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Learn how to study smart

The way you study can make or break your success at school. My recommendation is to study smart, which can help you to save a lot of time that would have been lost with unfocused attempts of “studying hard”. This article is, however, not intended as an excuse for students not to study at all. You will have to invest the proper amount of time for studying, there’s no way around. But, this article guides you on how to make the most out of the time you invest for studying. This article’s goal is to enable you to reduce the unnecessary parts of your studies and to focus on the important.

This article is partitioned into three parts.

Part A) Preparation and part B) Mindset focus on the organization of information that makes it easier for you to recall. Part C) is the main part of the concept of “studying smart”.

A. Preparation

1. Get a study game plan

You want to study smart, right? Hence, it makes sense not to approach your work in an unfocused, undirected way. Don’t dive head first into the topic. That’s the way that would actually cost you a lot of time. Instead, create a study game plan where you

  • specify the day you begin to prepare for your exams
  • create a daily schedule of tasks you want to accomplish during exam preparation
  • create a detailed to-do-list, (keep a close eye on what is really important)
  • enumerate the books you need to read (better: just the important sections you really need to know for the test)
  • itemize the various tasks and exercises you want to do for preparation

Depending on the difficulty of your exams and how many weeks and months you have for studying, you could also categorize the weeks/months for preparation into different phases, from I. basic refreshment of knowledge, II. studying, revision and exercise to III. intensive cracking down – social life on hold.

How to do it the smart way?

A clear goal that you pursue gradually with your plan helps you to avoid many extra-hours, but it also allows you to direct your focus on the important.

2. Summarize

I’ve had many exams about the content of an entire book, most of these books in the range of 500-1200 pages. And even if you have only some chapters from a book/journal to read for the test, I highly recommend you to create summaries, while working through the book. That way, you establish the fundament on which you can build upon, during the upcoming study phase, without having to read the book all over again. But you also train yourself to quickly identify the key statements in large texts that are very likely to be tested in the exam. As a consequence, it’ll be easier for you to skip large amounts of irrelevant data while sifting through the book.

3. Separate the wheat from the chaff

While you listen to a lecture or read through a textbook, give the following a try: Separate continuously information that is important (“Could this knowledge be tested in an exam?”) from the unimportant (“Is my teacher digressing or listing irrelevant data?”). Take notes of the important points your professor/teacher talks about and add annotations to your script or lecture notes. Making these important additions to your script will help you at a later time to grasp important coherences. You can also highlight important sentences or passages from the text so that you can easily avoid reading through large amounts of unimportant data in your script.

B) Mindset

1. When you study, give 110%

When I went to school, I almost always had to study for long periods of time in order to memorize and understand given contents. The big mistake I made was to study hard and for long periods of time, but I was not always focused on what I did. I got distracted by my mobile phone, the internet, TV, radio, telephone, friends or any other amusement one can think of. Nowadays, when I study I always give a 110%. I reduce distractions to a minimum and give my very best to avoid procrastination. I may have a time limit of 1-2 hours, but I want to make use of that time as much as possible. Thereafter, I have even more leisure time.

How to study smart:

When you study, do it in a focused and proper way, avoid any kinds of distractions and use the time you have to the maximum!

2. Continuity

Doing all-nighters some days before your examinations will not only exhaust you to a large degree but will also force you to rush through the data, in place of studying properly. Instead of opting for all-nighters, consider spending half an hour after each day at School day with post-treatment, i.e. reading a chapter in the book, making a summary or doing some exercises. All this preliminary work will help you to spend more time with studying (during your exam preparation period), instead of having to engage with all kinds of inefficient tasks, such as extracting data from your books, trying to grasps (arithmetic) operations and building an understanding etc.

Why is that smart?

If you already did the groundwork during the term, you’ll be able to focus a lot more on smart ways of studying.

C) The main part of “studying smart

1. Don’t try to memorize, understand!

One of the major mistakes I made – when studying hard not smart – was to learn by heart, which is really time-intensive. Rote memorization is fine and dandy if an upcoming exam requires you to reproduce what you have learned word for word. But the higher you rise in the educational system, the less important will it be to memorize and reproduce, as your understanding and the ability to draw consequences will be tested instead.

