Not all study strategies are made equal, and the vast majority of students study ineffectively. What are the 9 most effective study strategies, and how do we rank the best of the best?
Each of the study techniques we outline is a valuable, evidence-based tool, but what earns the number 1 spot? Leave your guess in the comments.
Let’s work our way from 9 to 1.
9. Studying in Small Groups (2-3)
In our 9th spot is studying in small groups of two to three people. Any more than three people in a study group will result in more distractions than benefits.
The reason studying in small groups is so effective is that it aids motivation and accountability. You have to follow through on your commitments when you plan a study session with someone else. And if you find positive influences to study with, they will hold you accountable.
But this next part is important. You won’t be able to study effectively with just anyone. Surround yourself with fellow students you can count on, who have similar goals, work ethic, and values to your own.
The biggest downfall of studying in groups is the potential for it to turn into a hangout session. Don’t mislabel the meeting. If it’s truly a study session, save talking about the next season of House of the Dragon until after studying or another time entirely.
When it’s time to study, study. When it’s time to play, play. Don’t try to do two things at once. Fully committing to either will be much more rewarding in both instances.
8. Dual Coding
At number 8 is dual coding, which refers to learning a concept through multiple different modalities. For example, you may read about a concept in a textbook and additionally watch a YouTube video on the topic or see an experiment demonstration in class to drive the point home.
Don’t be afraid to let studying get a little messy. Go beyond the textbook and lecture to fill in knowledge gaps. Supplement anything you’re unsure of with other forms of media that explain the same concept but in a different format.
You can also create multimodal study resources yourself. For example, the process of creating a diagram helps with both comprehension and retention and then you’ll have a condensed, high-yield visual for future reference.
At number 7, we have interleaving. Interleaving simply means switching between multiple topics, ideas, or subjects during a single study session.
This strategy is particularly helpful with subjects that require problem-solving, such as physics, chemistry, or math. Interleaving facilitates finding links, similarities, and differences between ideas.
As you interleave, approach subjects in different orders to encourage improved understanding. Make a conscious effort to think about how you can link principles between the different concepts.
An added benefit is sustained endurance. When you’re strategically shifting between topics, you can ward off burnout and boredom through novel stimuli. This is particularly beneficial when studying for major standardized exams like the SAT or MCAT.
However, note that interleaving requires a bit of calibration. If you spend too little or too much time on a single topic, it can prove detrimental. If you switch too often, you can fail to achieve meaningful, deep understanding. If you spend too much time on one area, you’re not interleaving—you’re just performing traditional blocked studying.
6. Concrete Examples
In our number 6 spot, we have concrete examples. Concrete examples facilitate the understanding of complex or difficult concepts. Find relevant examples that illustrate the principles from a lesson you’re trying to learn. Ensure you deeply understand how the concrete example is a reflection of this principle in practice.
Start by collecting examples and then explaining how the example illustrates the principle you’re attempting to learn and then repeat. You can also create your own examples or exchange examples with your study group for added benefit.
When practicing this technique, ensure the examples are accurate and relevant to the concept you’re studying. Too often, students find poor examples online, through friends, or from other resources that reinforce an improper understanding.
5. Pomodoro Technique
At number 5 is the Pomodoro Technique, which we’ve covered on the channel many times before. It breaks study sessions into attainable blocks of 25 minutes followed by 5 minute breaks. Instead of sitting down to study for three hours, you’re only sitting down for 25 minutes at a time. After 4 Pomodoro cycles, take a longer break of 20 minutes, and repeat.
25 – 5 is a good place to start, but it’s not a magic number. Pomodoro is flexible if you want to work in slightly longer or shorter sessions.
The technique is effective because it helps you build momentum, holds you accountable, and ensures you are taking adequate breaks.
Limit distractions to get the most out of the Pomodoro Technique. Your aim is to be efficient, focused, and disciplined while avoiding external temptations. The whole point is 25 minutes of intense focus. Keep your phone on silent and out of arm’s reach or outside of the room altogether to give absolute focus to the task at hand.
Learn how to avoid The 5 Most Common Pomodoro Technique Mistakes.
4. The Feynman Technique
In the 4th spot, we have the Feynman technique, created by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman.
The Feynman technique helps you master and retain difficult concepts by explaining them to someone else as clearly and simply as possible. There are four steps to it:
First, write the concept’s name at the top of the page. You are deliberately focusing your attention on mastering this single topic or concept.
Next, explain the concept using simple language, as if you were explaining it to a friend who is unfamiliar with it.
The 3rd step is where the magic happens. As you work on explaining the concept, you will naturally identify areas you’re having difficulty explaining in simple terms. Use this as a guide when you go back to your textbook or lecture materials to fill in the gaps in your understanding.
