How to build effective learning habits

During my student days at IIT Kanpur, some of my classmates would ace every course and get a GPA of 10 out of 10. 

Naturally, they would be the ones slogging late nights and spending all their time studying – right? Not at all. In fact, they studied no more than the average performers. So what was different? 

I think two things made them stand out:

  1. They studied with intense focus – without distractions.
  2. They had effective learning habits.

Based on my own experience of writing exams (IITJEE, GMAT, Civil Services) and everyday learning, I want to share with you a few simple ways to improve your study habits. 

Accelerate your learning with these 10 effective study habits 

1. Focus on structured information

Focus on structured information

Often, when we start a book or an online course, we just dive in – we have no idea about the structure of the material or the topics. So whatever we are learning  – we don’t know how it fits into an overall scheme of things. 

When we don’t have that big picture, it becomes harder to synthesize information. So whenever you start a new book or even a chapter, quickly flip through the study material to:

  • Divide your course material into subjects, topics, and modules.
  • Spend some time reading the names of the chapters and sub-chapters you have to cover.

Once you have the basic structure in mind, it becomes easier to absorb information.

 2. Ask questions

Reading through textbooks and online study material can become a passive exercise. You may find that you have to re-read the same para again and again – if that happens, you are not absorbing the material.

To enhance your absorption, first, ask a lot of questions about the study material and try to find answers to them. You can go through the end-of-chapter questions or just think about some questions by looking at the chapter names, topics, and modules. 

Even as you study, jot down any questions that arise in your mind and try finding answers to these questions. 

The more questions you ask, the more your curiosity is piqued, and the more you search for answers while learning. It makes your learning massively efficient. 

 3. Take notes using active recall 

Take notes using active recall

We may know that taking notes while studying is important but do you know how to do that for maximum understanding?

Start taking notes using the active recall method and here is how:

  • Read your textbook or online study material for five to ten minutes.
  • Pause and summarize in a few sentences what you have just learned. If you can’t remember, you need to revisit the study material and repeat. It may feel a bit time-taking but it will make real learning happen.

By the way, these notes don’t have to be perfect; you can even simply scribble if you want. 

4. Use the Feynman technique

Feynman technique

The Feynman Technique, proposed by physicist Richard Feynman, is a method of learning that helps you develop a deep understanding of any material.

Use this technique to solidify your own learning in four simple steps:

  • Choose a topic and study it for an hour or so.
  • Now teach it by imagining that you are explaining this topic to a layperson or a child. Use simple language while doing so.
  • If you are struggling to explain lucidly, review your notes and try again.

5. Engage in interleaving learning 

interleaving learning

Interleaving learning is extremely effective when you have multiple subjects or topics to learn.

Trying to study the same subject or topic for several hours at a stretch leads to boredom and emotional fatigue. Instead, alternate between two or more topics to facilitate learning:

  • First, you decide which topics or subjects to alternate between (interleave).
  • Then decide how often to interleave the subjects and in what pattern. E.g., you may give an hour or two to each subject before switching to another.
  • Eventually, you practice interleaving learning as decided. You can adjust the structure, if desired, for better learning.

6. Space the learning

Which is more effective: studying for 6 hours at a stretch OR studying for 1.5 hrs each for four days? It is the latter. 

When we space our learning two things happen:

  1. Every time you restart learning, your brain is forced to recall the previous information for context and continuity. It is almost like revising. That makes learning very effective.
  2. Our brain saturates quite quickly and we start absorbing information soon. Taking a break every 30-45 min can solve the problem to an extent but a long sitting will still get overwhelming. 

So learn for shorter periods of time over multiple sessions – this is called spacing.

7. Find a dedicated study spot

dedicated study spot

Find a quiet and peaceful place in your house where you can study uninterrupted for a few hours daily. It is futile to try studying in loud and noisy environments.

If you can’t find such a place in your house, you can search for libraries in your area where you can study without any distractions.

Also, when you study at the same place, your mind starts associating that place with focused learning. 

8. Minimize distractions

Minimize distractions

The modern learner faces multiple distractions in the form of phone calls, social media, text messages, etc., which are highly detrimental to the learning process.

Here are the disadvantages of distraction and multi-tasking: 

  1. When we are distracted, we can’t give our attention to one particular task – our attention is fragmented and it destroys our effectiveness. 
  2. Every time you switch, the previous activity leaves a little residue and that clogs your working memory. 
  3. It takes time to settle down and focus on a task. So if we keep switching, we rarely reach that focused state.
  4. Once we switch to another task, we often take a long time to come back. So we just have a bunch of incomplete tasks, which will create anxiety and dissatisfaction.

So do the following to minimize distractions while studying:

  • Have a short-term goal for your study session and write it down on a piece of paper. Commit to it and make it your priority.
  • Do a focused sprint (typically 30-45 min each), during do not switch to another task. Focus on one topic at a time. Even avoid washroom breaks during the session.
  • Keep your phone on silent mode and close unnecessary tabs on your laptops if you are studying from an online source.

 9. Take practice tests

Take practice tests regularly, even if you don’t feel you have a full grip on the concepts. Ideally, keep alternating between taking practice tests and reading theory. Every time you solve a problem or answer a question, it challenges your thinking and deepens your understanding. 

This has been extremely effective for me for any exam I have prepared for.

Giving mock exams in a controlled environment also helps prepare you for the actual exams and boosts your confidence levels.

10. Join a study group

Join a study group

While some students do well studying alone, others may benefit from being a part of a study group.

Study groups may be formed online or offline. Being in study groups helps make you more accountable and motivated. It also fosters healthy competition and teamwork. The only thing to be careful about is that the study group members should be disciplined and focused. 

Create your own study group if you can’t find one to join.

  • Connect with other students doing the same or similar courses.
  • Identify study goals as a group.
  • Determine how and when to meet.
  • Schedule regular study group meetings, possibly on Zoom if a physical meeting is not possible.

Wrapping up

When we want to learn faster or improve our performance, we often tend to look for silver bullets – some magical solution that will solve our problems. But no such solutions exist. 

But what really works is adopting good learning techniques and that is what I am encouraging you to do. If out of all the points mentioned above, you can pick only one, pick ‘note-taking using active recall.’ 

That’s it. Decide which habits you are going to pick, set your time, pick a book/online course, and learn something for an hour. It might start a life-changing journey for you.

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