Study Methods to Help With Understanding

The first step is to make sure that you understand the material properly. If there are some things that you're not sure about, here are some handy tips to help get you going with studying.

1. Using analogies and metaphors

An analogy is finding a different way to explain something, using a concept or idea that you already understand. These are really good for helping you to understand something new, and then be able to remember it later on. For example, if you’re trying to understand how cells work in Biology, seeing the cell as a factory can help you to understand in more familiar terms. A good way to find analogies is to look them up on the internet. If you can’t think of anything that reminds you of an atom, looking on the internet will show you that many people think of the atom as a small solar system. From there, using pictures on Google Images and other explanations, you can begin to understand how electrons, protons, and neutrons are related, and how they move within the atom. The reason these analogies work is because they are memorable and familiar. It’s like you’re running down the same path you normally do, just with a different set of clothes on. Your brain is following a somewhat familiar path with things that it knows, but you’re adding in a new concept to understand. You’re also more likely to remember something that’s a little crazy!

2. Mind maps

Make a mind-map or concept map of all the things you need to know about a topic, and be sure to show the connections between these things. One of the most common maps you may come across is the chemical reactions map, showing how you can transform alkanes to alkenes, to aldehydes, and so on. Making a map like this sets out clearly what you need to learn, and you can then go about learning each section of the map. At the end of each session, be sure to come back to the map to remember the context of what you are learning. If you’re a visual learner, your map is likely to be colourful and organised, but if you don’t naturally go towards making your notes like this, don’t bother. If you can read the map, and it shows you the connections and information clearly, then that’s all that’s needed!

3. Talk to your lecturer, or a friend, and ask questions!

We sometimes overlook this method. Asking questions when you don’t understand is the single most important behaviour you should adopt in the lecture hall. There’s no such thing as a silly question, because if you don’t understand – it’s your loss, not the lecturer’s. If your lecturer doesn’t give the opportunity for questions, try going up to them at the end of the class, or sending an email. Most are willing to help you if you show initiative! You can also ask classmates who know the content better than you. Often because they’ve understood it, they will be able to explain it to you. If they’re reluctant – tell them that teaching you is a great way for them to study!

4. Find a website explaining it, or a YouTube video to help you

There’s so much information on the internet, and it’s sometimes difficult to wade through it all and find what’s actually true, and what isn’t. A helpful hint when finding explanations is to look for websites that are by educators, or for students. For chemistry, is really useful, and it’s made to help people understand chemistry! For philosophy, there's plenty of basic information on the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, and of course you should be looking at books in the library as well. YouTube videos are also really helpful, because it’s like having a teacher there in front of you to help! Just beware of the learning illusion – you need to make sure you actually understand what you’ve been taught from the video, by trying to recall it after you’ve watched it. It’s no good watching hours of study-related YouTube videos and then thinking you’ve finished studying – in reality you’ve probably only learnt about 10% of the things covered in the videos.

Study Methods for Practice and Recall

Once you have understood everything, it's time to start putting it into your long term memory, so that you remember it not only for the exam, but also afterwards! Studying isn't just about memorisation, but you need to make sure that you can recall the information you want, when you need it. These methods are all about RECALL! You need to be able to recall the information, not just recognise it when you see it written down in the textbook. You also need to REPEAT what you’re doing over a period of time, so that the information can be stored in your long-term memory.

1. Flash cards

These are amazing to help you recall specific facts and information for literally every subject. On one side of the flashcard, write a question, word, or other prompt that will remind you of a particular thing, and on the other side, the answer to the question, or the explanation of the concept. The act of making the flashcards is half the learning done. You’ll find that when you’re making the flashcards, you’re deciding what information is important, and you’re actively engaging with it, which is the most effective way to learn something! Thus, avoid using someone else’s flashcards. They won’t work as well for you to study. Once they are made, you can use them everywhere and anywhere to reinforce your learning. On the bus to school, when you’re waiting, if you want you can put them by the toilet! The key is to engage with the flashcards for short bursts and once you’ve mastered the flashcard, move on to the next one. When you can go through them and remember what’s on the back, you don’t need to do any more that day. Make use of the spaced repetition method, and go back to them after a day or so. Remember with this method you have to start earlier, and not cram the night before! There’s also loads of websites and apps that you can use to make flashcards and test yourself online. These are often really helpful so you don’t have to carry around a set of cards everywhere; rather you can have them on your phone. A couple of good websites or applications you can try are: Anki, Memrise, and Quizlet. These ones automatically include the spaced repetition technique to help with your learning.

2. Recreating your mind-map or concept map from memory

This is an especially good technique to test how much you can actually recall. Once you’ve made the map, and understood the content, try to write it all out on a blank piece of paper. The things that you have trouble remembering are the things that you should be spending more time studying. For example, if you want to remember about all the causes for World War One, you can make a mind map and have arrows coming out for militarism, nationalism, imperialism, alliances, and specific events like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, like below. You can then add in key points below each of these headings, that you need to remember. It might then be good to make a timeline of key dates, which you can follow the same process to make.

3. Speak it out loud

Talking to yourself, your siblings, friends, or even your pets is going to help you to recall and remember the information. Auditory cues are powerful for the brain, and you’ll find that in the exam you will be able to remember what you were saying, just as you can remember a conversation with your friend. For this to work, you need somewhere private as people are going to think you’re pretty weird talking to yourself. But trust me, it works! For example, if you’re studying for an English exam, instead of copying out your quotations over and over, try saying them out loud. Of course repetition is important, but go one step further and also explain the quotations. So, you could say, “Our house is hell, and thou a merry devil, didst rob it of some taste of tediousness.” (Jessica in the Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare) This means that Jessica is not happy with the way her father runs the household, and is making a mockery of his religious dislike of Christians by calling him a “merry devil.”… Essentially, you’re just speaking what you could say in an essay. It’s crucial that you don’t just learn the information itself, but also the context – the when and how to use it. English is the same – you need to know when you should use each quotation, so remembering its meaning will help you.

