4. Test yourself
That 2010 study backs up one of Nebel’s preferred study habits. Before big tests, her mom quizzed her on the material. “Now I know that was retrieval practice,” she says. “It’s one of the best ways you can study.” As Nebel got older, she quizzed herself. For example, she might cover up the definitions in her notebook. Then she tried to recall what each term meant.
Such retrieval practice can help nearly everyone, Rawson and others showed in an August 2020 study in Learning and Instruction. This research included college students with an attention problem known as ADHD. It stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Overall, retrieval helped students with ADHD and those without the disorder equally well.
“Create a deck of flash cards every time you learn new information,” Sana suggests. “Put questions on one side and the answers on the other side.” Friends can even quiz each other on the phone, she says.
“Try to quiz yourself the way the teacher asks questions,” Nebel adds.
But really grill yourself and your friends, she says. And here’s why. She was part of a team that asked students to write one quiz question for each class period. Students would then answer a question from another classmate. Preliminary data show that students did worse on tests afterward than when the daily quiz questions came from the teacher. Nebel’s team is still analyzing the data. She suspects the students’ questions may have been too simple.
Teachers often dig deeper, she notes. They don’t just ask for definitions. Often, teachers ask students to compare and contrast ideas. That takes some critical thinking.
5. Mistakes are okay — as long as you learn from them
It’s crucial to test your memory. But it doesn’t really matter how many seconds you spend on each try. That finding comes from a 2016 study by Kornell and others. But it’s important to go the next step, Kornell adds: Check to see if you were right. Then focus on what you got wrong.
“If you don’t find out what the answer is, you’re kind of wasting your time,” he says. On the flip side, checking the answers can make your study time more efficient. You can then focus on where you need the most help.
In fact, making mistakes can be a good thing, argues Stuart Firestein. A Columbia University biologist in New York City, he actually wrote the book on it. It’s called Failure: Why Science is So Successful. Mistakes, he argues, are actually a primary key to learning.