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April 1, 2019

Barbara Oakley’s ‘Improve Your Study Skills: How to Excel at Math and Science: Even if you Flunked Algebra’

The new mantra is to study smarter, not harder. Then of course, there is the age-old question, are smart people born that way? At birth, are babies predisposed to have a higher IQ? Can IQ be improved upon? Recent studies have shown that in regard to academic intelligence, IQ accounts for just over half of the total. The other components include genetics, the mother’s perinatal care and health, the child’s home environment, parenting and education. The bottom line is that IQ can be improved. Moreover, getting great grades in school may be more a function of study technique than genius. Below you will note 20 of the best study techniques, some employed by Nobel Prize winners, and even promoted by Ivy League institutions. Getting A’s in school is not about studying longer, but studying smarter. Do what successful people do, and you will be successful too. Master the study techniques below and your memory and grades will improve, and your future shine brighter.

  • Time Management
    • Study at a regular time; and in a regular space.
      • Establishing healthy study habits and routines is essential for learning.
      • Study as soon after lecture class as possible.
        • Memory decays! Thus, studying for one hour soon right after class is equivalent to studying several hours a few days later.
      • Use time efficiently and take advantage of small breaks between classes for study opportunities.
      • Prioritize your most important and challenging projects/homework first.
    • Time Blocking
      • Protect & dedicate key elements of your “to-do-list” by scheduling them on your calendar. Instead of working by the clock, focus on completing tasks one at a time. This limits distractions and completes tasks faster.
    • Pomodoro Technique
      • This proven time management tool works within Time blocking, improves productivity, not to mention the quality of your work, enhances focus, motivation and attentiveness.
      • The Method: Focus 25 minutes attentively on a single task, then take a 5-minute break. Repeat this pattern four times, then take a well deserved 20-30 minute break. Turn off the cell phone and instant messaging during study, and deal with interruptions by writing a brief note and promptly getting back to study. This method allows you to focus and then take a break before you start to fatigue. Tiredness reduces memory and comprehension during study.
  • Deep Work
    • “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.” Cal Newport
    • Deep Work is Time Blocking on steroids.
    • To explain Deep Work optimally is beyond the scope of this blog. Best to Google the YouTube video by Art of Improvement entitled “Deep Work: How to Develop the Most Valuable Skill of the 21st Century (Part 1)
  • Spaced Repetition
    • The “forgetting curve” shows that within 1 hour you forget about 50% of the material you were taught in class. After 9 hours, retention hovers around 40%. After one week without review, only 30% is remembered. Spaced repetition is an excellent tool to review material at gradually increasing intervals. For example, if lecture was today and the test is in two weeks, review your notes within an hour of lecture, make flash cards. Material that you’ve mastered review it in two days. Material that you are still weak in, review tomorrow. Repeat, increasing the interval of mastered content until the test.
  • Feynman Technique
    • Step 1: Write the name of the concept at the top of a blank piece of paper.
    • Step 2: Write down an explanation of the concept on the page. Use plain English. Pretend or teach it to someone else (e.g. a new student, a parent, a child). This should highlight what you understand, but more importantly pinpoint what you don’t quite know.
    • Step 3: Review what you have pinpointed you don’t know. Go back to the source material, re-read, and re-learn it. Repeat Step 2.
    • Step 4: If you are using overly wordy or confusing language (or simply paraphrasing the source material) try again so you filter the content. Simplify your language, and where possible use a simple analogy.
  • Studying Alone vs Small Groups
    • If you plan to study in a group, ideally keep it small, no more than three or four others. It is imperative to study the material independently and thoroughly first before the meeting, doing all the assigned homework problems if applicable. Also, very important to guard against turning these study groups into gossip and ‘pseudo-work.’
  • Facts vs Concepts
    • While facts are important, understanding concepts is most important.
  • Practice Tests
      • Practice tests are highly predictive, offering accurate feedback on your readiness for the real test.
      • Practice tests build on one another, improving your test taking skills, identifying both strengths and weaknesses.
  • Cornell Notes
    • Effective note-taking method for improving organization, memory and understanding concepts.
    • Google in YouTube for best instructions.
  • SQ3R
    • Easy to use 5-step method for improving reading comprehension
      • Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review
    • This is an effective technique for actively reading textbooks or articles, allowing you to take control of managing new content.
  • Illusions of Competence
    • Passive re-reading of notes, books or material leads to the impression that the familiar material is being mastered. Regretfully, this is rarely true.
  • Interleaving
    • The process of studying a topic from difference platforms: lecture notes, practice tests, YouTube videos, problem sets, text book, etc. in order to form new neuronal connections in the brain toward improving comprehension.
  • Writing vs Typing Notes
    • Research shows that students that wrote their notes on paper learned more than those that typed via a keyboard.
    • Students that wrote their notes were forced to listen and digest the material, then process and summarize their notes, improving recall. Students that typed their notes essentially transcribed their notes onto paper & possibly into short-term memory, yet didn’t process their notes into long-term memory.
    • Moreover, students that typed their content were more often tempted to surf the Internet while note-taking, lessening the total amount of productive studying time.
  • Chunking
    • A cognitive, neural process by which a person takes separate bits of information and binds them together to form a more comprehensive understanding of the main concept, ultimately improving memory.
  • Speedreading
    • The average reader reads at 200 – 250 words per minute with 60% comprehension. Good readers read at 300 – 400 wpm at 80% comprehension. Excellent readers read from 700 – 1000 wpm with 85% comprehension. Imagine tripling your reading speed without diminishing your comprehension, but actually improving it by 50%. Two phone apps to accomplish this are Quick Reader and Spreader.
  • Monitor Study Time Compliance
    • The only way to maximize progress is to track your compliance, for example, number of quality of Pomodoro’s, the scheduling of time blocking, use of Feynman and Spaced Repetition Techniques. Reading comprehension, words per minute, Deep Work blocks, practice tests etc. can all be tracked.
  • Protect and manage your willpower
    • Willpower decays with time. It is optimal to study your cognitively demanding (hardest) material first, early in the day when your concentration is sharpest and your energy level is high.
  • Memory Palace & Mnemonics
    • These are memory techniques that can improve your recall of large pieces of information.

Master these 20 study skill techniques for memory recall, efficient and effective studying, and you are ‘well ahead of the curve’ in terms of performing better on tests. As you can see, it doesn’t take a genius to perform well on exams, just the right study skills.

Michael J. Richardson, MD

Senior Consultant

Ivy Bound College and Medical School Consulting