Whether you're in school, college, are researching a topic, or need to be able to digest and recall large amounts of information as part of your job, here is my tried and tested technique for how to study effectively and truly understand a topic.
The sun is finally shining here in Ireland and that can only mean one thing -- exam season. As a perennial student myself (what can I say, I love to learn), I’ve tried all the study tips out there — flash cards, mnemonics, practice exams, rewards, etc. But after 2 diplomas, 2 degrees, and a decade-long legal career, I’ve finally honed a very effective technique to improve my memory power and ensure my recall is the best it can be. It boils down to 6 simple steps to help you understand and retain information.
Before you begin, break the information down into manageable chunks (thankfully, most pieces of content will already be broken down into chapters or sections) and take it one at a time. Here goes!
How To Study Effectively: The 6 Simple Steps
1. Read the section through completely, without taking notes or stopping to look things up
This step is important to give yourself an initial grasp of the subject. Very often we waste time stopping to take notes and ask questions on things that are explained a little later on. Save yourself the time upfront by giving yourself a good overview of what's coming up, and let your brain start the process of making connections.
2. Re-read, underlining things that still seem important or that require further research
At this stage, a lot of things should already be starting to make sense but there’ll usually still be a shortfall in your comprehension, so read back over everything and put a question mark next to things you’re unsure about. And, because you already have a grasp of the topic, it should be a little more clear which of the concepts and definitions are most important or most complex. These are the things you’ll need to focus more of your attention on. Underline them.
3. Fill in any holes in your understanding
If needs be, now’s the time to do a little more research, so ask a fellow student, pick up a dictionary, re-read a previous chapter to check your understanding, read any additional materials or reference books, etc. (In a PINCH, and only if it’s something relatively small, like the exact definition of a word, turn to Google. But remember to use your common sense — not everything on the internet is accurate, so stick to reputable sites and, even then, exercise caution.) Make notes of new things you’ve learned if they seem relevant.
4. Re-read one last time, highlighting the most important bits
By now, you should have a good handle on the topic. All of your questions will have been answered, and you’ll be able to boil everything down to the core principles. Ask yourself: if you were in an exam situation on this topic (and a lot of you will be), what are the key things you’d need to know? Highlight those. (Feel free to colour code if that's your thing, but it's not necessary.)
5. Condense everything down into 3-5 sentences
Knowing something in your head and understanding it enough to be able to convey it succinctly are two very different things. We may think we understand something, but it’s very possible our brains are subconsciously filling in the blanks and blurring the details. Those are the things that are brought to the forefront when we’re forced to describe something as clearly and concisely as possible.
Also, numerous studies have proven that the physical act of writing something down (not typing) helps solidify information in your memory and significantly improves your recall ability, so skip this step at your peril.
Depending on the length of the chapter and the breadth of the topic, summarise everything you’ve just read in 3-5 sentences. If it takes you more than 5 sentences, the chapter is either too long or you’re rambling because you don’t understand the subject matter clearly enough.
6. Teach someone
There’s no better way to clarify your understanding of something than to try teach it to someone else so that they understand it too. You’ll quickly uncover — or the other person will quickly point out — any deficiencies in your explanation, holes in your argument, or blind spots in your recall.
Anyone can learn something by rote repetition, but being asked questions by someone else will test if you truly understand something, and force you to look at it from a different perspective.
If you genuinely can’t find anyone else (not even a willing friend or family member), then try saying it aloud to yourself. It’s not quite the same but if you’re all you’ve got, go for it.
And those are my top tips for how to study effectively. This is the best method I’ve found for increasing my understanding and my ability to recall any given topic. I’ve used it to pass all my college exams and, in my professional career as a lawyer, I’ve used it to memorise case papers. (It’s shocking the number of times I’ve been able to answer all a judge’s questions in a flash while my opponent is still fumbling with their papers.)
Repeatedly interacting with the topic by reading and re-reading, as well as the acts of writing and speaking, are the best ways to cement and solidify information and commit it to memory. Other great study habits to remember are to take regular breaks, to eat healthily, and to get sufficient sleep.
If you follow all of the above, you’ll have no trouble recalling any topic, and your brain will be in tip-top condition.
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