My journey learning to study

Memorizing content instead of fully understanding it is an inefficient way to study


My journey learning to study Photo Cover. Graphic by Gavin Hung

Gavin Hung

In the middle of my first freshman Biology exam, I suddenly realized that I didn’t know the sequence of the water cycle. Does water flow to an aquifer or a delta before entering the ocean? I racked my brain for answers. 

When studying for the test, I had just reread the video lecture notes we did and looked through past handouts. But after that test, I realized that my method of studying was just memorizing terms and focusing on how to get the most points by anticipating what topics we would be quizzed on. Though this strategy merely taught me how to solve specific questions with a structured process, my unpleasant mid-test realization proved it wasn’t sustainable in the long-term. 

Later that week, I started researching better ways to study. I found Learning how to learn by Barbara Oakley, an online course that explains how to maximize learning by using evidence-based studying strategies. Although classes like this have been taken by millions of students, these techniques are not adopted by most students.

As Maryellen Weimer pointed out in Faculty Focus, rereading class material is the studying strategy used by 67% of students when preparing for exams, and is also one recommended by many teachers. However, this tricks students into thinking that they are prepared for the exam, when in actuality, they’ve only memorized information instead of fully comprehending it. Though rereading gives me a surface level of understanding, it does not work for questions, like free response questions, that really test the concepts.

My lackluster test experience spurred me to research better study methods, leading me to discover active recall — a strategy in which you test yourself on problems without having the answer in front of you. It is the opposite of rereading, and helps students store content in their long-term memory.

Another important way that helps me retain content is spaced repetition, which consists of reviewing material in increasingly spaced intervals to prevent myself from forgetting it. This strategy is effective because it interrupts Hermann Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve and allows you to retain information for longer periods of time by constantly revisiting material. 

I have also found that doing problems with friends is very mutually beneficial and enjoyable. When any one of us has trouble understanding a problem, we all work together to explain it. I have also found that teaching how to do a question to someone makes you think about the problem in a different way, specifically why each step in the question is necessary, which deepens your understanding.

Since my freshman year Bio test, I have been using these strategies to prepare for tests and found that they benefit me tremendously. Instead of relying on short-term memorization of content, I focus on really understanding the material the first time and retaining it by quizzing myself and revisiting content throughout the semester. This has been especially useful for cumulative exams and AP exams because I no longer need to review past material too heavily and cram the day before tests. 

I have also seen an emotional and psychological change in the way I approach exams — rather than a stressful imposition on my grade, I now simply see them as a kind of game to test my knowledge. Instead of thinking about the points, I focus on making sure I understand the material well. Shifting my attitude has actually helped me on tests, because I’ve made far fewer silly mistakes because of stress during tests.

I have also seen an emotional and psychological change in the way I approach exams — rather than a stressful imposition on my grade, I now simply see them as a kind of game to test my knowledge.”

— Gavin Hung

Along with understanding schoolwork, these strategies have proved applicable to other domains like sports. For example, when I play basketball at the park, I don’t shoot the ball at the same position every time — rather, I vary the position to get better at shooting from multiple angles. By shooting the ball from a different distance each time, I am focusing on how much power to exert on the ball given my proximity to the hoop, rather than perfecting throwing with the exact same force each time. 

I’ve come a long way in terms of studying in the last few years, thanks to a couple less-than-thrilling experiences during tests, research and experimentation with strategies like active recall and spaced repetition. Not only has finding my preferred studying style has helped me not only with schoolwork and my hobbies, I have been able to self-reflect and use it as an opportunity to improve, rather than dwell on shortcomings.