Study Tips from Psychologists

Previous surveys and studies have shown that most students, around 80% in fact, study by rereading books, other relevant information and/or their notes. Students will highlight sections of text they deem most pertinent when reading or writing their notes, these will often be the areas they will focus on when revisiting the information. However, psychologists have found that such popular studying strategies are often ineffective and consume a lot of time.

Further research for more effective study strategies showed that rather than ‘cramming’ a lot of information in one sitting, spreading out the study time allows for better learning. Equally, it is suggested that taking practice quizzes may be better than rereading a book and/or notes.

Another effective strategy that was identified was to answer some questions about an area prior to reading the information as opposed to after reading the information; this is to test your knowledge already as it may be that you have subconsciously taken in information during lectures or when completing other reading and/or tasks.

Studies have since found many study strategies that are more effective that the historically popular, ‘highlight and read’ approach. Some of the suggested strategies to optimise learning are discussed in this blog post.

student carrying book

Positive Reinforcement

The theory penned from Skinner explains that if you have a positive outcome, you are more likely to complete the task at hand. Equally, positive reinforcement is also a great motivator when approaching tasks.

When you receive a reward, your brain provokes positive emotions which in turn connects your hard work to a reward, as this is something that happens continuously, your brain will start to link pleasure to completing the task.

Therefore, by rewarding yourself you are creating the connection between hard work and a pleasant outcome, hence using positive reinforcement to build momentum and motivation. 

Study Space

Where you choose to study is very important, this is right down to the tidiness of your workspace to the colours and ambiance of the environment. Studies have shown that less clutter does significantly reduce stress as well as improved cleanliness boosting confidence.

Although cleanliness isn’t a direct reflection of your work output or ability, the human mind makes negative associations unconsciously with untidy and/or dirty workstations.

Equally, psychologists correlate cleanliness and mental ease. It has been found that the idea of cleanliness and tidiness induce us to be more ethical, whereas, on the contrary if we feel ourselves in a neglected environment, a feeling of frustration can lead us to lie and cheat. Therefore, concluding that tidiness does have a big emotional impact and can influence our attitudes, resilience and overall decision making.

Research also suggests that certain colours can have an impact on study performance, for example, orange is said to provoke optimism whereas pink encompasses sensitivity. So, when it comes to choosing your place to study it may be wise to consider the colour scheme.  

Finally, seating has also been proven to have a significant impact on learning and concentration levels, having the correct support allows for a better posture and increased comfort therefore, less distractions and more focus! We know we would much rather a comfortable and supportive chair rather than a plastic lawn stool!

Distributed Practice

This is also known as the ‘chunking’ method, where study sessions are broken up into several shorter sessions over a longer period rather than longer, more demanding sessions in a shorter period.

It has been said that distributed practice is the most efficient method of routine learning and students who apply this strategy increase their efficiency of learning that skill and/or concept. The learning advantage of distributed practice is otherwise referenced as ‘the spacing effect’ in literature. 

According to psychological theories, in particular the study-phase retrieval theory, you will attempt to retrieve information from memory when to encounter such information again in another short study session.

In distributed practice, gaps between such exposure occurrences make retrieval effortful, which benefits memory – when information retrieval is successful the memory becomes more resistant to being forgotten. Whereas, in ‘cramming’ practice the information has just been seen therefore there’s no need to retrieve it from memory.

It is inevitable that our ability to store and memorise information is essential when studying, whether it’s to apply to writing assignments or sitting exams.


Priming is a technique where the introduction of one stimulus (i.e., upbeat music playing) influences how you respond to a subsequent stimulus (i.e., more positive outlook on a task). Priming works by activating an association or representation in memory just before another stimulus or task is introduced.

Cognitive psychologists have suggested that there is evidence of cognitive priming having direct effects on learning and generalised effects on academic achievement. Studies have shown that students fulfilling a 5-minute brain-training game immediately before completing academic tasks increased performance; equally, students taking three 20-minute brain training sessions per week increased their grades and academic achievement compared to control group students without the brain training intervention.