In most cases, memorization corresponds to studying hard, not smart. Focus your attention on the understanding and comprehension of the knowledge that is taught.

Establish links and associations

Information becomes knowledge through connections. If you cannot relate to a complex topic, it’ll be very difficult to understand it. But, when you discover similarities and link new knowledge with concepts that you already comprehend, understanding the matter becomes easier. Try to spot ties between different topics and establish links between concepts that overlap.

Imagine the subject matter as vivid as possible. Instead of recognizing the fact that the material you study consists of numbers, words, and sentences, think in pictures (headword: visually thinking). By doing so, you direct a movie in your mind that will help you to memorize facts faster and for a longer period. What you basically do is the association of emotions (in the form of pictures) with rather unemotional data. It is difficult to memorize the numbers “483215”, but if you link each number with a picture and create a funny story out of it, it will be very easy to memorize the number combination for a longer period of time. [By the way, this is THE memory trick artists use to memorize seemingly indefinite number combinations.]


Connecting emotions with your subject will greatly help you to internalize the topic. Have fun while studying! It’s a fact that remembering things we associate intensive feelings with is by far easier. Also, if you’re really interested in a subject matter, learning becomes a lot more joyous. Once you manage to become curious about your subject and develop an interest in it, you’ve made an important step towards a smarter way of studying.

Simplification through analogies

In school and university, you’ll be confronted with various complex facts and circumstances. Make use of analogies [= comparisons] and try to compare a very complicated issue with a more simplified one, which makes it easier to understand the bigger picture of that which is taught.

Simplification through patterning

While you study, make sure to pay attention to continual patterns within the subject matter that occur again and again. By noticing and understanding these reoccurring patterns, you begin to understand the framework on which the topic is constructed. Once you have a good overview of such a framework, the acquisition of new information that is based on the same pattern will be a lot less difficult.

Make use of acronyms

If you’re confronted with difficult, specialist words, names or formula, an acronym can be an excellent aide-memoir for the memorization of the word or formula. Take for instance the rather simple name “Enhanced Health and Usage Diagnostic System”. It’s acronym is “EHUDS”, which sounds like “e-hud’s” or “e-hat’s”. All you have to do now is to think about electronic hat’s and you’ll most likely be able to come up with the acronym “EHUDS”, from which you can rebuild the original name.

2. Keep the bigger picture in mind

The constructing of a car can serve as an example of the learning process. Your professor supplies the “know how” during his lectures, for instance, the detailed knowledge how an engine works. The textbooks and other learning materials supply you with the chassis, frame, tires, and bolts. But, it is up to the student to make use of the know-how, in order to use it for the combination of the delivered material. It’s the student’s job to put the car together and to keep the bigger picture of what is taught in mind.

If the student stubbornly tries to memorize the position of each part in the car, he/she will not be able to (re-)construct a car from a thousand of individual parts. Memorizing the different names of each part will not help either.

Only by keeping in mind that the know-how and material are at one’s disposal for the creation of a car, the student can effectively prepare for an upcoming test.

3. Perfect your type of studying

There are basically four basic types of studying: Visual, Auditory, Emotional, and Kinesthetic.

  1. Visual Learners: A visual learner studies most effective when the learning material is depicted in a visual way, e.g. in the form of charts, maps or brainstorming.
  2. Auditory Learners: An auditory learner studies most effectively by hearing the information, for instance in a lecture or by recording their own words.
  3. Emotional Learners: An emotional learner studies most effectively by associating feelings, emotions and vivid images with the information.
  4. Kinesthetic Learners: A kinesthetic learner studies most effective when the information can be experienced and felt, i.e. via “learning by doing”.

In order to study in the smartest possible way, you need to discover which type of studying you prefer. Once you know what works best for you, align your process of learning to make the most out of it. Students that are mathematically talented should put their notes into spreadsheets, graphs, and charts; kinesthetic learners imagine the learning material as vivid as possible; linguistic learners discuss the material with others or record their voice while reading the subject out-loud, etc

Shelby Moore
Former Academic Task Force Student and Education Consultant 

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