The Keys to Effective Studying

Parents regularly tell their children to “study hard” so they can get good grades, get into a good college, get a good job, and be successful. While children are encouraged to study, do they truly know what they should do?

Research on effective studying generally recommends the following:

1) Organize the material conceptually rather than attempt to memorize many bits of unrelated information.

2) With basic, factual information use mnemonics, like “every good boy does fine” or “every month hath 30 days except ….”

3) If at all possible, review material one course at a time to avoid confusion and “interference” from one subject to another. If one has to prepare for several different tests, during the period of final exams for example, one should study the two most dissimilar courses at the same time to avoid as much interference as possible.

4) Stimulate as many learning modalities as possible. In addition to reading and re-reading the information, read it aloud, write it, and even record it—and play it back later via the car stereo on the way to school or work.

5) Test yourself on the material and have others test you as well.

6) The most powerful study tool by far, though, according to decades of research, is to use “distributed practice.” It has been very well documented that if given a set of data, such as a chapter in a text, it is far more effective to study that material over several distinct study sessions than attempt to review all the material in one longer study period.

As an undergraduate psychology research assistant I assisted in studies where a randomly-selected group of students reviewed a chapter in one six-hour study session, another group reviewed the same chapter in two three-hour study sessions over two consecutive days, and a final group reviewed the chapter in three two-hour study sessions over three consecutive days. Invariably, the last group, the “distributed practice group,” outperformed the other two groups.

Despite conclusive research which demonstrates that “distributed practice” is superior to “massed practice,” most students continue to “cram” the night before exams. In doing so, these students use the schedule of studying (the one six-hour session), which is known to be the least effective.

By the same token, a “diet” may lead to a quick loss of ten pounds, but it takes an on-going lifestyle change to become healthy, overall. The method of distributed practice is not just for preparing for a particular exam, it should become the standard way in which a student should function.

To take advantage of the power of distributed practice, the high school or college student can do the following:

1) Pick a specific time at the end of the week for each class—classes A, B, C, and D.

2) At the end of week one, having attended class and completed the required reading, the student reviews their notes and reading for class A during the designated time. The student reviews their class notes and reading for class B during its designated time. The same is done for the remaining classes—C and D. This process should take about 15 to 20 minutes per class.

3) At the end of week two, having attended classes and completed the required readings, the student reviews their notes and readings for week one and two for class A during the designated time, and does the same for each of the other classes (B, C, and D) at their designated times. This process should take approximately 30 minutes per class for the second week.

4) The student then continues to review all the previous weeks’ work during the designated times for each class through the semester.

5) By mid-term time, the student has reviewed the first week’s work for each class numerous times, the second week’s work for each of the classes many, many times, the third week’s work many times, etc. The student is prepared for the mid-term exams without having to take any additional time to study—or cram. The same would be true for the final exams, as the student continues this process throughout the class.

6) The “typical” student who “crams” the night before the big test often has not looked at his or her notes or readings from the early chapters in many weeks—since the start of the class, usually. That material the student is now trying to learn is foreign and frequently incomplete. As I like to say, then, the student is now “cramming crap.”

7) In addition, the student using cramming as their “study method” (to use the term loosely) is stressed and is usually fatigued and over-caffeinated (or worse) in their attempt to stay up all night to review all the course material in one shot (the proverbial “all-nighter”). He or she, then, is certainly not in the best condition to take an exam the following morning.

8) Ironically, the student who crams may spend 12 hours or more in their one intensive cram-session, but the student who used the distributed practice method will use less time overall and perform much more effectively, with much less stress. Moreover, studies have further shown that students who use the distributive practice method of studying retain the information better and much longer than their cramming counterparts. Isn’t that what students get an education for in the first place?


Larry F. Waldman, PhD, ABPP

Larry F. Waldman, Ph.D., ABPP is a licensed psychologist who has practiced in the Paradise Valley area of Phoenix for over 38 years.  He works with children, adolescents, parents, adults, and couples.  He also provides forensic consultations in the areas of family law, personal injury, and estate planning.  He speaks professionally to laypersons, educators, corporations, and fellow mental health professionals.  He teaches graduate courses for the Educational Psychology Department for Northern Arizona University.  He is the author of “Who’s Raising Whom?  A Parent’s Guide to Effective Child Discipline,” “Coping with Your Adolescent,” “How Come I Love Him But Can’t Live With Him?  Making Your Marriage Work Better,” “The Graduate Course You Never Had:  How to Develop, Manage, Market a Flourishing Private Practice—With and Without Managed Care,” and  “Too Busy Earning a Living to Make Your Fortune?  Discover the Psychology of Achieving Your Life Goals.”