorb large amounts of information.

Distributing studying over a period is one of the best study skills for comprehension and retention. After each short study session, you can try to recall what you learn and link it with previous knowledge. This help to move information from short-term memory to long-term memory for better retention.

You may also like to read about Spaced Revision vs. Spaced Repetition

6. Take regular breaks during study sessions

Another way to study smartly is to make the study process enjoyable for yourself, and one way to do this is to take regular breaks when studying.

Even after setting a study plan and ensuring you spread out sessions, how you study in each session will affect outcomes.

If you have a 4-hour weekend study session, do you hole up in your space and pour yourself into your lecture notes and other materials for all four hours? You may feel you’ll accomplish more this way, but research says otherwise.

According to research, taking breaks during study sessions improves focus and enhances overall productivity. Whereas studying nonstop can lead to eye strain and mental overload, breaks help your brain relax so you can return to the material mentally sharper. 

Using the Pomodoro technique is one of the best ways to build breaks into study sessions. The Pomodoro technique is a time management method based on 25-minute stretches of focused work punctuated by 5-minute breaks. Then after four focused sessions, enjoy a longer, more restorative 15- to 30-minute break before continuing (if you must).

To use the Pomodoro technique to study smartly, do the following:

  • Start your study and focus completely on that for 25 minutes.
  • After 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break.
  • Repeat the steps three times.
  • After the fourth focused study session, take a longer 15- to 30-minute break.

When taking study breaks, refrain from using your phone or computer. Your brain should be relaxing during breaks, but you’ll be working your brain when using these devices.

Some ideas of what to do during study breaks include:

  • Just sit outside, close your eyes, and let fresh air caress you.
  • Take a walk.
  • Do some light exercises (like stretches).
  • Do breathing exercises.
  • Listen to relaxing music (like classical music).
  • Take a snack (Read more about this in our post: Top 15 Best Foods To Eat While Studying)

7. Learn the same information in different ways

Studies show that the more ways a learning material is introduced and reviewed, the more dendritic pathways of access are created in the brain, increasing your comprehension, retention, and recall of the information.

For example, receiving the information visually sets up a connection with the occipital lobes (the part of the brain that processes optical input). Hearing the same information will hook up a dendritic circuit with the temporal lobes (the part of the brain that processes auditory input).

Learning something in different ways results in storing data about the subject in different brain regions. Interestingly, cross-referencing occurs between these brain areas, allowing the brain to be able to pull up all the data about a subject from its multiple storage areas in response to a single cue.

Learning the same information in different ways is akin to putting your eggs in different baskets instead of one. If all your eggs are in one basket, you’ll lose them all if you lose that one basket. But if you have them in different baskets, you’re more likely to find one. In terms of the brain, finding even one will point you to where the others are, helping you find those you thought were lost.

Thus, an important way to study smart is by learning the same material using multiple mediums – reading/writing, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. This stores the same information in different parts of the brain and forms strong connections between them, making it easier to access stored information for recall.

Learning the same information in different ways involves combining two or more of the following:

  • Read the material.
  • Examine diagrams and illustrations that explain concepts in the material.
  • Associate what you learn with real-life examples.
  • Listen to a recorded summary of the material.
  • Source and watch videos on the subject.
  • Practice problems or do demonstrations to test your knowledge.
  • Teach someone what you’ve learned.

8. Study multiple subjects each day

Another way to study smart for better learning outcomes is to mix different types of topics in one session instead of completing a topic before moving to another.

Psychologists call this interleaving. 

Suppose you are preparing for an examination in maths, physics, and chemistry. Interleaving requires studying a bit of every subject each day instead of completing one subject before moving to the next.

You can also apply interleaving within one subject. This will require mixing up different topics.

Contrary to what you may think, interleaving does not lead to confusion. Interleaving actually improves students’ performance on both topics/ subjects more than when they treat them separately.

Research shows that the discriminative contrast is one reason interleaving works. Mixing topics makes it easier to notice the similarities and differences between different concepts, helping you learn concepts better. Thus, interleaving practice helps you avoid the confusion that often arises from learning similar concepts simultaneously. 

Interleaving examples from different topics will improve your skills more than practicing examples from one topic before moving to examples from another topic. This is because you’ll be able to actively determine what formula/ procedure you should use to solve a problem.

Consider studying physics problems. If you focus on one topic, you already know the calculation to solve the problems. However, if you interleave problems from different topics, you’ll first figure out what type of calculation to use. 

Know that in examinations and other real-life scenarios, questions/ problems come mixed up. So, interleaving practice helps you learn better (better prepares you for examinations and real-life problem-solving).

9. Review what you learn periodically

Periodic review is another way to study smart because it helps you retain information better.

Smart students use periodic reviews to gradually move what they learn from their short-term memory to their long-term memory, drastically eliminating the possibility of forgetting the information.

