How to choose the right study techniques (Hint: Use these 5 questions)

Are you facing study technique fatigue? Mind maps, rote learning, mnemonics, note-taking, re-reading, skimming, cramming…the possibilities are endless, so how do you sift through all of them and choose the ones that work?

The thing is, there is no one size fits all, however we can look to what research can tell us about what does work when it comes to academic performance.

Hold up, we hear you say, what does a psychologist have to do with study techniques? Well, memory and learning are just some of the things that psychologists study, along with their application to the various areas of psychology (here’s a little refresher if you’re wondering about the different types of psychologists).

Enough about the aside, let’s move on to finding the right study techniques for you. Below we’ve put together five questions to ask about your study technique to see if it’s helping you in the best possible way.

1. Does the study technique make you engage with the to-be-remembered information?

Studies of memory show that the degree to which we engage with the to-be-remembered information impacts on our ability to recall the information at a later date. Specifically, the more we elaborate on what we learn – and in doing so, relate it to other known facts – the more we increase the chance of remembering at a later date.[1]

Say you’re trying to learn a list of words – Cat, Mat, Hat, Sat, Bat. One option is to rehearse the list as is (we call this rote learning), and rely on pure repetition to aid in remembering these down the track.

An alternative is to picture The Cat in the Hat that Sat on a Mat while holding a Bat. This picture is likely to help because you have worked on making it ‘stick’ in your mind more, either due to linking it with what is already known to you (hello Dr Seuss), or because of the novel nature of the image (cats in, say, top hats). In going the extra step to ‘make meaning’ of the to-be-remembered information it becomes more likely that you can recall this list of words down the track.

TRY  Techniques such as creating mind maps, coming up with mnemonics, or relating it to yourself or things you already know help to enrich your memory of the information down the track.

2. Does the study technique encourage you to test yourself?

There’s a growing body of research that suggests that it may not be enough to just make notes and read and re-read these notes, but that testing is an important part of improving recall.[2] In a study of exam performance, the regular completion of multiple-choice and short-answer quizzes improved subsequent exam performance.[3]

Why does this work? It’s believed that when we try to recall information we re-organise what is in our memory to produce an ‘answer-ready’ format, and also link it with a trigger to help prompt our memory down the track during exams.[4]

So, if you’re studying the planets in our solar system, a test question may be “What is the fifth planet from the sun?”. Coming up with this answer may then help direct you to learn the relative positions of the planets which would make it easier to answer an exam question such as “List the planets of our solar system in order starting from that closest to the sun.”. 

TRY  Put together a series of questions designed to test your knowledge of the information you have read. This could mean looking at test questions in the book, asking a friend or study-buddy to help set questions, or practising on past exam papers. Looking at different ways to test your knowledge will help you to consolidate different aspects of what you learn.

3. Does the study technique lead you to ask questions?

It can be easy to fall into the trap of reading a mountain of lecture notes, reading through a hefty chapter, and then summarising notes to use down the track. However, studies have shown that learning about what you are learning is an integral part of performance.[2]

That is, those students who question their learning process (Do I understand what I’m reading? How does this fit in with what I already know?), and the content of what they learn (Why am I reading this? What are the take-home messages from this chapter?), are more likely to perform better in exams. Yes, it probably hasn’t gone unnoticed that by asking these questions you’re actually also taking time to elaborate on the to-be-remembered information, and as we’ve discussed earlier this is something that helps performance.

TRY  Take an inquisitive approach to your learning by monitoring your progress (so that you can take corrective action when you notice that things aren’t sinking into your memory). Focus also on integrating what you are learning with what you have already learnt.

4. How often does the study technique require you to repeat yourself?

Repeating what you have learnt helps you to remember, and repeating via testing also improves your recall. Let’s take a closer look at the timing – or spacing – of the repetition.

There’s something called the spacing effect which essentially means that repeating what you have learnt close together in a block leads you to learn quickly, but that memory fades after a period of time of not refreshing the memory trace. In contrast, when the same information is repeated spaced out over time, it is more likely to be retained for longer. [2]

Time and time again we see students who put a tremendous amount of effort into their notes in the first few weeks of university and know those topics inside out, but then shelve the notes until it’s time to study for exams. In the meantime, the memory trace fades and, come exam time, these students then go back to re-read and re-summarise what they learnt in those initial weeks.

TRY Incorporating revision as a regular part of your studies so that you can refresh what you have learnt. This will also help you in subsequent weeks as you’re then better able to integrate what you’re learning with what you already know.

5. Does the study technique make for more efficient studying?

Ah, efficiency, it kind of makes life easier doesn’t it. From streamlining your wardrobe so it’s easier to get ready in the morning to setting up direct debiting for your regular bills so that it eliminates that hassle every month, processes and systems just make for an easier path in life.

So, to what extent does your study technique make for more efficient studying? This may include:

· Developing systems for studying (for example, red ink for take-home points, blue ink for elaboration on the take-home points)

· Organising your study space (documents filed away in the same spot on your computer, even keeping your stapler in the same place so that you don’t have to rummage for it every time you want to use it)

· Minimising distractions and incompatible multitasking – trying to do two things at one that tap the same mental resource pool that is your attention does not make for efficient studying. In fact, trying to do two incompatible mental tasks at the same time (e.g. studying while watching television) involves a cognitive cost each time you switch from one task to the other.[5]

TRY  Setting aside a small chunk of time to think through what systems and processes you can put into place to make studying more efficient for you that you will actually stick to. Aim for ease of use, and sustainability of these systems and processes (that is, it becomes so easy for you to use that doing so forms part of your routine).


Hopefully the guide that we’ve put together today helps you to choose study techniques that will work for you.


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[1] Ellis, H.C., & Hunt, R.R. (1993). Fundamentals of cognitive psychology (5th ed.). Dubuque: Brown & Benchmark.

[2] Roediger, H.L., & Pyc, M.A. (2015). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1, 242-248.

[3] McDermott, K.B., Agarwal, P.K., D’Antonio, L., Roediger, H.L., & McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Both multiple-choice and short-answer quizzes enhance later exam performance in middle and high school classes. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20, 3-21.

[4] Karicke, J.D. (2012). Retrieval-based learning: Active retrieval promotes meaningful learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 157-163.

[5] Koch, I., Gade, M., Schuch, S., & Philipp, A.M. (2010). The role of inhibition in task switching: A review. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17, 1-14.