Study Strategies That Work

To find study techniques that work, you have to know how the brain works.

Last week, my son had quizzes in math and science. I’d literally just finished checking off my “back-to-school” shopping list, and we were already in quiz and test mode. If you’re in the same boat and wondering whether your student is ready for all these tests and quizzes, this article’s for you. 

I asked John Cadenhead, our Senior Director of Tutor Services, for a refresher on the most important study strategies for middle and high school students. Here’s what he shared.

1. Focus on How to Remember

We all know that remembering things is important when it comes to tests and quizzes. But knowing how to remember is the key to effective studying.

So here’s how memory works. It all starts with sensory memory – the sights, sounds, etc – happening all around you. In the classroom, this equates to what the teacher might be saying or displaying on the smart board. 

Pause for a second and think about all the things bombarding your sensory memory right now. Only the things you choose to pay attention to will actually work their way to the next level – working memory.

At Applerouth, we say working memory is like your desk – a great place for holding the things you’re currently working on, but one that gets filled up and cluttered quickly. Since working memory is limited, your brain is designed to take the information there and either trash it or put it in long-term memory

Excerpted from Applerouth’s Guide to Academic Success, page 75.

Kids have a lot on their minds. So how do we make sure the right information from their classes makes its way into their long-term memory, where they can access it for tests and quizzes? 

The answer is all about encoding and retrieval – two terms that we brain science nerds here at Applerouth love. There are a LOT of great strategies our Academic Tutors can teach our students to help support both encoding (getting key info. stored long-term memory) and retrieval (getting the info. back out when needed for a test).

What follows are some of John’s favorites.

2. Reinforce Those Memories with Short, Frequent Study Sessions

My son started learning about cell biology two weeks ago, and the test was on a Friday morning. So he better review everything on Thursday night, right? Wrong. (Well, if it’s already Thursday night then, by all means, study now! But there is a better way.)

The better way is actually to review a little bit, perhaps each day or a few times per week, from the time you start learning the material until the time you’re tested on it. In other words, short, frequent study sessions are much more effective than one long cram session. (They’re also a lot less painful!)

A great formula to follow is review, rest, revisit:

  • Review your notes each day after class
  • Rest overnight – sleep is an important component memory consolidation
  • Revisit your notes again within 24 hours

Reviewing notes within the first 24 hours after you’ve first learned something has been shown to dramatically improve retention. 

3. Give Yourself a Break (Yes, Really)

If your student has been studying one subject for over an hour without a break, they’re starting to get diminishing returns from their efforts. As we add more and more information into our brains, we start to overload the system and process less effectively. 

The antidote is to take well-timed breaks. A good rule of thumb would be to study the material for 25 minutes, then break for 5. Get up, move around, go for a short walk, and refresh your attention, then get back to work. 

If breaks are helpful during study sessions, they’re even more important between sessions. Again, in an ideal world, our students are not first reviewing the material on Thursday night for a Friday test. 

This enables students to distribute their study sessions, with days off where they can focus on another subject or rest entirely. Distributed studying is like strength training for the brain. We lift some weights, give our muscles a day off to rest and recover, then lift again. 

Retrieval may be more effortful at first, but they’ll remember the information more readily in the long-term (i.e., on test day and beyond). Students need to find the ideal time lapse between study sessions, where retrieval is effortful, but still possible. 

4. Turn Study Time into Story Time

I wish this one meant that my son could leave those mitochondria facts behind and grab a Harry Potter book instead. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. But it does remind us that stories, and certain other familiar patterns, are sticky. They help us remember things. 

So, if you’re studying for a history test, think in terms of the narrative and the key characters – get visuals of what they look like to make things come to life in your mind.

Not every subject lends itself to a narrative, but students can use other mnemonics, like rhymes or humorous phrases to make otherwise dry content more memorable. Take the Parts of the Cell Rap my son’s class watched last week. Watch this video once and I can promise you’ll never forget . . . “cells, cells they’re made of organelles.”

Or, to take an example from the pre YouTube era, there’s a reason all us parents still remember PEMDAS, and it’s not because the order of operations is a particularly thrilling bit of content.

5. Make Sure the Real Test Isn’t Your First

By the time your student gets to the real quiz or test, they should have tested themselves on the content a few times. Self testing is one of the most effective ways to cement what we’ve learned, and there are many ways to do it. Help your student find the methods that work best for them. 

They can drill themselves using flashcards they’ve made or try teaching what they’ve learned to a family member or friend. Whatever self testing method they choose, they’ll be in a better position to recall the information with accuracy when they take the test in class.

The key with all of these strategies is to adapt them to your student’s unique needs, schedule, and subjects. 

Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 202-558-5644 or