The forgetting curve explains why periodic reviews work. The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve explains the rate at which information is forgotten after it is learned, emphasizing the importance of consolidating information to retain it.

The study shows that the forgetting rate is very high immediately after learning, that in a matter of days, the learner would have forgotten over 90% of what is learned.

However, repeating the information at pre-determined intervals can reduce the drastic forgetting rate. With each revision, the learner forgets less and less of the information.

Thus, to remember what you learn longer and be on your way to passing your exams with flying colours, you should review your class notes and private study materials periodically.

The optimal review interval varies, depending on how long you want to retain what you learn. However, a spaced repetition schedule that has worked for many students is as follows:

  • 1st review – 1 day after learning
  • 2nd review – 3 days after the 1st review
  • 3rd review – 7 days after the 2nd review
  • 4th review – 21 days after the 3rd review
  • 5th review – 30 days after the 4th review
  • 6th review – 45 days after the 5th review
  • 7th review – 60 days after the 6th review

10. Test yourself

A famous quote by Mahatma Gandhi is, “An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.

As you know, athletes get better at what they do by practicing their sports skills, leading to better sporting outcomes. The same applies to learning.

When students study, the one way to practice is to test themselves. After studying a material, attempting practice questions to test your understanding of the concepts is important.

Testing yourself improves studying in two ways. First, it consolidates the learned information. Recalling what you learned from memory brings the information back to the top of your mind. This resets the “forgetting clock,” helping you remember the information for longer.

Secondly, it can identify gaps in your knowledge. Self-testing can reveal areas of the course material you have not fully understood. You can then go back to brush yourself up.

Testing yourself is one of the study strategies supported by science. In one study, students who took practice tests over several weeks performed better on average than those who did not.

Thus, for better outcomes, ensure you take practice tests after studying. Note that it is “tests,” not “test.” It is not enough to test yourself just once on a subject. Do spaced testing, just as you would spaced revision.

11. Use active reading

Active reading is the process of deliberately engaging with the ideas in the study material.

Active engagement with the text is more than simply re-reading it multiple times. Rather, it involves constructing meaning from the texts by generating questions to help you identify the meaning of the text, connecting the text to previous knowledge, and regulating your own learning.

Some ways to practice active reading when studying include:

  • Generate questions to help you extract the meaning of the text. For example, why is this information added here, how does it relate to the other parts of the text, etc? One study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that students who generate and answer their own questions have better learning outcomes
  • Underline or highlight key information as you read. This way, you can easily see the main points of a text when you return to it later. However, be careful not to highlight too much, as that will lead to confusion.
  • Look for cues that point to the main ideas of a text. These include words like, on the other hand, most importantly, in contrast, etc.
  • Summarize what you read. To summarize a text, you must identify the ideas, facilitating understanding.
  • Add explanatory notes or comments to the margin of the text (annotate). Annotating is more effective than highlighting as it gives extra information to add insight to the text.
  • Examine visuals within a text (diagrams, charts, tables, etc.) and determine the relation between them and the concepts they explain.
  • Test yourself as you read. After reading for a while, put away the text and try to jot down the key points from memory. Then go back to the text and reread points you could not recall.
  • Explain what you’ve read to someone.

12. Create mind maps

A mind map is a kind of spider diagram that represents information and relationships visually. 

An important study skill that improves understanding and memory is “association” (how pieces of information link together to form a core idea and how they relate to other things we may already know). Interestingly, mind maps use associations, encouraging our brains to form associations between information.

The benefits of mind maps include helping you:

  • Identify relationships between different topics.
  • Improve your memory using visual cues.
  • Organize your thoughts.
  • Explore subjects broadly and in-depth.
  • Introduce new ideas to a topic.

You can create a mind map in four easy steps:

  1. Establish a main idea. This is the subject around which your map will revolve.
  2. Branch out from the core idea. Write out the themes (or what makes up the main idea). Dra connecting lines from the themes to the main idea.
  3. Brach out from the themes. Write out keywords specific to each of them, and draw connecting lines from specific keywords to the theme they relate to.
  4. Color code your mind map. Color coding makes it easier to organize and classify pieces of information on your mind map.

Read Also: What is Mind Mapping? (And How To Use It For Studying)

13. Teach someone else what you learn

The Roman philosopher Seneca famously said, “When we teach, we learn.” Science supports this and has coined a phrase for it – the protege effect.

The Protege effect is the idea that explaining something to someone makes you learn the thing better. 

Teaching helps you learn better because to teach or explain something to someone, you have to seek out key pieces of information and organize the material. This clarifies the information for you even more, leading to better understanding and retention.

Also, explaining something to someone brings the information back to your mind and reinforces it for better retention.

The protege effect works whether you teach actually teach someone or pretend to teach someone. So, even when studying alone, you can study smartly by teaching the material to an imaginary person. 

14. Connect with other people

While you can study solo and get good results, having a study group has many benefits and can be one way of studying smarter.

