How to Study

how to study
Have you ever had your memory fail you when you needed it the most? Were you taking a test you felt well prepared for, but as you sat down to take it you felt your mind go blank? Unfortunately, this happens to everyone at some time or another. You can improve your chances that you will not be in the situation however, if you know how to study. Learning how to learn is an art, but there are powerful techniques and guidelines that can aid you.

Mnemonic Techniques

Mnemonic techniques are powerful tools to help your brain remember information. Your brain is not very good at remembering things that it thinks are mundane or boring. It helps if you are interested or engaged in a subject, but some subjects seem to be boring no matter how you look at them. At their heart, mnemonic techniques take advantage of the fact that the memory is very good for things that engage, are very different, or absurd. These tools also take advantage of the fact that our ability to remember facts and numbers are not as good as our spacial and visual memories. Once learned, these powerful tools can help you to study.


Method of Loci – This technique is also called the Memory palace or the journey method. It associates a fixed path through a familiar place with vivid images placed at regular intervals. It is best to use a trip or place you know very well, a good place to begin practicing this method could be the house you grew up in. Vivid memorable images are associated with the items you want to remember. For example: if you are remembering a grocery list that contained eggs as its first item, you might remember an image of Humpty Dumpty sitting on the curb in front of your childhood home. You can further enhance this image by imagining him doing something very funny or obscene. There is much written about this technique, and it has been used since antiquity as a study aid. One of the earliest records we have of this technique is contained in a book on Rhetoric called the Ad Herennium. It is worthwhile reading, and I written information and notes about this ancient text and its treatment of memory on the Ad Herennium page.

Chunking – Your memory remembers associated objects as a single unit better then the individual objects. For example, it is much easier to remember one hundred and forty seven then the string of numbers 1, 4, 7. As the strings of numbers get longer, this effect becomes much more pronounced. The fact that telephone numbers are broken into two sections in the United States is because of this fact. 5467893 is a lot less memorable then 546-7893.

Pegging – Using images associated to numbers, rhyme or the alphabet to remember information.

Converting information into images, rhyme or acronyms can greatly aid your memory. “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen ninety-two” is a good example of this technique. You can make it even more memorable by imagining an image of a boat made out of the numbers 1492 with a man wearing an “I love Ohio” t-shirt sailing across a giant bathtub full of bright blue water, all while you repeat the rhyme. Since Columbus is the capital of Ohio, this gives your memory a hint at the name of the person. The boat made out of numbers is quite absurd, and you would be hard pressed to have seen anything like it outside of a cartoon. The bathtub of titanic proportions is equally absurd, so it is likely to stick in your mind.

Advanced Memory Systems

Mnemonic Major System – An advanced system for making pegs or remembering sequences of numbers when combined with the Memory palace. The numbers 0 through 9, or 0 through 99 for advanced practitioners of this technique, are associated to a word based on a phonetic mapping. There is a pretty good online training program available here for a common variant of this system.

Person Action Object – Associating a set of persons, actions and objects with a set of things to remember. This system requires a large investment in time and is very useful for remembering the order of a familiar set of things. This technique is used by mental athletes to commit the order of a deck of cards to memory for example. This technique involves the most effort of all the mnemonic techniques to master, but it can be a very powerful skill to have. Joshua Foer used this technique to remember the order of a complete deck of cards in around 2 minutes to win the United States Memory Championship.


Studying Guidelines

Mnemonics are very powerful memory aids, but memory techniques alone will not make you excellent at studying. You need to focus on some basic principles when you are preparing for a test or trying to commit something to memory. Everyone's mind is a little different, but at our cores they work in very similar ways. Here are some guidelines to follow as you begin your task.

Remember to repeat

Repeat information at regular intervals, it helps cement memories. Repetition is an extremely powerful memory aid.

Don't do all your studying at once

It is much better to break up your studying into smaller blocks over several days then all at once. Three or four thirty minute study sessions tend to be a lot better then even a four hour cram session. This is one of the most important guidelines for studying. You memory works much better if it is consistently exposed to the same information over time. It is much weaker when you push yourself all in one study session.

Take breaks

If you find yourself getting bored with your studying, take a short break. A quick walk around the block or on a treadmill to clear the mind is my personal favorite. Your mind tends to work better when you are active, our bodies evolved in an environment where our ancestors walked great distances every day. You can do something else during your break, but I would suggest against anything that could be a large time sink. If you start watching a tv show, surfing the web, or pick up the novel you are reading you risk finding yourself off task.

When the mind is bored it just doesn't work as well. Taking regular breaks helps a great deal, but try and make them short or you risk derailing your study session and getting sucked into something else.

Engage multiple senses

Engaging as many senses as possible helps engage more of your memory systems. Here are some ideas:

  1. Read a book aloud

  2. Listen to a recording or watch a video of a lecture while you review the notes

  3. Try to make information more emotional and full of imagery. For example, if you need to remember details about the Irish Potato Famine, you might try and associate the feeling of hunger and images of poor hungry children with the facts you need to commit to memory. It will greatly aid your memory for these facts.

Use analogies and mnemonic techniques to make information more memorable

I can not stress how useful mnemonic techniques, rhyme and analogy are in helping you study. It generally takes a little more mental effort to invent a memorable scene, silly rhyme or cleaver analogy for information then to just learn that information by rote. Since you engage your memory in multiple ways using these techniques your mind tends to remember them a whole lot better.

It is probably better to try and commit key points and techniques to memory using these techniques then to try and memorize all the information. The very act of deciding the key points helps engage your mind better, and will help give you a robust framework to help you remember the other details.

Be motivated and don't procrastinate

If you procrastinate and do not study till the last minute it can be hard to follow the other study guidelines listed above. If you plan your time and study over a period of time you will likely have to invest less time anyway. Obviously sometimes it is hard to avoid procrastination, some of us are highly predisposed to doing it. If you make a plan and stick to it, try and reward yourself during the time you saved by planning ahead. Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool to help us change our behaviors.


We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things,

not because they are easy,

but because they are hard”

John F. Kennedy

Learning how to study efficiently can be a great help when it comes to test time. It is a skill that can take some effort to acquire, but it is well worth the investment. Success in life can be an elusive thing sometimes, but you will have a leg up on the competition if you can quickly learn new things. While this list of tools and recommendations will not by itself make you a test taking savant, they can give you that much needed edge. Practice them, and don't feel that you have to perfect them or follow them exactly for results. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Sometimes you have to cram for an exam, but by using all the tools in your tool belt you can make this task easier. Perfecting the skill of how to study will help you in the road ahead. Let's get to it.