How to Study Smarter, Learn Faster Not Just to Ace Exams, But For Life

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September marks the start of the end-of-the-year grind. It’s marked by humid rainy seasons, adrenalin-pumping Formula 1 races, the colourful Mid-Autumn Festival and then there are exams. If you, like my kids, are in the thick of exam season and are possibly struggling to master your lessons, we’ve taken the liberty to consolidate 8 main study techniques and exam tips mooted and documented by Mr Daniel Wong (author of ‘The Happy Student’) and Dr Stella Cottrell (author of bestselling study guides such as ‘The Study Skills Handbook’).

As Mr Wong claims, the main aim of education isn’t about getting straight A’s (psst, don’t tell my kids I mentioned that). It’s about learning how to learn which is a vital life skill. And with everyone needing to level up all the time now, here are 7 main go-tos for everyone to achieve learning success. So if you’re ready, let’s get to it.

#1 Manage Your Mindset, Keep A Studying Journal

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It is completely natural to feel anxious about exams. But with the right strategies, you can end up actually enjoying this tedious process. All you need to do is learn how to direct the nervous anxious energy into positive channels. If you have worrying questions like “Will I pass?” “What if I forget all the key concepts?” “What if the exam is going to be so much harder than expected?” Apparently, there’s a scientifically-proven solution to this.

According to Mr Wong, he highly recommends one to keep a journal. Use the journal to write about your feelings regarding the upcoming exams. Researchers from the University of Chicago discovered that those who wrote about their feelings on the upcoming exams for at least 10 minutes daily, performed better than students who did not. And that this technique of journaling, is especially effective for habitual worriers.

Dr Cottrell also points out that some stress has a beneficial effect in that it helps you to stay alert, focused on the exam, and energized. Guide your mind to learn to focus on concrete tasks instead of letting it drift into anxious thoughts. Tasks such as organising and planning your study time, jotting down important useful facts and figures, proof-reading your work, thinking about ways to gain extra marks, etc. will all get your mind and thoughts focused on the task at hand, and not allow thoughts to drift.

#2 Learn the Lesson/Information In Different Ways

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Our brains are scientifically programmed to retain information better when different parts of the brain are stimulated by different media. To learn a specific topic, you may choose to read your notes, the textbook, look up online resources such as watching a Khan Academy video, or perhaps trawl through the goldmine that’s BBC – GCSE Bitesize. Create a mind map, teach a classmate what you’ve learnt and do practice problems from a variety of sources.

You won’t be able to do all of these in one sitting but each time you revise or review a topic, use a different resource or method, and it’s guaranteed the lesson will stick better this way.

#3 Review Lessons Periodically, Avoid Cramming

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If you want your brain to move what you’ve learnt from short term to long term memory, Mr Wong says it is essential to review the information contained in the lessons periodically. By periodic review, he meant scheduling and executing re-learning of the material you’ve already learnt in the past with a will to review the information at least once a week or 4 times a month. According to documented research cited by Mr Wong, periodic review beats cramming hands-down.

Also, study multiple subjects each day, rather than concentrating on just one or two at a time. For example, if you’re preparing for exams in math, history and physics, it’s better to study a bit of each subject each day than just focusing on math on Monday, history on Tuesday and physics on Wednesday. Mr Wong recommends to spread out the study time required for each subject and in so doing, your brain will have more time to be able to consolidate the information.

#4 Simplify, Summarise, Compress and Link the Information

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Mr Wong says you can study smarter by using mnemonic devices whenever possible. For example, you can memorise the electromagnetic spectrum in order of increasing frequency with Raging Martians Invaded Venus Using X-ray Guns; which stand for Radio, Microwave, Infrared, Visible, Ultraviolet, X-rays, Gamma rays. Or you may use mind maps to summarise information or chart your own table or diagram. Take notes by hand instead of using your laptop. Why? Because it’s been proven that students who take notes by writing them down tend to process and reframe the information. In contrast, laptop users tend to type down what the teacher says word-for-word, without processing the information.

Also, connect what you’re learning with something you already know. For example, Mr Wong says if you’re learning about electricity, you could relate it to the flow of water. He cites the example of voltage is akin to water pressure, current is akin to the flow rate of water and a battery can be likened to a pump, and so on and so forth. Basically, the more strongly you can relate the new concept to concepts you already know, the faster you’ll be able to learn the new information, and the stronger it sticks.

