The Three-Word Study Tip
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?