4. Teach someone else

This is one of the best ways to test yourself on how much you know and can recall, and be able to explain it to someone else. In exams, you’re usually asked to explain what you think, and also why you think that. If you can get your friend to understand, then you’re more likely to be able to communicate it to the examiner. It’s also a win for whoever you are teaching – they get to learn something new as well! Because we don’t all have a co-operative younger sibling, doing this with a group of friends is a good idea. If you’ve got friends studying the same subject, then you can each take a section of the content and be responsible for teaching it to the rest of the group. You’ll get the chance to teach one aspect, so you have to make sure you have other study strategies for the other aspects of the course.

5. Make charts, tables, diagrams, and posters

If you’re a visual learner, this one is for you. If you can make posters and visual representations of the information you need to study, then you’re more likely to be able to see that image in your head during the exam. You’ll remember the poster more than you will the words in the text or in your notes.

6. Record yourself (or your teachers/lecturers) and listen to your notes

Again, half of the learning here is done through the recording; deciding what to record, and then actually speaking it. The repetition part comes from listening to these notes, and for an auditory learner then this is a good technique to use, as you’ll find that you can start to talk along with the recording, knowing what is coming next.

7. Doing something physical at the same time

Stand up, walk around, sit on an exercise bike, chew gum – doing something physical can be really helpful if you’re feeling like the studying isn’t going well. This technique is especially good for people who are kinaesthetic learners. I’m not one myself, but I still found it really helpful. Instead of sitting at my desk and studying Philosophy, I studied it pacing around my room. I stood up and wrote on paper on the wall, and even on the windows of my room, and walked around whilst I was talking to myself using technique number 3. Standing up can have a profound effect on how your brain treats study – when we’re sitting we tend to droop over the desk, even to the point when we’ve got our head on the desk. When you’re standing you are forcing your mind to be active, and that means you’re thinking about what you’re studying and not in the mindless “reading mode” which means you don’t take anything in.

8. Using mnemonic devices to help you remember sequences or names of things

Acronyms – taking the first letter of the words you need to learn and making a sentence out of them that is ridiculous and silly means that you’re more likely to remember the sequence. For example, it’s easier to remember “All silly turtles crawl” than it is to remember “all, sine, cosine, tangent” when you’re trying to remember which values are positive in the quadrants of the unit circle in mathematics. Another common mnemonic one is MRS. GREN, when you’re remembering the characteristics of all living organisms – movement, reproduction, sensitivity, growth, respiration, excretion, and nutrition. You can look up on the internet and see if there’s a common mnemonic for you to use to remember what you are studying, or try to create one yourself. The funnier and weirder the better, as you’re more likely to remember it! These devices help you recall the information that you need to by acting as a trigger for the real words. Of course, when using this technique, don’t just remember MRS. GREN and forget what the letters stand for! Repeat it to yourself until you can remember the meanings of the letters.

9. Using a mental “mind palace”

Going Sherlock Holmes-style may seem a little daunting, but there is evidence that this approach works. It’s great if you need to remember a list, or a group of items. What you do is think of a place that you know really well. Then, in that place, make mental connections between objects in the room, and the items you want to remember, as you walk around the place. For example, if you’re trying to study Spanish, and you need to remember the word for window in Spanish – ventana. You walk into your house and see your brother ‘vent’ing his anger at ‘Anna’ out the window (which is next to the front door). Ideally, the more memorable these associations are, the more likely you will remember them. This technique is quite hard to get started with, and can take some time to get used to. It is proven to work for remembering things though! Memorisation world records are often broken using this technique.

10. Practice tests in exam conditions

The best way to get prepared for the exam, and find out what you need to work more on, is to do a practice exam in proper exam conditions. This will prepare you for the exam, and you’ll learn valuable things like how long it takes you to answer a question, how much time you need to leave at the end to check, and how well you can cope with concentrating for a long period of time! Often there are no exemplar that you an use, so a good thing to do is to anticipate some of the questions that you might get, and practice answering these. Mark the tests yourself, against the criteria that you know you will be assessed against, and then reflect on how you have done and what you need to focus on more, so that answering those types of questions becomes easy. Make sure you are not using your notes at all - it’s all about what you can RECALL, with no help from other sources.


Useful Tips and Tricks

Another weird but useful trick to help recall is to use scents! I’ve tried it with a small bottle of peppermint oil; whenever I wanted to get into the Chemistry study mode, and remember something, I smelt the top of the bottle. Then, before my exam, I did the same thing – creating a mental reminder of the time that I was studying, and helping to jog my memory about everything Chemistry for the exam! The trick with these study methods are that they are a little novel, and new for your brain. You’ll get that dopamine kick because you’re doing something new and different, and it’s exciting your brain. You’re less likely to put off study because it’s become an interesting activity, rather than a boring period of time sitting at your desk. Unfortunately, study resources that are already made for you are way less effective than making them yourself. Cutting corners and finding a set of notes on the internet, then just “studying” that isn’t going to help as much as making your own set of notes. With a personal set of notes, you are using your own words, and you know that you understand everything that you’ve written down.