#5 Test Yourself Frequently

study testing
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Daniel Wong cites the example of a documented experiment conducted by the University of Louisville. Where 2 groups of undergraduates were taught the same course, but only 1 group of students was quizzed at the end of every lecture. At the end of the course, the group of students who was tested regularly outperformed the other group significantly, on all four exams.

So it’s imperative to not just read and regurgitate what you’ve learnt. Take mock tests and quizzes from different sources regularly to test yourself on key concepts and points. Practice answering questions by looking to structure and select your answers with shorter sentences. Think of what the examiner and/or marker will be looking for: organise your answers such that there are structured points and back it up with facts and key information. Show off your critical thinking abilities by providing evidence to the key points you make. And avoid making the obvious mistakes. Check through your papers carefully for any accidental errors. According to Dr Cottrell, mistakes range from students failing to check whether there are questions on both sides of the exam paper, mis-reading of questions, answering too few or even, too many questions. Numbering their answers wrongly, or even, writing down the right answer on the wrong question.

Lastly, testing yourself frequently will enable you to get used to the time needed during an actual exam.

#6 Take Care of Yourself – Eat, Drink, Exercise & Sleep Adequately

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Firstly, drink more water, regularly. Mr Wong cites studies which have shown that many of us – up to 75% in fact, do not drink enough water and are in fact, in a chronic state of dehydration. So remember to place a water bottle whilst you study, or whilst you’re having an exam. Drink some water every 40 minutes or so.

Secondly, if you already have an exercise regimen. Stick to it. But what’s important to know is, exercise is extremely good for your brain, not just your body. Not only does it improve your memory, brain functions, it also helps you to reduce stress and to our next point…sleep.

Thirdly, get at least 8 hours of sleep EVERYDAY. Mr Wong, who has counselled and coached more than 20,000 students, reports that not a single one of these students get at least eight hours of sleep each night. And this would undoubtedly affect your focus, memory as well as stress levels. It’s a no-brainer, schedule learning for the entire year by breaking it down to manageable months, weeks and days. Make it your mission to schedule bite-sized learning to ensure adequate sleep is scheduled in your day-to-day routines.

Bonus tip #1: Mr Wong cites sleep expert Dan Taylor who says that learning the most difficult material just before you go to bed helps make recalling it easier the next day. So try to arrange your schedule such that you study the hardest topic right before you sleep. Bonus tip #2? Don’t pull all-nighters. Students who have done that have shown that they tend to get lower grades and make many more careless mistakes than those who’ve rested adequately.

If you are able to eat healthier (avoid sweets or chocolate, try nuts or fruits instead), drink sufficient water, sleep enough every night, and exercise adequately, for at least 3 times a week; you will be well on your way to setting an excellent physical stage for your brains and bodies to master learning.

#7 Focus On The Process, Not The Outcome

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As parents and even educators of school-going children, we tend to look at education as an end-game in terms of results – there is continued performance scorecards or basically the desire to wanting to get straight As. Most times this ends up being the be-all and end-all of our child’s learning journey. But as mentioned above, it is about learning and growing and tweaking your child’s learning journey so that you set your children to focus on the effort and the journey, and not the end results. Learning is after all, a marathon, not a sprint and if you believe your children/students will find their groove, they will. More importantly is to have a growth rather than a fixed mindset and this will help your children to learn to enjoy the process of mastering learning which is, a lifelong journey.

Set learning goals (solve at least 3 algebra problems, learn 5 new French words), rather than performance goals (getting 90% on the math exam). And if your child requires help along that journey, engage a trainer on Tueetor. After all, each student, each child is unique. Getting a trainer to help determine learning objectives which are specific, measurable and attainable, will help enable the child/student grow not only in knowledge and learning skills, but in confidence and self-esteem, not just in their development years but also when they become adults.

For more information on how you may be matched with a trainer on the Tueetor platform, call +65 6206 6660 or send us a PM via Facebook or whatsapp on 98833867. Daniel Wong’s excellent study smart tips are available on his website, whilst Dr Cottrell’s tips are available on student.com. This article was written and edited by Cecilia Leong.