Lastly, now that you’ve explained the concept, go back and pinpoint any complicated terms and challenge yourself to simplify them further. Use any analogies that may aid your understanding. Don’t just think of how to make it simple; think of how you would explain it to a child or parent.
The act of simplifying difficult concepts using the Feynman technique helps a great deal with understanding and information retention, which is why we have it ranked so high on our list. The process ensures you understand the concept at a foundational level so that you don’t fool yourself into believing you’re more of an expert than you are.
To take this technique to the next level, combine it with strategy number 9—small study groups. You add a sensory and emotional element, plus real time feedback, by explaining concepts to one or two of your study buddies in real time.
3. Desirable Difficulties
At number 3 is desirable difficulties, which posits that anything requiring a great deal of effort will improve long-term performance despite the fact it may initially slow down learning.
Think of it like going to the gym. If you bench press 10-pound dumbbells, you’re technically doing chest exercises, but you’re not challenging yourself enough to improve. The weight is not enough to create the microtears and stimulus necessary to grow your muscles. This is what happens with passive learning strategies.
On the other hand, if you bench to the near max of your capabilities, you’re exerting yourself to a far greater capacity, resulting in muscle breakdown and, ultimately, hypertrophy. This is a desirable difficulty.
Students naturally want to find the easiest path and can confuse easy with effective. Passive studying may be easier, but it’s far less effective and will take more time in the long run. Don’t shy away from the discomfort and friction you initially feel; it’s all part of the learning process and proves that your efforts are working.
We have desirable difficulties in our number 3 spot because it’s a common thread throughout some of the best study techniques and a reminder that the most efficient and effective path will have more resistance.
2. Spaced Repetition
At number 2, the second best study strategy is spaced repetition. Repeated exposure to a piece of information at increasing intervals between each repetition optimizes memorization and retention in the least amount of time.
This is due to the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. In its simplest terms, the Forgetting Curve demonstrates that after forming a memory, we gradually forget more and more of it as time elapses. By reviewing the information just before we forget it, the memory becomes more durable.
If we see the same information multiple times over increasing intervals, we’re much more likely to encode those facts into long-term memory. This is why cramming is so ineffective. Studying for 8 hours spread across 2 weeks generally results in superior performance compared to studying for 8 hours in one sitting.
To streamline this process, create a study schedule for yourself where you plan out when to review older material in addition to recent material.
You can also offload the process to other apps, like Anki for language learning or Memm for the MCAT, which will test you on bite-sized pieces of information through flashcards and automatically schedule the cards based on the difficulty of recall for each.
Spaced repetition is most powerful when the timing is just right. If too little time elapses between repetitions, the information is not reinforced as strongly. If too much time passes, you’re more likely to forget it.
Spaced repetition is most effective when combined with our number 1 study strategy.
1. Active Recall
At the top of our list in the number one spot is active recall.
Active recall engages your mind and helps you not only retain information but actually learn it.
Many of the strategies outlined in our ranking are a type of active learning, which is why we ultimately crowned it as number 1. If you focus your studying on active recall, you’ll be on the right track.
You should fully expect active recall to be a difficult process, as active learning methods are, by definition, far more challenging than passive forms.
When it comes to active recall, create flashcards through Anki and Memm or use practice problems, which has the added benefit of practicing higher order thinking. This means you’re not recalling one discrete fact but rather thinking in multiple layers that require either additional facts or additional concepts to build upon.
However, you could also write or sketch out everything you know about a certain topic without looking at your notes. Be as thorough as possible. Afterward, check what you’ve written compared to your class notes for accuracy and to fill in any points you may have missed.
Many students quickly abandon active recall because it’s difficult. However, as mentioned in desirable difficulties, it’s vital to remember that if learning feels difficult, it means it’s working. Stick with it, and it will get easier with time.
As you practice active recall, focus on comprehension. Do not study facts in isolation. You must understand the relation between ideas and how certain concepts are similar or different. This is something Memm has integrated by design.
Lastly, remember to check your answers. If you are practicing recall without verifying the accuracy, you may be reinforcing incorrect information.
Make active recall the ultimate study strategy by combining it with spaced repetition. These study strategies are a true powerhouse when paired together.
All of the top study strategies we covered in this post are most effective when utilized in unison with each other.
Study strategies all have their own strengths and weaknesses, and not every strategy will be the right one all the time. Tailor your strategies to the subject you’re studying for. For example, for physics or chemistry, doing more practice problems and fewer flashcards is more beneficial, whereas when you’re studying for history class, doing more flashcards is ideal.
But there are some study techniques you should avoid at all costs. We previously covered The Worst 9 Study Strategies Ranked—check that out right up here, as well as 5 Reasons You’re Doing Active Learning WRONG.
Do you agree with our ranking? Leave a comment below.