10 Tips for Studying Smarter, Not Harder

By William Koenecke

Dr. William H. Koenecke has been a high-school chemistry teacher; a grade-school, middle-school, and high-school principal; a school superintendent; and has taught at three universities. He is the author of Write Well Right Now: A Handbook on English Grammar, Punctuation, and Writing and Study Smarter, Not Harder: Over 77 Ways to Improve Your Study Skills in Just Minutes a Day, to be published in May 2021.

Do you seem to spend all your time studying and working on assignments, yet still struggle with test scores and turning assignments in on time? These 10 tips can help you maximize the effectiveness of your study time without increasing its duration.

  1. Space your study time out over several days prior to exams or due dates. Limit your total study time to a maximum of 2 to 3 hours a day. Divide the 2 to 3 hours into 30-minute sessions with a 5-minute break between sessions. Studies show that people tend to learn the first and last things during the 30-minute study session and do not learn or tend to forget the information in between.
  2. Practice, practice, and more practice. Musicians, athletes, and many other successful people practice their craft. One of my organic-chemistry professors studied two hours for each hour of lecture he gave to our class. A successful writer I know has written and published 50 paperbacks and more than 400 journal articles during his 40-year career. He told me he revised his draft copy 10 times and then had a copyeditor edit it before he submitted it for publication. I asked him if he still revises his work 10 times today. He replied, “No, now I just revise it three times, but I always have a copyeditor read it before I submit it for publication.”
  3. Do not just re-read books and your notes. Learn to understand the most important items you will be tested on. Only re-read confusing information and concepts. Do not study what you already know unless you need to review.
  4. Test yourself. Use flash or note cards to learn and recall the key information. Put the definitions of key concepts in your own words. (You will remember it better than memorizing a complex definition.) Create your own practice tests using your lecture notes, handouts, textbook, and tests on the internet. Form a study group with fellow classmates to teach and test each other. These activities are called retrieval practice techniques.
  5. Mistakes are okay—if you learn from them! Check your incorrect answers and determine why they were wrong. Look at sample problems in your textbook and lecture notes to see why your answers were not correct. Make an appointment with your teacher/instructor during office hours. Look on the internet for sample problems like the ones you missed. And do not forget to ask your study group. Sometimes, students can learn better from one another.
  6. Mix up your self-testing. This is called interleaving, and it is when you drill yourself on different concepts of multiple subjects/topics.
  7. Use pictures, diagrams, and graphs—especially those in your textbook and handouts. These can be extremely helpful to visual learners.
  8. Find examples of important concepts in your lectures and textbooks. Compare difficult concepts that are hard to understand to concrete examples or concepts you already know. Always use your own words when you write down a new concept or take lecture notes. Use the internet and other books to see different explanations of the same concept or topic. If you still do not understand, make a list of these concepts, and see your teacher during office hours.
  9. Plan and stick to it. “If you fail to make a plan, you are planning to fail.” Use a paper calendar or your smartphone calendar to write down important dates for exams, assignments, and so on. (Most of the time these dates are in your class syllabus.) Start doing assignments and studying for exams a week to 10 days before they are due. Again, work (study) 30 minutes with a 5-minute break for a maximum of 3 hours per day. Cramming all night before a test seldom works for most people. You’ll retain the information for ONLY a short period of time, if at all.
  10. Dig deeper! You may have heard of the Socratic method of teaching. It is often used in medical and legal education to help students learn difficult concepts. It involves three steps: 1) Give a definition or opinion. 2) Ask a question that raises an exception to that definition or opinion. 3) Give a better definition or opinion. I suggest that students should become the questioner and ask lots of “why” and “how” questions. “Why are things a certain way?” “Why do these things matter?” “How did they occur?” This process is called elaboration.

These and many other topics are discussed in more detail in my book. One size does not fit all in studying. If you’re happy with your study techniques, why throw out the baby with the bath water? However, you might want to try new things to see if you can improve your study skills. If you’re not having academic success, or you want to achieve better grades, then try a few ideas in my book and if they do not work out, try a few different ones in the book! You may find out that you can study smarter, not harder, and have time left over for other things.