Q&A: How to study more effectively?

Q: I recently received my mock exams and I was shocked to see my grades because I spent a lot of time studying for them. I feel pretty lost and helpless right now because official exams are coming up and I don’t know what I can do to improve my grades.



A: Dear Henry,

What are your study habits? Do you copy key points from the textbook into a word document before printing it out, waving your highlighter like a wand, and then attempt to memorize everything word for word? Or do you take out the notes that you made in class and read them over and over again until you can repeat them in your sleep? Or maybe you take out that three-hundred-page textbook and simply read it? If you have these study habits or anything similar to it, then here’s the hard truth – it’s not good enough. Rereading the material creates the illusion that learning is occurring. Whenever you read and reread material, it results in better fluency – repetition causes the reading to become easier and easier – but that does not translate into better memory and the successful retrieval of it. It only serves to make you more familiar with the material and thus give you the illusion that you know the material. Students always fall into this trap of passively studying, and they suffer because of it. Drawing from my experience in teaching Study Skills Workshops at Aegis, here are a few pointers to get you out of this trap and into a study habit that gives you the best chances of achieving the grades you want.

Just like computers, there are two types of memory systems in the human brain: short-term memory and long-term memory. For computers, the short-term memory system is RAM, or “random access memory”; it is used by programs on your computer to temporarily store information, and when the computer is switched off that memory is lost forever. On the other hand, ROM stands for “read only memory”, and it is used to store information even after the computer is turned off; you encode, or “save”, your notes, lecture presentations, and PowerPoint projects onto the hard drive (an example of ROM) because you want to be able to retrieve them the next time you boot up your computer. Similarly, you would want to encode that hard-earned data of history dates and psychology theories into your long-term memory system where you will be able to readily retrieve when you wake up in the morning or before you sit your exam. But how do we do that? The type of memory depends on how the information is processed and encoded; a “deeper” processing results in better encoding and retrieval than “shallow” processing. “Shallow” processing occurs when attention is focused on physical features, whereas “deeper” processing involves making a meaningful connection between the material you’re trying to learn and something else. When we are able to put meaning into the information that we learn and memorize, we will be more able to remember it in the future.

To make processing one step “deeper”, you could create a meaning between the item and the self. This is known as the self-reference effect and it posits that there is a higher recall rate when people are asked to remember information that is related to the self. Why? Because the information is linked to something you are very familiar with – yourself. In remembering the number of keys on a piano, you could, for example, associate it with the year that your grandfather was born.

As you can see, the way we encode information into our brain influences the way we are able to retrieve them. A very useful way to encode information into our long-term memory is to always generate your own material and constantly test yourself. When you rewrite the material, rather than passively reading or receiving them, it enhances learning and retention. When studying for history, for example, instead of simply rewriting the CCP’s “Long March” in 1934 word for word and memorizing it, think about recounting the event in your own words.

Testing yourself on a regular basis and not just the night before has proven to be the most effective way in strengthening and practicing recall. “When you’re retrieving something out of a computer’s memory, you don’t change anything – it’s simply playback,” said Robert Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the New York Times, “When we use our memories by retrieving things, we change our access to that information. What we recall becomes more recallable in the future. In a sense you are practicing what you are going to need later.”

Mnemonics – memory devices or tricks – are another means to help you encode information meaningfully and create retrieval cues that makes recalling information easier. Associating positive, pleasant images that are vivid, colorful, and three-dimensional with an item you’re trying to remember helps you recall them better. To remember the name Rosa Parks, you could visualize a woman sitting on a park bench in a garden of roses. Using an acronym – a word that is made up by taking the first letters of all the key words or ideas and creating a new word out of them – could be useful in studying a list of items. Remembering the word “HOMES” would be easier than remembering the Great Lakes – Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior – individually. Chunking is breaking down information into smaller, more manageable pieces of information. When we remember someone’s phone number, we tend to split it into chunks of four instead of one whole chunk of eight digits because it’s more manageable; the same applies to when you are writing, organizing, and studying your notes.
The above pointers should get you started with revision. Remember, rereading only results to better fluency; it does not translate into better memory!


This article was originally published as “Q&A: How to study more effectively?” on SCMP Education Post.