How to Study Smarter? Quit These 5 Unproductive Study Techniques

I recently discussed how to use the five common habit triggers to create new (or break old) habits. Having good habits is critical to building executive skills, which we need to be successful in our daily lives.

But despite our best intentions, sometimes we adopt seemingly good habits that don’t really serve us well. I call these pseudo-productive habits.

Pseudo-productive habits make us feel like we’re using our time efficiently when we aren’t. Unfortunately, a lot of students fall victim to pseudo-productive study habits because of the study techniques they use.

In this post we’ll look at how to study smarter by quitting five popular but unproductive study techniques. But first we need to spend a little time exploring how our brains work, with a short trip back to elementary school.

​The treasure hunt and the running track

When I was in first grade, our teachers organized a treasure hunt. They hid prizes all over the playground and we had 15 minutes to find them. We searched everywhere, climbing up the slide, looking under the merry-go-round – thirty kids running around on the playground with purpose, but no path or plan.

By the time I was in fourth grade, things were more structured. The gym teacher divided us into teams and we ran laps against each other on the track. The team that won the most laps won the contest.

I know you’re wondering, “What does this have to do with how our brains work?” Well, it turns out that our brains run a lot like we do.

​Focused and Diffuse Thinking

Sometimes our brains are really focused, like kids running on a track. They have a clear path and a clear goal: to cross the finish line first. When you take an exam, your brain is in focused mode. You want to answer all the questions correctly and finish the test.

Other times our brains are kind of random, like kids running on the playground. They have a purpose, but not a clear path or goal. Sure, it may seem like they’re just having fun, but they’re learning all sorts of things: exploring new places, meeting new friends, finding hidden treasures. When this purposeful but seemingly random form of thinking happens in our brains, we are in diffuse mode.

In diffuse mode, our minds wander, like kids darting around on the playground. We may seem to be daydreaming, but we’re making mental connections. Even though we aren’t aware of it, diffuse mode is when we do our deepest and most important learning.

​Fo​cused and diffuse thinking: An example

Have you ever been taking a test and gotten stuck on one of the questions? You know the answer, you just can’t think of it. Then, hours later, the answer just pops into your brain. Annoying, right?

This is an example of focused and diffuse thinking working together. During the test, you’re in focused mode. Being in focused mode helps you concentrate, but it also prevents your brain from venturing off to find answers that aren’t immediately obvious.

After the test, you switch into diffuse mode. Your mind is free to wander. Your brain thinks, “you know, I’m going to find the answer to that question now.” And so your mind goes to the place in your brain where you have that information stored.

You can see, then, that we learn and recall information best when we work in both focused and diffuse modes.

Unfortunately, many common study techniques only used focused mode thinking. These techniques may make students feel like they’re being productive and learning a lot when they really aren’t.

As it turns out, five of the most popular study techniques are also the least helpful because they rely too much on focused mode thinking. If you use these techniques a lot, be sure to read to the end of the post for ideas on how to study smarter.

​How to Study Smarter Tip #1: Put Down the Highlighters

Yep, I’m ripping the Band-Aid off and starting with the most painful one.

I know students love highlighters. And I know there are lots of videos and tips online about how to color code your books and notes. But the truth is, study after study has shown that highlighting doesn’t help students learn. There are a few reasons for this.

First, most students aren’t good at highlighting. They often highlight things like subheadings and key terms. But these typically appear in ALL CAPS or bold text. In other words, they’re already formatted to draw your attention, so you don’t need to highlight them too.

Second, highlighting makes you focus on individual facts or details instead of the connections between them. So a student reading about the Battle of Gettysburg may highlight important names and dates, but may not be able to explain how the battle affected the outcome of the war.

Searching for facts to highlight is a focused brain activity. If you highlight excessively, you stay in focused mode and never let your diffuse mode brain make connections between concepts. You may spend hours reading and highlighting, but actually miss the most important part of the material.

​How to Study Smarter Tip #2: Read Once, Then Wait

Rereading is another productivity killing study habit. This is because of how students usually tackle reading assignments.

We learn best when we break reading material into segments. This is why books are divided into chapters, chapters are divided into sections and so forth. These markers help us break long texts into smaller pieces, which makes it easier for our brain to process the information.

But most students don’t read texts in segments. Instead they try to read entire chapters in one sitting, often because they’re cramming for a test.