Interleaved Practice

This is when you are learning two or more related concepts or skills, instead of focusing exclusively on one concept or skill at a time, it can be helpful to alternate between them. Using this learning technique, you can mix different topics and different ways of learning; this method does help you retain new information, acquire new skills, and improve existing abilities in a wide range of fields.

Cognitive psychologists suggest that interleaving practice improves the brain’s ability to differentiate, or discriminate, between concepts and strengthens memory associations. This being because this method forces the brain to continually retrieve information from different areas on different topics.

Thus, you are initiating something called retrieval practice – this leads to better long-term retention and improved ability to transfer learned knowledge.

However, interleaving is much more difficult that standard ‘chunking/blocking’ studying so it does require more effort when studying – it may feel worse at the time, but it certainly will produce better results!

Elaborative Interrogation

In a nutshell, asking yourself ‘why’. This technique encourages you to think about relationships between different ideas and understanding how they differ and are similar. Elaborative interrogation works based on activating your prior knowledge and generating questions. Once questions are created, you must answer the questions by working through your previous learning, to see if a connection between new and old information can be established. Therefore, improving your understanding of the material.

Practise Testing

There seems to be a pattern emerging here… memory retrieval – and this strategy also involves recalling as much of information as you can to answer a specific question without looking at the material, hence, retrieval. This strategy is super simple! Self-testing is a powerful learning strategy as not only does it encourage information retrieval from memory which is pertinent it also helps you identify gaps in your learning and skill set, which is important for self-correction.


This is simply, explaining to yourself, or others, the meaning of what you’ve just learnt. By utilising this strategy, you will become more aware of your actual understanding of the topic, and you will notice areas of confusion more prominently; if you aren’t able to explain the topic to someone then you’re likely to not have a comprehensive level of understanding.

This strategy has also been suggested to improve the acquisition of problem-solving skills when studying.

The research digest as part of the BPS (British Psychological Society) outlined that self-explanation is a powerful learning strategy because learners “generate inferences about causal connections and conceptual relationships that enhance understanding”. They also argue that this method of learning is more effective than standard instructor explanation, i.e., lecture halls.

Self-explanation was a largely successful study strategy regardless of the timing of the self-explanation in the learning process, the kind of self-explanation that was elicited (such as justifying an argument or explaining a concept), the nature of the to-be-learned material, the subject matter, and how knowledge was subsequently tested.

The only exception noted by the psychologists was that this learning method was generally less effective when students were asked to self-explain their own state of knowledge and understanding (a form of so-called “meta-cognitive explanation”) as this would not involve the elaboration and formation of connections among the to-be-learned material.

Mnemonic Techniques

Mnemonics are very often used in studying. Why? Well, because they are designed to increase our memory. There’s the memory pattern emerging again. Using a memory technique can help increase your ability to recall and retain information, which is exactly what you want to happen when studying.

Techniques/devices often include songs, poems, rhymes, outlines, images, and acronyms which are used to create associations amongst information to make it easier to remember such information.

As information is stored and therefore remembered more easily, you can retrieve information from memory much quicker.  The ability to memorize and remember rhymes, for example, is often due to repetition and rhyming.

Cognitive psychologists explain that “oral traditions depend on human memory for their preservation. If a tradition is to survive, it must be stored in one person’s memory and be passed on to another person who is also capable of storing and retelling it. All this must occur over many generations… Oral traditions must, therefore, have developed forms of organization and strategies to decrease the changes that human memory imposes on the more casual transmission of verbal material.” Hence, the use of mnemonics being simpler, using rhythms and rhymes to promote inherent memory skills.

Psychologist David Rubin found that when two words in a ballad are linked by rhyme, students could remember them better than nonrhyming words – such universal characteristics of oral narratives. Similarly, further psychological studies within education, such as Maghy’s experiment (2015), have evidenced that mnemonic strategies were beneficial in helping students score better than a normal lecture method.


However, for any ‘study strategies’ to work or have some leverage, you must be motived to learn. But don’t worry, we have already published a blog discussing study motivation hacks, which you can read here.

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