Studying with friends can be motivating because of the healthy pressure to stay focused. Seeing other people focused on their materials can have the same effect on you. 

Also, everyone in the group can learn from one another. When studying alone, you may run into problems you cannot solve. This can be frustrating and threaten to end your study session. However, when studying in a group, you can turn to your friends for help and find the breakthrough you seek.

You benefit even when you are the one always doing the explaining. The protege effect comes into play. You won’t have to teach to pretend to teach an imaginary person. Unlike an imaginary student, group members would ask questions. As you explain and make connections, you experience a reinforcement of the material.

However, know that study groups are most effective if they are small. The best study groups consist of three to four people. Adding more people can easily make the group distracting.

Also, you can combine solo study with group study. This involves having several private study sessions punctuated by a few group sessions. The group sessions will allow everyone to discuss challenges and bounce ideas off one another. 

Your study group can leverage technology to optimize studying. You can discuss problems and support one another beyond group study time by creating WhatsApp or Facebook groups.

15. Take care of your health

Taking care of your physical health ensures you have the energy to study.

You probably have heard the saying, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” It is a rueful admission of weariness or other physical weakness, meaning that one may want to do something but lacks the energy or strength for it.

Physical health is the foundation of good academic performance. Weariness or lack of energy can make it impossible to study or make studying ineffective. That is why among students who perform poorly are many who complain of lacking energy or enthusiasm to study.

Some ways to take care of your physical health toward improving studying include:

Get enough sleep

There always seems to be “so much to cover and so little time for it.” So, many students opt for more study time by cutting sleep. However, research is clear that not getting enough sleep drains one’s mental abilities.

Enough sleep is eight hours of sleep daily.

First and foremost, science has linked sleep with a number of health problems. Not getting enough sleep can make you sick. It can result in weakened immunity, high blood pressure, risk of heart disease, and more. As you know, studying when sick cannot bring good results. 

Also, a good night rest is associated with memory. Sleep helps in the consolidation of newly acquired information in memory. Thus, getting enough sleep improves retention and recall of what you learn.

Sleep also helps learning because of its effect on focus and concentration. When you don’t get enough sleep, your concentration, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills will diminish.

Thus, don’t pull all-nighters in a bid to read more. All-nighters equal lower grades. Rather, get a good night’s sleep for more productive study sessions.

Good nutrition

What we take into our bodies is a key determinant of our physical health. Thus, good nutrition is important to keep healthy for productive study sessions.

So, eat healthy food regularly. Avoid overeating and reduce your intake of processed food.

Certain foods are good for the brain and improve cognitive functions such as memory and concentration. These are aptly called memory-boosting food and include fatty fish, blueberries, broccoli, oranges, nuts, eggs, and dark chocolate.

Regularly include these foods in your diet, and you’ll feel more alert throughout the day. With lethargy out the window, you can study better and be on your way to becoming a straight-A student.

An often neglected but important part of nutrition for brain health is drinking enough water (8 – 10 glasses per day).

Research shows that the brain’s overall mental process power decreases when one is dehydrated. Dehydration may even cause the gray matter to shrink.

So, drink water regularly. Don’t wait to feel thirsty before you drink water. Stay hydrated well before your study sessions, and bring a water bottle to your session. Plus, taking a sip will act as a short break to refresh your mind.

You may also like: Which Foods Improve Memory?

Exercise regularly

We all know that exercise is good for the body. But what many students do not realize is that exercise is also good for the brain. 

First, exercising reduces stress, improves mood, and helps prevent certain diseases. Thus, exercise promotes good health and mood, which are prerequisites for studying.

Also, research shows that exercise improves cognitive performance regardless of age. Exercising improves memory, meaning it helps you comprehend better and retain information longer.

Thus, to stay healthy for effective studying, exercise regularly (at least three times a week for 30 minutes each time).

Takeaway: Achieve academic excellence and high productivity with trusted and tested study strategies

Studying is crucial to achieving many of our life’s goals. How you study can affect your experience and results.

Studying smartly rather than harder makes learning effortless, even enjoyable. Importantly, it leads to better learning outcomes (better understanding and retention of information).

The 15 study habits above are tested and trusted for helping learners study smartly for maximum productivity. These include creating a study schedule, avoiding distractions, note-taking, spacing study sessions, taking breaks when studying, self-testing, using active reading, and more.

True, these strategies can help you supercharge your studying for maximum productivity. However, you will reach your goals faster with expert guidance from Iris Reading.

For example, the Iris Reading Personal Productivity Course will help you learn strategies to increase productivity, whether you are a student or professional. Its lessons include how to improve focus and limit distraction, time management, scientific discoveries of what works and what doesn’t, and more.

Want to do more in less time and achieve outstanding results in school or work? Register for the Iris Reading Personal Productivity Course today.

How Can I Improve My Vocabulary? (9 Expert Recommendations)
Do Deaf People Have an Inner Voice? (Important Facts)