Learn How to Study Smart

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 time that would have been lost with unfocused attempts of “studying hard.” This is not an excuse to not study at all. You have to invest the necessary amount of time for studying; there’s no way around.

This guide shows you 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. Learn how to be more efficient and effective in your study. Study smarter, not harder.


A) Preparation

1. Get a study 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

  • set a time line for your exam preparation.
  • create a daily schedule of tasks you want to cover during exam preparation
  • create a detailed to-do-list, (keep a close eye on what is really important)
  • highlight with sticky notes or markers the important sections of your text books and study guides.
  • 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 areas.

2. Summarise

Create summaries in your own words. Use mind maps, flow charts, highlight key points. Train yourself to quickly identify the key statements in large texts that are very likely to be tested in the exam. It will 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 teacher talks about and add notes to your lecture notes. Making these important additions to your script will help you at a later time to grasp important ideas. Highlight important sentences or passages in the text so that you don’t have to read large amounts of unimportant information.


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 the best use of that time. 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 but will also force you to rush through the material. Instead of opting for all-nighters, try spending the first half hour of your study time reviewing your day’s work at school, make summaries or do an exercise and quiz yourself on what was covered – do you understand it? How could you use it in an exam?

This daily review will provide you with great summaries and key points for when you are studying for tests and exams instead of having to engage with all kinds of inefficient tasks, such as extracting data from your books, trying to grasp operations and building an understanding etc. You will have focused, relevant summaries. Study smarter, not harder!

Why is that smart?

If you have already done 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 it will be to memorize and reproduce, as your understanding and the ability to discuss the significance 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 you already know, 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 seeing the material you are studying as numbers, words and statements, think in pictures (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 infinite 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 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 concepts. Make use of analogies [= comparisons] and try to compare a very complicated issue with a simpler one, which makes it easier to understand the bigger picture that is taught.

Simplification through patterning

While you study, make sure to pay attention to repeated patterns within the subject matter. By noticing and understanding these recurring patterns, you begin to understand the framework on which the topic is constructed. Once you have a good overview of such a framework, learning new information that is based on the same pattern will be easier.

Make use of mnemonics

A Mnemonics is using the first letter of each item you need to remember to create a word. 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 mnemonic for spelling necessary: Not Every Cat Eats Sardines Some Are Really Yummy or RICE for the instructions for treating a sprain: Rest the injured area, Ice the sprain, Compress with a wrap or bandage, Elevate the injured area.

2. Perfect your type of studying

There are many ways of learning, four approaches to studying are:

  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, brainstorming or mindmaps.
  2. Auditory Learners: An auditory learner studies most effectively by hearing the information, for instance in a lecture, group discussion 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”.

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.

Shelby Moore
Academic Group Education Mentor and former Academic Task Force student.