Cramming puts your brain into hyper-focused mode. We know that in focused mode, we tend to look for details and often overlook important concepts or connections. If you spend all your time reading in focused mode, you’ll miss the “big picture.”

Instead you should read part of a chapter and then take a break. You might even work on something else for a while. Doing this allows your brain to switch from focused to diffuse mode, giving yourself time to create mental connections.

​How to Study Smarter Tip #3: Write Once (Twice at Most)

Rewriting notes is usually an unproductive study strategy too. Many students rewrite notes because they think it will help them memorize the material. Others rewrite notes because they want to make them look neater. Either way, this generally isn’t the best use of your study time.

Rewriting notes is a passive activity. You’re just copying something you’ve previously written. That means you’re not actively working to improve your understanding of the material. If what you’re doing isn’t actually helping you learn, then you aren’t using your study time productively.

What can help is rewriting your notes in a different format. For example, try to make an outline from your notes (assuming they’re not already in outline form). If you can’t find the logical flow needed to make an outline from your notes, you might have missed some important information.

Rewriting your notes in a different format requires you to think critically about the material. When you do this, you may find gaps in your understandin​g and will see what you need to spend more time learning. That’s definitely a productive use of your time.

​How to Study Smarter Tip #4: Overcome Overlearning

Wait…what? It’s possible to “overlearn?” Yep. And students do this all the time.

Overlearning is continuing to study something you already know. Say you have a 30-word Spanish vocabulary list. You know all the words on the list, but you still keep studying it. Why?

We overlearn because it boosts our egos. It feels good to know something. It makes us feel smart and competent. And feeling smart and competent certainly feels better than struggling to learn something new.

So you keep studying your Spanish vocabulary list instead of studying irregular verb conjugation. There are so many conjugation rules to remember, of course you’d rather study vocabulary words.

Overlearning is unproductive because it keeps us from learning more complex concepts in favor of easier ones. It also gives us a feeling of competence we don’t actually have. You may know hundreds of Spanish vocabulary words, but that isn’t the same as knowing Spanish.

How to overcome overlearning? Try transitioning between harder and easier concepts when you study. Focus when you are learning the harder stuff, then let your brain coast into diffuse mode when reviewing the easier stuff. Allowing your brain to switch between the two modes will lead to better, deeper learning.

​How to Study Smarter Tip #5: Take a Break

To learn best, our brains need a break once in a while.

As we’ve seen, some of our biggest “aha” moments come when our minds seem to be wandering. This is why test answers pop up out of the blue. Or why you suddenly understand that chemistry equation while you’re eating dinner.

It may seem like our brains are​n’t active during these moments, but they’re just running in diffuse mode. So it’s important to give yourself some downtime. Even when you’re​ relaxing, your brain is still working.

However, as mentioned, students tend to cram when they study. Cramming is basically the opposite of productive learning, since it keeps your brain in hyper-focused mode. But let’s be real…you’re going to cram anyway.

​How to cram productively

If you’re going to cram, at least give yourself mini-breaks. Many people suggest the Pomodoro technique as a time management strategy. You should consider it a productive cramming strategy.

Under this technique, you’re supposed to work with focus for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break. I’m not a Pomodoro purist. If you want to study for 30 minutes and take a 10 minute break, that’s fine. Figure out what works best for you, just remember to take those breaks.

And get enough sleep. Our brains accomplish a lot when we’re asleep, like deciding which information is worth keeping and where to store it. ​Don’t skimp on sleep. Cram if you must, but try to avoid pulling an all-nighter.

​The Smartest Study Technique Found (So Far)

If you want to study smarter, you now know ​to stop relying on popular but unproductive study techniques. What can you do instead?

As we’ve seen, we learn best when we use both focused and diffuse thinking. Use study techniques that allow you to switch between the two. The most effective method found so far is self testing. Here’s how it works.

Do your assignment then take a break. During this time, your brain goes into diffuse mode, but it’s still churning. When you sit down to study again, work through any practice questions at the end of the section/chapter. If there aren’t any, then write down as much as you remember about what you read.

This process of study-break-recall has been shown to be the most effective study strategy, especially when it comes to improving test scores. So if you really struggle with test taking, you should experiment with self testing as a study technique.

Have questions about ways to study more effectively? Have a great study strategy to share? Let me hear from you in the comments.

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