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My Honors College

The Best Way to Study?

Dean Steve Lynn
Dean Steve Lynn

Is there a best way to study?

You may be thinking that there isn’t, that you’ve got to figure out what works best for you — are you a visual learner, do you study best late at night, do you need music in the background, is a highlighter an essential tool for you? But there is actually good research that convincingly demonstrates what works best: The most effective studying is active and engaged.

Let’s say you have six hours to study for a calculus class. Should you spend that time reading and re-reading and memorizing the textbook? Reading and re-reading and memorizing your class notes? The research tells us that this strategy is too passive: the material just passes through your head and doesn’t stick, doesn’t become part of your intellectual tools. Instead you want to use the information. Spend an hour studying explanations, equations, sample problems, and then spend the next five hours working problems. That active engagement lodges the concepts in your brain and makes them accessible.  

Similarly, let’s say you’re studying the War of Jenkin’s Ear for a history class. You might read the material in the textbook several times, marking it up with various color highlighters. Maybe you even read a second textbook — you really want to do well on the test. Are you ready now, as prepared as you can possibly be? No, you need to use the information. For example, you need to write a summary of the material, and you need to ask yourself questions and try to answer them, and then look again at the material to see what you’ve gotten right, wrong, and omitted, and try again. Anticipate what your professor might ask you, and then compose an answer. To be able to talk about the War of Jenkin’s Ear (which was pretty weird and fascinating), you’re going to need to put the events and issues into your own words, exploring causes and implications and contexts.  

Now, the bad news, I suppose, is that the most effective way to study is not the easiest way. You can sit in a chair with your headphones playing music and stare at a textbook for hours — and have a pleasant day. And not really learn very much at all. The good news is that if you can actively engage yourself in what you’re studying, the extra effort and energy will pay off. And ultimately, acquiring knowledge and skill is way more fun than not!

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.