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

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by Joyce Chong (updated 28 September 2018)


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? Unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to study techniques, however we can look to what research tells us works when it comes to enhancing academic performance.

Below we’ve put together five questions to help you choose the right study techniques.

1. DoES THE STUDY TECHNIQUE HELP you engage with the 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 make a story from these words (e.g. The Cat in the Hat was holding a bat when it sat on the mat). This ‘story’ helps because it links all of the items together, and you have also spent time working on crafting a story and this process of engaging with the information helps it ‘stick’ in your mind more. In going the extra step to ‘make meaning’ of the information, it becomes more likely that you will recall the words.

TRY  Techniques such as creating mind maps, coming up with mnemonics, or relating it to things you already know, help enrich your memory of the information down the track. Yes, it does take a bit more time, but you’re building richer links across concepts.


There’s a growing body of research showing it may not be enough to just make notes and re-read these notes, but that testing is important in improving recall.[2] In a study of exam performance, students who regularly sat multiple-choice and short-answer quizzes subsequently improved their 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 involves learning the relative positions of the planets which would then 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  Start to put together 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 HELP you monitor your progress?

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, by asking these questions you’re 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 - monitor your progress so that you can make changes when you notice things aren’t sinking into your memory. Focus also on integrating the new information with what you already know.


Repeating what you have learnt helps you to remember, and repeating via testing also improves your recall. Cramming is far less effective compared to regular recall over a longer period as it allows you to consolidate what you have previously learnt and also allows you to integrate newer information with existing knowledge. [2]

Time and time again we see students who make meticulous notes in the first few weeks of university, but then shelve the notes until it’s time to study for exams. In the meantime, the memory trace has faded 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 you can refresh what you have learnt. This will also help you in subsequent weeks as you’re better able to integrate what you’re learning with what you already know.

5. does the study technique make you more efficient?

Efficient processes make for a smoother run… 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 things that little bit easier.

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

  • 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 simultaneously that tap the same mental resource pool actually harms your efficiency. [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 to set up systems and processes that are easy to use so that they’re more likely to become part of your routine.


Hopefully the guide that we’ve put together today helps you to choose study techniques that will work for you, and good luck with your studies!




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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.