Study Strategies: 15 Evidence-Based Methods (That Actually Work)

There’s a beautiful quote that I read years ago that’s actually pretty good life advice.

“Give me 5 hours to cut a tree and I’ll spend the first 3 sharpening my axe.”

And I think more people should adopt this habit of “Sharpening the Saw”, as stated in the book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.

When you spend your time learning something that makes everything easier, you’re not actually spending it–you’re investing it.

Why use Study Strategies?

For obvious reasons, they help you work smarter! Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter if you studied for a whole day or an hour if you’re learning the same amount of material.

Study strategies allow you to:

  • Enjoy the Learning Process and boost your Study Motivation
  • Accomplish MORE of the right things FASTER
  • Build better Study Habits, so you start studying EFFORTLESSLY
  • Learn FASTER and Remember MORE of what you study
  • Ultimately, spend LESS time studying but learn MORE

15 Evidence-Based Study Strategies That Actually Work

Why are these Study Strategies so effective? Because they’re actually based on evidence. Scientific methods of learning help us avoid wasting our time on intuitive strategies that feel productive, but aren’t.

Below, you’ll see strategies for Learning, Memory, and Productivity.

These are the BEST ideas that I’ve learned through reading 10+ books on those topics.

Let’s get started.

Learn Faster using the Feynman Technique

Undeniably, teaching someone what you know is THE best form of testing what you know. It’s Active Recall (more on this later) on steroids. That’s why I put this first.

Also, it works on the Principle of Elaboration, another effective study strategy according to the book, Make it Stick: Science of Successful Learning.

The Feynman Technique, I believe, was popularized by study blogger Thomas Frank, so big props to him for doing that.

It’s a technique that mainly uses analogies and simplification in order to consolidate what you’re learning. Basically, “Explain it to a 10-year-old”.

The Feynman Technique is something that requires skill, but when you get used to it, it allows you to master difficult concepts easily.

Here’s a video by Thomas Frank explaining the Feynman Technique in detail:

Use Active Recall to prevent Forgetting

We forget information at an exponentially decaying rate, according to the Psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus.

Trouble Retaining Information

In order to prevent forgetting, it was discovered that we should actively retrieve the information we have learned from our brain.

This process is called retrieval practice, or simply, Active Recall.

Retrieval practice has two major benefits: It tests us accurately of what we have learned, and it effectively arrests forgetting and restarts the forgetting curve.

To EASILY implement active recall, you just have to create your own questions and answer them without looking at the material.

One great fodder for Active Recall is the end-chapter questions in your textbook or even the “Objectives” found at the start of the chapter.

If you got information from a lecture, however, you can use your notes to create your own questions.

This is precisely what the Cornell Note-Taking method does, and it’s highly effective for this reason alone.

Read More: Effective Note-Taking Strategies that Slashes HOURS of Study Time

The summary at the end that condenses lecture information and the self-made questions at the side make a good active recall experience.

The question arises: When should we do active recall? How often?

This brings me to my next point: Spaced Repetition.

Use Spaced Intervals for Long-Term memory

Spaced Repetition effectively takes advantage of the exponentially decaying forgetting curve.

Basically, what we do in spaced repetition is to only recall information at the moment we’re just about to forget it.

This makes the recall more challenging, but also makes it incredibly efficient and effective.

Here’s what it looks like:

To implement both Spaced Repetition and Active Recall, you can use two of my favorite methods: Anki and/or Google Sheets.

You can definitely use them both, as some of the people I’m mentoring have done so with great success.

Anki, by the way, is a spaced repetition flashcards software that automatically schedules your cards based on a pre-programmed algorithm (you can change their settings, too).

If you’re interested, I have a giant guide on using Anki for beginners. If by any chance, you’re not a beginner, then I think you’ll benefit from my more advanced Anki guide.

“What? Google Sheets?” Yep, it’s one creative use that I learned from Dr. Ali Abdaal from his YouTube channel. 

He implemented this technique when he felt like Anki was more of a chore to go over (he has hundreds and hundreds of cards).

But I think he would have solved that problem by using the Minimum Information Principle.

