The Three-Word Study Tip


Study-TipsIt’s official: summer has ended. Farewell, beach chair. Hello, beeping alarm clock.

It’s also Study Tip Season — that time of year when kids and parents start thinking about how to improve their lives by studying more effectively and efficiently.

With that in mind, I thought I’d try to distill the best advice into a few simple words. Three, to be precise.

The first word is reach. The most effective studying happens when you’re slightly out of your comfort zone, when you go the edge of your ability and make an intense, targeted effort beyond it. This is how our brains make new connections — not by leaning back and letting information wash over them, but by leaning forward, making mistakes, and fixing those mistakes.

(Parent tip: when your kid is struggling on the edge of their ability, resist the urge to heroically swoop in and rescue them. Instead, let them know that those are the moments when progress happens.)

So if you have to learn material in a textbook, don’t just read it over and over. Instead, read it once, close the book, and then summarize the main points on a separate sheet of paper.

If you’re a fan of highlighting (which research has shown is not that effective), you might want to follow it up by organizing all your highlighted material into an outline.

The best way to reach? Make a habit of testing yourself. Testing yourself works best of all, because it’s a double-reach: first you have to figure out the important questions to ask (one reach), then you have to answer (another).

The second word is loop. Embrace the idea of learning stuff by repeating it in short sessions over a number of days. In other words, don’t study in a straight line, but in a series of short loops, returning to the material over and over. This technique, called spaced repetition, works because each repetition embeds the information more strongly in our brains.

So instead of studying just today’s work, go over work from the previous few days as well. Instead of trying to learn all the Spanish vocabulary words the night before the quiz, learn a dozen each night, and keep going over them. And, of course, avoid cramming, which feels really satisfying, but doesn’t work that well.

The third word is mix. Our natural instinct is to attack homework like a dutiful worker on an assembly line, focusing on a single area for large chunks of time. But what works better is to mix it up — to interleave different types of problems and allow our brains to navigate the conceptual landscape, to make connections that might have otherwise been missed.

Instead of focusing on one type of algebra problem, switch it up by doing several different types of problems, so your brain has to sort through the different possibilities. Instead of studying one narrow aspect of science (say, cell division), try to link it with other, related areas. Study like a great athlete works on their game — working on a bit of A, a bit of B, a bit of C, and combining them.

So that’s it: reach, loop, and mix. Your brain will thank you. For more study tips, here’s a useful compilation from one of my favorite writers, Annie Murphy Paul: as well as another from The Washington Post.

Though now I have a confession to make.

There’s one more word, which might contain the most effective study tip of all.

Clue: It has five letters, and begins with S. Any guesses?

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24 Responses to “The Three-Word Study Tip”

  1. Thanks for the mention, Daniel! Love this post.

  2. Casey Prince says:

    I’m guessing “SLEEP” is the extra study tip.
    About to print this out for all the players in the Ubuntu Football Academy in Cape Town, South Africa.

  3. James McGee says:

    Sleep? 🙂

  4. Rod Roth says:

    Good post. I’m thinking, based on my history of procrastinating, that START is the magic word.

  5. Hi Daniel, Great post! We love your book The Talent Code and use it often in our home and lives! This post is especially useful for kids to help them learn varieties in ways to study versus just trying to cram it all in in one session. I like the idea of switching around the focus and then bringing it back together. I also like the idea of quizzing oneself.

    I don’t think your “S” word is Sugar! (that’s a joke!)

    I’d say it is “Snacks” or “Sleep” or “Smile” (my yoga teachers always say that smiling helps everything)

  6. Sum Gai says:

    Hmm… maybe I missed it. I was thinking that “study” was the most important study tip. No way to get better than to practice

  7. Ben says:

    Agreed. Study, though Start is a good one, too. Smile is what you can do once you’ve studied.

  8. JoAnna says:

    I’m going to guess “share”. Teaching something to someone else helps us learn it better.

