All You Ever Really Need to Know to Study Efficiently

Lately, I’ve become obsessed with learning about learning. I realize this should be an intuitive process by now, but apparently not to me. I hit a snag while working on my designation, consisting of an overload of information and the sheer inability to keep up. Yet others seem to be faring well and with more on their plate. (Though to be fair, some were in the same boat as me and struggled as well, so I guess what really bothered me was that I wasn’t used to it.)

After I got over the initial, “so this is the end for me, this is as far as my abilities will carry me”, I (thankfully) managed to pinpoint my real issue. I needed to learn how to learn more efficiently and effectively. So began my search for as much information on learning as I could get my hands on.

The one book that gave more detail to the vague iterations (to a nitpicker like me) found online was “Make it Stick” by Peter Brown.

I figure since it helped me so much, instead of summarizing the book, I’ll share a strategy that I’ve developed based on what I’ve learned from the book:

1. Try to solve a problem BEFORE going through the material

Struggling to solve a problem before you’re taught how to solve it actually primes your mind to learn. It becomes fully aware of what you don’t know and it goes on full alert to figure out the answers when you actually do expose yourself to the material. As well, because your brain didn’t know the answer the first time around, it’s going to better retain the answer when you learn it, so it can make sure you’re don’t get caught off guard again .

2. Elaborate

Put things in your own words. Yeah, I know, this part is a pain. It’s so much easier to just write things down word for word without thinking about it. But if you do that, you’re effectively just popping a store down on a deserted plot of land with no roads leading to it. No one goes to it. No one knows its even there. Not even Google Maps.

Confused? Read ahead.

Why is elaborating on a concept so important? Because when you attempt to explain something in your own words, you’re using your past experiences/knowledge to give meaning to a new concept. You’re connecting that concept to what you already know, nestling it in aaallll comfy cozy in with the things that are already in your brain. And as you probably already know, the brain loves connections. It is much easier to get to a piece of information when it is heavily connected, than if you just plopped it in there without making any connections.

Sounds familiar? Getting closer…

It’s kind of like how people are more likely to land on a website that has been linked to from a variety of places like facebook, twitter, youtube, etc.

Or how a store gets built on a piece of land that has no roads. (Bingo!) Or it has just one road. A dirt road. That doesn’t even register on Google Maps. Yeah, how are you going to get to that store? It’s there. You might not know it’s there. But it’s there and you just are not going to be able to get to it. In fact because you forget that it’s there, you might try setting up another store elsewhere, the same exact way and you’ll face the same exact predicament.

So what do you do? Make sure you have a way to get to the information you’re learning. If you can’t retrieve it later, there’s no reason to even put it in there. So connect it to what you already know by trying to explain the concept in your own words.

3. Practice

  1. Read the material
  2. IMMEDIATELY take a test WITHOUT material in front of you
A few caveats regarding tests:
  • Instead of doing multiple choice or true/false tests, do questions that require you to supply answers.
  • Don’t worry about not covering all the material. Testing helps you retain and retrieve related material, even if you haven’t been tested on it.
  • Restudying material missed on the test helps you learn more than just restudying without being tested.

And because I have an irrational fear of testing (as I’m sure others do as well), I have found that it helps to think of it as just practice:

“It’s not just what you know, but how you practice what you know that determines how well the learning serves you later.”

– Brown, Peter C. (2014-04-14). Make It Stick (p. 57). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

4. Interleave test questions

(i.e., mix up related but different material – this allows your brain to reach beyond memorization into higher levels of conceptual learning and application)

The method of choice by most is mass practice, where we do many of the same types of questions until we’ve mastered them before moving on. In contrast, interleaving questions require us to mix up material and continue practicing, even if we have yet to achieve the feeling of mastery.

For example, if you’re a freshman in high school and just learning how to calculate the area of a circle, make sure you vary it up and study how to calculate the area of a triangle, square, rectangle and parallelogram as well. Variations like that help your brain notice differences between the shapes and calculations much faster than if you attempted to learn the calculation for each shape separately.

Interleaving is going to feel laborious and uncomfortable. But even if you feel like you haven’t learned anything, BECAUSE you’re forcing your brain to confront different but related concepts, it’s making connections and understanding relationships. Which means, you’re figuring things out at a deeper level. And studies show that this is in fact a more effective way of retaining information and achieving mastery.

(If a deeper understanding of the material doesn’t really motivate you because all you really care about right now are getting those marks, maybe this might help: anything you gain a thorough and full understanding of now, you won’t have to worry about later. You can coast in the future. 😉 )

5. Reflect

Basically, asking yourself questions and taking the time to review what you learned from an experience. For example, reviewing how you fared on a test. What did you do wrong? What did you do right? Was your strategy effective? Was the time it took for you to study worth it? If not, what would you differently? What concepts are hard for you to grasp? Why? Are you having a hard time understanding the terminology? How can you approach the material now having known that?

Reflection also includes mentally rehearsing (i.e., actually visualizing and going through the steps in your mind) what you might do differently next time. The act of reflecting on your actions (in DETAIL) is so important that it can even be seen as a form of spaced practice (i.e., equivalent to taking a test!).

6. Space out practice

Now that you’ve finished one testing session, time to set that material aside. You need to let it go and relax. Once enough time has passed to allow the concepts you’ve studied to gather cobwebs in your brain, it’s time to test yourself and travel down those neural pathways again. It might seem counter-intuitive to not keep drilling the same questions repeatedly and right away, but if that’s done, you’re actually not letting your brain know that it’s something that should be saved for the long-term.

If you’re constantly retrieving that knowledge, your brain gets lazy. It knows it doesn’t really need to strength that pathway that leads to that information, because you keep recalling it just fine. You obviously don’t need any help.

However, if it’s something you don’t always access, something you need only once in a while, your brain is going to have to do something to make sure you can remember it long into the future. Because who knows when you’ll need it again?

The only way to get your brain to store it for long-term use is to:

  1. First get it into your brain by testing yourself after your initial exposure to the material
  2. Leave it alone. Don’t try retrieving it. Let your brain forget about it. Let it grow complacent.
  3. Then ask for it again. Test yourself, without looking at the material. It’s going to be tough. You’re going to have the struggle through those withered neural pathways to get to what you know.

But it’s that struggle that lets your brain know that if it doesn’t want to experience something like that ever again, it’s going to have to make it easier for you to get to what you need to get to. If you space out your testing sessions enough times, you’re going to train your brain to expect your need to know the material not right away, but some time in the future. And that can’t happen easily if you don’t traverse that path normally. So that path needs to get broader and better and more easily traversable (I didn’t think that was a real word, but the lists it as such…hmm).


How to study successfully: Test yourself early, elaborate, test yourself again (interleave topics!), reflect and finally, keep testing, but intermittently.

Hope that helped! Now on to the next step in my journey to becoming a better student/person…knocking that habit of procrastination. Blah.


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