Either way, here’s a video explaining it in detail:

By the way, this takes more commitment than Anki, so be sure to schedule accordingly when exactly you’re going to review the material.

You can always follow the Rule of 5 by 8-time Memory Champion Dominic O-Brien:

  • First review: Immediately
  • Second review: 24 hours later
  • Third review: One week later
  • Fourth review: One month later
  • Fifth review: Three months later

Or My Modified Manual Spaced Repetition System (this is easier, but requires more):

  • First review: Immediately
  • Second review: 24 hours later
  • Third review: 3 days later
  • Fourth review: 1 week later
  • Fifth review and above: Just double the last interval

Distribute your Practice

Cramming is not only inefficient, but also incredibly bad for learning.

Cramming your learning is like putting on wet cement over and over before the first layer even dries. Eventually, your wall collapses.

But it’s not just cramming that you wanna avoid–it’s also the MASSED practice component of cramming.

Studying the same subject for a long period of time is actually more counterproductive than if you spaced the load over a period of days.  (study,studystudystudystudy)

Here’s what it looks like:

By splitting the load, you’re actually doing LESS per day, in addition to having more REM Sleep (responsible for memory consolidation) in between your practice.

It’s win-win.

Interleave your Practice

Again, doing the same thing over and over again doesn’t only feel boring, but is also actually more inefficient.

Interleaving, or “mixing it up”, allows your brain to not only know when to use a certain answer but also when NOT to use it.

This makes your learning more robust and clarifies any interference from the other things that you’ve learned.

This works especially well for Problem-Solving type questions.

In our case, if we use Anki, it’s automatically doing Interleaving for us if you’re putting your cards in one BIG subject deck. (Ex: Physics deck, rather than separate Chapter 1, Chapter 2 decks)

Build a Study Habit using Minimum Viable Effort

According to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, making a habit as easy as possible makes you stick to it better.

It doesn’t matter if you study for 2 minutes or 30 minutes. What matters when establishing habits is that you show up without fail.

In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear says that we should “Make it Easy” by either reducing the number of steps it takes us to perform a habit or by following the 2-minute rule.

What he says is to create a 2-minute version of the habit you want to build.

By doing this, you’ll be able to establish a habit so easy that you’ll soon feel weird not doing it.

Practice some Essentialism

In his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, George McKeown discusses the principles of Essentialism which he states as the solution to being “stretched too thin”, aka being “overworked, but underutilized”.

What we have to avoid is wasting our energy on things that don’t matter much: scrolling through Social Media is one major example.

How important is it to “keep up to date” with the latest memes?

When people say “I use Facebook to connect with others” it’s actually the opposite happening–they become more disconnected to others. It’s quite a paradox.

So, it’s of utmost importance to determine our priorities before we even start working.

For example, if 90% of the exam is about Problem Solving and 10% is on Identification, which would you spend the most time on preparing?

If 80% of your grade relied on your project alone, and 20% on the exams, which would you rather spend the most time on?

You get the point.

We want to actually be productive, not busy.

Schedule in Advance: Plan Tomorrow, Today

This is a great practice that’s been tested time and time again by the most productive people in the world.

Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work and the bestselling Digital Minimalism, is perhaps the most productive person I know and he swears by this method.

He states that scheduling allows you to realistically estimate how much time you really have in a single day, and how long things will take to finish.

Author and success expert Brian Tracy also advocates this approach, as he states that scheduling the night before “primes” your mind and lets it “work in the background” while you sleep.

By having a solid schedule, you also have a perfect reason to say “No” on things that don’t matter at the moment.

Always Work from a List

In his book, Atomic Habits, author James Clear says that Clarity is the enemy of procrastination.

When we’re not specific enough with what we’re going to do next, we tend to procrastinate.

It’s basically the Path of Least Resistance that’s acting upon us.

Working from a list totally obliterates this problem.

Productivity Expert, David Allen, has an entire productivity system built on this principle–his world-famous GTD or Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

He narrows the task down into even more specific steps, which he puts into a “Next Actions” list.

By having extreme clarity of what action we’re going to do next, productivity is inevitable.