  9. Joanne M says:

    Slave, as in total dedication is required. Snail, as in slow down — this cannot be rushed. Space– because learning is the final frontier. Super, as in the results of your efforts.

  10. John Haddad says:

    Start What else matters if you can’t get yourself going?

  11. Adrian moll says:

    What a clever probing question Dan , it seems everyone is ‘stretching’ to find the answer !

  12. Ray says:

    Start and study are good words but I think the magic word is sleep.

  13. Sum Gai says:

    Adrian, perhaps we could classify it as wanting to ‘strive’ for the answer :p

  14. Bas says:

    I think it might be ‘SPARK’. Tap into a deep source of motivation related to the object of your studies.

  15. Candice says:

    Ok Dan you’ve got to share what word you were speaking of. I have to agree I know getting enough sleep can increase marks by as much as 30% so it’s a bit one.

    Steal for me also has to be a big one stealing with the ideas. I am so intrigued.

    I also want to know is there a way to get an email every time you load a new blog post. I can’t seem to find the ‘subscribe’ button. Thanks

  16. djcoyle says:

    Okay — you’ve all made some fantastic guesses — and many of them could easily apply. I especially like STEAL, SHARE and SMILE. (Side note: damn, English is an amazingly fertile language — who’d have thought that there would be so many perfectly plausible answers?)

    So here goes (drumroll): the word I was thinking of was…


    Every educator I’ve spoken with lately is fixated on the fact that students don’t get nearly enough sleep, and the science is increasingly clear: few factors are more important when it comes to brains and high performance.

    Congrats to all the correct guessers — and huge thanks to everyone else for sharing their thoughts.

  17. Leonard Stewart (eeeconlawyer) says:

    Great post!

    I’m applying these study techniques to learning Mandarin as an Expat on a four-year assignment in Beijing, China. I take 3 one hour Mandarin lessons every week with one additional hour of self-study and another one- two hours of homework.

    I even want to step it up a notch as my goal is to be conversational in Mandarin, certainly before the end of my four years and to be able to read characters well enough to read a news article.

    Thanks for the tips!

  18. AC says:

    Great post Daniel.

    Active Recall is the way forward when reviewing the material you have studied to see if you actually know it.

    Other videos are worth a look too…

  19. AC says:

    An example of Active Recall.

    Quiz and recall.
    This is the reason you take your notes in QEC format – it will save you masses of time when it comes to making your quizzes.

    The idea is that you look at each of the questions (Q) and then speak out loud using complete sentences and proper English (if that is your native language) as if lecturing to an imaginary class of eager students.

    Your lecture should cover the majority of the evidence (E) in order to reach the conclusion (C.)

    Once you’ve finished you can look over the Evidence and Conclusion from your QEC notes and check to see if you included everything that you should have.

    The key is, that you deliver the lecture without looking at your notes. This is the recall element. You more or less instantly get a feel for how well you know a topic. If you couldn’t explain a concept to your imaginary audience with ease, then you don’t know the subject and you need to go back and invest more time in learning the material before trying again, delivering a second lecture out loud to an imaginary class of students.

    The efficiency comes from the fact that you won’t spend time going over the bits that you could confidently cover in your presentation. You don’t need to. You know that you already know them. What you will do instead, is specifically look at the bits you didn’t know and plug the gaps in your knowledge.

    Active Recall – as long as you are actively reproducing answers from you mind either out loud, on paper or on screen, and have the ability to check to see if you gave sufficient or correct information once you’ve finished, then you’re preparing in the best way possible, as you are testing yourself and plugging the gaps in your knowledge.

  20. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, AJ — really appreciate the detail and thoroughness of the QEC method. I’m gonna try it.

  21. djcoyle says:

    Hi Candice — thanks for your comment (and your guesses, which were right on the money). As for subscribing, you should see an RSS link just under my photo on the blog’s home page. Please let me know if it works for you. Thanks, Dan

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