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How to Study Better and Faster. Why Cramming and Stimulant Drugs Don’t Work

No matter how smart you are, at some point your school work gets hard enough that you have to put in some time studying. For some, that effort was necessary from kindergarten on. Others started to feel the challenge in 3rd grade when End of Grade testing became important. Still others started needing to put in more effort in middle and high school when the volume and complexity of the work increased. I have the highest esteem for people who have struggled from early on: You can’t take much credit for your success if it came easily to you, but you deserve praise and admiration if you had to work for it.

Success in life has nothing to do with how smart you are and everything to do with your attitude and work ethic.

For those of you who want to cut to the chase and learn my foolproof study method, you can just read the bullets below, but I recommend you read the entire article to get the full benefit.

Dr. K’s Study Method:

  • Go to class and write notes on paper. (It’s OK to take notes on a computer, but putting a pen to paper is better.) If you struggle with taking good notes, borrow a classmate’s notes and copy them too.
  • Read those notes again the same day before you go to sleep. If a study guide or reading assignment is given, go through that too. This is probably the most important step. Don’t skip it. 
  • It helps if you get some physical activity between your class and the time you re-read. A short walk is good enough.
  • As you reread your notes, underline or highlight key words and phrases. It’s important to use pen and paper. Highlighting on a screen will not have the same effect. It needs to be physical. Read your notes again periodically before the test.
  • If there are any points you have trouble remembering, write them again and underline the key words and phrases. If you’re having trouble keeping focused, say the words to yourself and touch the words with your non-dominant hand.
  • If there is a concept you don’t understand ask questions right away to get clarification. Clarification can come from the internet, a friend or a parent, but the best source is your teacher or an experienced tutor. You will find that most college professors welcome and expect you to use their office hours or email to ask questions. They will be more likely to give you a good grade if they know you are making the effort. There is no extra credit for knowing the answer without asking questions. Studying concepts you don’t fully understand makes you remember the question, not the answer.
  • The day before the test, rewrite your notes in question and answer format. Test yourself. Retest yourself on the tough ones.
  • Get at least 8 to 9 hours sleep at night. 
  • Do not look at social media in the hour before bed or the hour after you get up.

I wont say “good luck” because you won’t need it. Do your best!

Your ability to remember what you’ve learned depends heavily on  the following factors:

Focus, emotion and consolidation

In order to have good focus, you need to stop multitasking, limit distractions, and practice. I suspect that most of you expected me to talk about getting comfortable in a quiet place and turning off your notifications while studying. Doing those things are very important. (Don’t you hate it when your parents are right?) 

Not everyone expected me to tell you to practice focusing. Focus is not something you just have; it’s something you learn to do. 

If there had been a class in elementary school that taught focus we would all be smarter and happier. Unfortunately, there is not…yet. Focus is a skill that needs to be developed by repetition just like you build a muscle, by repeatedly lifting a weight. 

Start your study session with at least 5 minutes of exercise to clear your head. (walking, jumping rope, shooting baskets, juggling a soccer ball, doing yoga, dancing, etc. Any movement will do)

Start with studying as long as you can comfortably can. If you can only focus 5 minutes, start with that. Give yourself a 2 minute (timed) break to move around (not look at social media, a video, or game) then get right back to it. Each day aim to extend your focus time by 2 minutes, taking 2-minute breaks when needed, until you are studying for 45 minutes straight. When you are able to study 45 minutes without a break,  congratulate yourself and give yourself a 15-minute break each hour. The goal is to be able to focus 45 minutes at a time. Taking a break after a study session will help you get your work done faster than trying to push through for long periods of time.

It is natural for your mind to wander while studying. When you realize you are distracted, make note of your distracting thought and write it down on a piece of paper so you can deal with it later. Turn the paper over and return your focus to your work. If you are very distracted, you may find it actually helps to listen to quiet music without words while studying.

You will not be able to focus well unless you have had enough sleep. If you need help sleeping, click here. Even mild sleep deprivation (getting fewer than 8 hours of sleep) will disrupt your focus.

Take a brief snack break if you need to. You should neither be hungry nor full, just satisfied. 

The scoop on Stimulants: Many people feel that they can enhance their learning by taking stimulant drugs like Adderall, or Ritalin. While prescription stimulants can be effective for people diagnosed with ADD, recent studies have proven what I’ve suspected all along: For people without ADD, stimulants do make you more alert in the few hours after you take them (by a wimpy 4%), but we now know that they actually decrease your ability to remember the information you tried to learn. They also significantly decrease your ability to get quality sleep for the next 24 hours. So unless you have been diagnosed with ADD or narcolepsy, steer clear of stimulants! (Are you reading this helicopter parents?)

Your emotional state during learning determines how well you retain information. If you are interested in a subject, it is much easier to understand and remember facts. On the other hand, if you are sitting in a class that you find boring, there is a good chance that you could leave that class without forming a single memory. 

While you can’t be expected to be interested in all the subjects you are required to learn you can try to associate the information with a sense of novelty. A good teacher will do this for you by giving examples of how what you’re learning will impact your life. When you have a boring subject and a teacher who can’t do this, you can still teach yourself to learn. 

In medical school, we had a saying, “See one, Do one, Teach one.” It is one of the most effective learning strategies. 

Take your notes as described above. Format the information as questions (for math, this will likely be done for you in a homework assignment) Teach another person what you’ve learned while the information is fresh in your mind. Get together with a classmate (or parent or tutor) after class. Facetime if you can’t get together in person.

Being sad, depressed, or anxious will significantly impair your ability to learn. If you are feeling these emotions read this and talk to someone you trust.

Be careful about your self-talk. Don’t say “I’m not good at math,” or “I can’t remember what I read.” If you say it, it will be true. Contrary to popular belief, you can get smarter. You are not born with an IQ that doesn’t change. Effort makes you stronger and smarter. 

Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right -Henry Ford

No matter how well you focus, you need to sleep on the information you’ve learned to form a long-term memory. This is called memory consolidation. Cramming for a test, then getting less than ideal sleep will not help you remember what you’ve learned. Eating well, exercising daily, and getting at least 9 hours of sleep a night is much more important than studying one more hour before a test. 

Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible. -Francis of Assisi

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