By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.
This blog post reveals five signs you’re studying wrong and what to do instead.
Because schools rarely teach students how to study, students are often left to figure it out on their own. Naturally, this includes a lot of trial and error, and often settling for “study” methods that might get a lot of hype but don’t actually work.
How do you know if you’re studying wrong? How do you know if you’re using the right study strategies? If you regularly experience any of the following signs, then you are likely studying wrong.
Sign #1 that you’re studying wrong: You study a lot but you still don’t do well on tests
I hear from students all the time that they “studied for hours” but still bombed the test. Or they stayed up all night studying but still didn’t do well. If this is you, you’re probably studying wrong.
What’s actually happening:
If you study a lot but still do poorly on tests, it’s likely that you’re overestimating the actual amount of time you’re really studying during a study session.
Let’s say for example that you start studying at 4 PM and stop studying at 7:30 PM. Mathematically it would appear you have studied for three and a half hours. But this is highly unlikely.
First, that is FAR too long to study without a break. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to concentrate for that long without a break. So in that three-and-a-half-hour span, you likely only really studied for 60 minutes maximum by the time you subtract phone distractions, snacks, zoning out, bathroom breaks, and Googling random things … right?
- Ditch the epic study sessions and use spaced repetition instead.
- Limit your study sessions to no more than 45-60 minutes.
- Take legitimate study breaks.
- Stop denying when you have lost focus and do something to refocus.
- Remove ALL distractions from your study space.
- Create a study plan so you know exactly what you’re studying the moment you sit down. Use my awesome free study planner.
- Take care of your physical needs before each study session (don’t be hungry, tired, thirsty, uncomfortable, etc.)
Sign #2 that you’re studying wrong: Your study sessions feel easy
Studying is a cognitively demanding task that’s supposed to be hard. Sure, a quick review of material you’re confident about might feel easy, but if you’re studying challenging material that’s new to you, it should hurt a little.
What’s actually happening:
If your study sessions feel easy and fun all the time, then you’re probably studying wrong. Most likely, you’re using passive study techniques, which is dangerous. Passive studying involves looking over notes, skimming through textbooks and clicking through class slide decks; these “study” methods are dangerous because they fool you into thinking you’re learning something. You’re not.
- Stop using passive study methods. Yes, I know you like it. But stop.
- Use active recall strategies for every single study session going forward.
Sign #3 that you’re studying wrong: You experience frequent test anxiety
Experiencing nerves before tests is super common and not a sign that anything is necessarily wrong. However, test anxiety that interferes with your ability to function is more serious. Are you just nervous? Or are you in a full-blown panic attack? Know the difference.
What’s actually happening:
Assuming you’re not experiencing a medical-grade panic attack (in which case you need to talk to your doctor), intense nerves before a test is almost always connected to how prepared you are.
The less evidence we have that proves we’re ready for the test, the more nervous we will be. In other words, if you’re consistently experiencing text anxiety, you are probably not preparing (studying) sufficiently.
- Improve your study methods so you feel confident about what you’re doing.
- Use active recall study methods.
- Take multiple practice tests before the real exam.
- Have someone else test you on the material.
- Answer all the textbook review questions at the end of textbook chapters, even if your teacher hasn’t asked you to.
- Use spaced repetition.
- Plan your study sessions so that the night before the test you’re simply doing a final review.
- If you experience anxiety during the test, use these immediate stress-relief techniques.
Sign #4 that you’re studying wrong: You do okay on homework but not on tests
Many students perform well on classwork and homework assignments but consistently get low grades on quizzes and tests. This is not uncommon, but it can be a sign that you are studying wrong.
What’s really happening:
Performing well on classwork and homework is great, but it is not a guaranteed indicator that we know the material. Often when we complete these low-pressure assignments, we can have our notes and reference materials in front of us. This is all fine when we are learning the material, but not when we are tested on it. Relying on good homework grades as a sign that you’re prepared for the test can get you in trouble.
- As you get closer to your test, attempt to do homework and classwork assignments without notes or reference materials in front of you.
- Plan legitimate study sessions at least five days before your test, where you’re using active recall strategies. Use my free study planner. (It’s awesome.)
- When doing your homework, look for areas of uncertainty. Make sure you clarify these areas before the test. I call this Finding the Gaps and it’s critical.
Sign #5 that you’re studying wrong: You forget the material right before the test
Many students tell me that they felt prepared the night before the test, but then seemed to forget the material the moment the test begins. Again, this is common and another sign that you’re studying wrong.
What’s really happening:
You have to know the difference between memorization and full knowledge acquisition. Memorization is temporary and occasionally useful for minor things, but it’s Fool’s Gold. If you’re too young to know what that means, look it up.
When we memorize information, it’s only stored in our short-term memory. As the name implies, our short-term memory doesn’t last long.
Memorizing material instead of actually learning it is a primary reason students forget information by the time they need it.
Additionally, and this is very important, when we simply memorize material, we never get to the point of knowledge acquisition where we can APPLY the material. On tests, teachers ask you to apply the material you’ve learned… not just regurgitate it.
- The most practical way to go from memorization to learning is to work with material repeatedly over a series of several days. Again, this is called spaced repetition.
- Never rely on one epic study session to learn content.
- Use reverse engineering from the date of your test to figure out when you should begin studying. Five days is my minimum recommendation.
- Take multiple practice tests or do multiple problem sets where you force yourself to apply the material you’re studying. You can always ask your teacher for additional practice work. If you think nobody does this, you are very mistaken.
Final notes about studying wrong
I hope you understand that I wrote this post and generated this list of study mistakes from a place of compassion. It truly breaks my heart when my students feel deflated when their perceived efforts don’t match their grades. Yes, sometimes there are deeper issues going on such as learning disabilities, but in so many cases, it’s simply a matter of not studying correctly.
If you read through this post and nodded your head even just once, I challenge you to really look at your study methods and ask yourself if they’re serving you.
I know it’s easier just to use passive study techniques and watch the clock tick by, but this is not what we do. This is not how we learn things. This is not how we get through school happy or well.