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5 Bad Study Habits You’ve Probably Been Following

5 Bad Study Habits You’ve Probably Been Following
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You hear a lot of platitudes when it comes to studying: “Make studying a priority. Review your notes early and often.” “Read all the textbook chapters and do your homework.” “Practice makes perfect. So practice as much as you can.”

First off, all the students who have ever been in a classroom just collectively rolled their eyes. Second, most of this stuff we hear, though well intentioned (maybe), is just plain wrong. A lot of bad study habits are spread in the guise of helpful advice.

Here are 5 of the most common bad study habits that parents, teachers, and advisors teach, and why they’re actually hurting your GPA:

1. Read the chapter before lecture

Here’s something we’ve all heard teachers say at the end of class: “Read chapter 12 on the Law of Cosines before class tomorrow so that we can jump right in.”

And you probably wanted to say, “Wait a sec… isn’t that your job?”

Anyway, no one does it (except maybe that guy who always sits in the front row). Even if we tell ourselves we’re gonna “get organized” and prepare before lecture, no one ever does the reading. And if you do, it’s usually a lackluster skim effort.

But would it actually help if we did? Should we actually care about “getting organized” and doing the reading before class?

Research suggests that this is a waste. An initial review period is necessary to learn something new, but further review becomes less and less effective.

So why would you review something twice? Well, because repetition improves your ability to recall something later. Practice makes perfect.

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Not so fast. While it is useful to get a quick “lay of the land” on a new concept before going into lecture completely cold, beyond an initial introductory period to a new concept, your ability to remember, recall, and use that information does not improve with review.

What you need instead is testing and use. So that valuable time before lecture is much better spent quizzing yourself on the information from the previous lecture. Stuff that you’ll eventually see on the midterm or final, rather than some arcane explanation from a textbook.

Use the lecture the way it was intended: to introduce you to new material.

2. Get a study buddy

As you walk through your campus library, you see them everywhere: books scattered across tables, empty energy drink cans, and problems scribbled on pieces of paper or whiteboards.

Study groups.

Some people can’t stand to sit with other students for hours on end racking their brain over chemical reactions or Freudian psychology, but others can’t get enough of it and seem to find any excuse to meet up and “go over” the latest lecture notes.

So who’s got it right?

Studying with someone else can help you stay accountable, but that’s pretty much all it can do. Yes, knowing someone is waiting for you at 4pm at the library is motivation enough to get your butt out the door, and crack that notebook that otherwise would stay on the floor in the corner of your dorm room. But doing practice problems with another person is the quickest way to fool yourself into thinking you can reproduce it yourself on an exam.

It’s one thing to watch someone solve a tough physics problem and nod along saying “oh yeah, got it.” But it’s a completely different thing to actually reproduce that problem-solving method during crunch time, staring at a blank sheet of paper.

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So definitely still make friends in your classes, and keep each other accountable. But limit working on problem sets together to those couple of sticking points you still have after working through everything yourself. Then go back a day or two later and make sure you truly understand it well enough to reproduce it yourself.

3. Review your notes after class

https://www.flickr.com/photos/pedrosek/9911370254

Passive review of your notes is not only time-consuming, it’s also been shown to be completely ineffective. And yet, this is what most teachers recommend. It’s what “good students” do.

But as with habit #1, this robotic type of study is not suited to the way the human memory system stores new information. Again, it’s far more effective to test yourself instead.

Try to re-create the key concepts or solve a few practice problems without referring to your notes from class. Do this again a day or two later.

Studies have shown that this self-testing method is a much better use of your time than simply “refreshing” a dead page of text. The only time you should touch your notes is when you’re going to try and re-organize and consolidate them into a more simple and compact form.

4. Find a quiet space and make it a daily habit

“Turn off the music! How can you concentrate with that on?”

“Stay still and be quiet. Just sit down and focus.”

Sound familiar?

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This motherly advice is typically in response to multitasking teenagers who text, listen to music, have Facebook open, and are Skyping with a classmate while doing their homework.

So yes, in that case they may have a point. But the other extreme actually may be detrimental to future performance on exams.

Routinely studying in exactly the same quiet place is the best way to ensure that you can only recall that information reliably in that one spot. In essence, you’re training yourself to completely blank on that information when test day comes, when you’re thrown into an anxious mental state, under time pressure and sitting in a foreign environment (unless you happen to have one of those chairs in your apartment with the desk so small you can barely fit a piece of paper on it).

What you should actually do: study in widely varying contexts.

Studies have show that learning new information in different environments, at varying noise levels and even mood states, can significantly improve your ability to recall that same information when test day comes.

So mix it up. Quiz yourself on the treadmill. Lecture your roommate while playing Call of Duty. Do practice problems standing on one foot, using a fountain pen, while listening to ACDC.

And even better: go to the classroom where the exam will be held, pick out your seat, and do a practice exam in the same exact amount of time allotted for the test. Now that’s context-specific learning.

5. Refresh topics in your memory often

“If I can just keep reciting my study sheet for the next 24 hours, I’ll have it on the tip of my tongue during the exam.”

The problem with always feeling like you’re on top a new concept is that you’re committing what psychologists call the “fluency illusion.” Just because it’s easy to recall piece of information now, does not mean you won’t forget it later.

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And in fact, the easier it is to recall, the less likely it is that you will be able to remember it in crunch time.

Studies show that some level of forgetting is actually necessary in order to improve the “retrieval strength” of a new memory. Bjork’s study recommends looking for a level of “desirable difficulty” with learning new information—e.g. it should be hard to remember how to solve limits using L’Hopital’s Rule if you really want to make sure you can remember it on test day.

So do this: Learn it once during lecture. Then give yourself a self-test later that night, without referencing your notes.

Then wait two days. You’ll feel like you’ve forgotten everything. But resist the urge to study your notes again.

Instead, test yourself again and struggle through, trying to pull as much of the material as you can from the depths of your memory. Each piece of information you can recall becomes more and more bulletproof to forgetting on the exam. And even wrong answers have been shown to benefit you.

Then, and only then, go back to your notes and see where you were right and where you were wrong. Make the appropriate corrections and then repeat the process.

Featured photo credit: Steven S. via flickr.com

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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