Set up a Capture System: Externalization

From the same author, David Allen, he’s famously quoted for saying:

Your brain is for having ideas, not holding them.

He basically states that our minds can become preoccupied with our thoughts at the moment: maybe a potential task comes up, or maybe you have some unfinished task that you want to continue.

Whichever the case is, make sure that you write them down. This process is called Externalization, a process that removes any Internal Distraction.

By externalizing your thoughts or potential tasks at the moment, you gain two benefits:

  • You become more present in the current task
  • You’ll never forget anything you have to do because they’re in one place

Relevantly, Cal Newport says that he captures every task in a high-tech system, while he plans in a low-tech one. To reiterate, Cal Newport says:

  • High-tech and highly-structured solutions are best for capture.
  • Low-tech and loosely-structured solutions are best for planning.

What works best for me is to have a master capture list which I will process later on in the day and a current “Today’s Schedule” type of plan. Try to experiment with different approaches and see what provides the best result.

Use the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a famously used productivity technique that allows you to work in chunks rather than in long stretches of time.

You’re basically just setting a timer for 25 minutes and work with an intense focus on that task until the timer expires.

This seems simple, but upon implementing this technique, you’ll find that you could finish at least an hour of work in 25 minutes only.

Not kidding.

The Pomodoro Technique allows you to maximize your efficiency, prevent burning out, finish tasks faster, channel your attention on a single task, learn skills better, and so much more.

To do this yourself, you can go to Marinara Timer at marinaratimer.com or if you’re using a smartphone or a tablet, you can use the app Tide/Forest.

Work Deeply

There are two types of work: Shallow Work, and Deep Work.

Shallow work refers to things that are done half-assed, and/or with diffuse attention. Those things you get done while multitasking is a product of Shallow Work.

Previously, when Cal Newport still hadn’t published Deep Work, he refers to a shallow type of work as pseudo-work in his book How to Become a Straight-A Student.

Pseudo-work is when students become so busy but are actually not getting anything done because they don’t focus intently on the task. Some examples are:

  • Having group study sessions but spending too much time on a single topic before moving on
  • Studying while talking to someone

Doing Deep Work, on the other hand, allows you to create meaningful work that is rare, and hard to replicate.

When it comes to learning, this translates to better and deeper levels of encoding, as well as the consolidation of previously and newly learned ideas

I’m a big advocate of Cal Newport’s philosophy on productivity and that’s why I have this on this list.

Manage Your Attention and Energy, not just Time

Productivity is not only just time management but also attention and energy management.

It doesn’t matter if you have 10 hours of free time but got only an hour of sleep.

It also doesn’t matter if you have plenty of sleep and 10 hours to work with if your attention is scattered to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, studying and chatting all at the same time.

In the book, Atomic Habits, James Clear says that “Every action you take is a vote for an identity.”

Always choose to run, and you have an identity as a runner.

Always choose to finish a lot of work early, and you have an identity as a productive person.

Hence, it’s important that we eliminate distractions, and carefully choose what content you consume (manage your attention) as well as to set times for breaks and have a consistent sleep schedule.

Related: Study Break Ideas to Refresh Your Mind

P.S. Having a consistent sleep schedule is more important for your energy cycles, according to sleep expert, Matthew Walker, Ph.D., in his book Why We Sleep.

Find a Mentor/Study Buddy

I wouldn’t really call this a study strategy, but it’s actually really helpful if you can find someone as a mentor or study partner if you’re struggling to find the proper materials for a subject, what references are best, information about how a certain professor gives an exam, etc.

It’s not necessarily having someone to “push you” to do things, but just like building a habit, having an accountability partner works better in order to make you stick to your goal.

Also, I’d recommend that you limit the number of people during group studies because more doesn’t necessarily mean better.

I think about 2 or 3 people is enough; more than that and you’re in for some pseudo-work.

Bottom Line: Study Strategies

Study Strategies are for those who want to study smart, not hard.

Now, I want to know:

What strategies have you been using before reading this post?

Which one of these will you try out first?

Let me know in the comments! As always, thanks for reading!

If you know someone who would benefit from this, make sure you share this to them by clicking one of the share buttons down below! 🙂

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