How to Study

We have previously looked at how to memorize verbatim text. If you haven’t read that post, be sure to check it out. It gives a good overview of how your brain works. By understanding what is happening inside your head when a fact is converted to a memory and a memory is then converted into a strong memory, you can set yourself up for success in memorization.

The previous article deals with verbatim memorization–where you want to be able to repeat something back word for word. This is useful for memorizing lines in a play, a famous speech, Scripture, or other things where you want to be able to recall them word for word. However, most of what we need to learn doesn’t require verbatim memorization. Normally, we need to recall important facts, but they don’t need to be memorized word for word.

The key part of learning something is to allow your mind to interact with the information from all kinds of different angles. This is deep learning. If you are just trying to barely remember something for a test, this will seem like way too much work. But if you truly want to learn, you want to let your brain approach the information from a bunch of different points of view. This allows your mind to create as many connections as possible with other information you know and anchor it permanently in your memory.

Here are some ideas for getting maximum interaction with the topic you are trying to learn:

  • Teach someone else. If you can take what you’ve learned and teach it to someone else, you will retain much more of what you’ve learned. Passing on information helps your brain interact with it in a new way and makes you think deeply about the parts you may not fully understand in order to convey the information to someone else. Teaching someone else can be as simple as explaining it to a spouse or friend, or could be something more formal. If you are in school, you might consider trying to find a teaching partner–someone who is studying a different area than you. By taking turns teaching each other, you’ll both remember your topics better. This works especially well if you have an active student–the person you are teaching really tries to understand and asks questions.
  • Talk with people about the topic. This can be simply getting together with others who are studying the same thing and having an informal conversation. If you are in a formal class, taking a few minutes to talk with your teacher can be a great way to help you remember. Also, don’t overlook internet newsgroups dedicated to the subject. By participating, you will keep exercising the memories of what you are trying to learn.
  • Draw pictures. Finding ways to visually represent information is another great way to interact. In college, I wanted to test out of my Old Testament class. The biggest challenge was to memorize the chronology of a bunch of Kings and keeping track of when the kingdom split and came back together. By drawing a time line of little sketches, I was able to keep it clear in my mind who did what and when it occurred. Drawing pictures helps involve the fact based side of your brain with the creative side. Don’t feel like you can’t draw. Stick figures work just fine for this type of work.
  • Write about the topic. This is related to discussing the topic with others, but the writing process can be a very beneficial way to embed memories. This is why you will normally remember more when you are taking notes. Be aware that writing by hand and typing trigger different parts of the brain. You can use both methods to help solidify what you are trying to learn. I know some people who would take notes by hand in a class and then retype them because it made the information easier to remember. Another idea is to do a blog post or update the Wikipedia entry about your topic.
  • Find Other Sources. If you can find other reading about the topic, it can help you see things from different points of view. When I am faced with something that is difficult to understand in a book, I’ll often try to find another book on the same subject and read the corresponding section. I find that this often gives me an alternative perspective that helps bring understanding better than just sticking with a single source. Other ideas are to locate podcasts on the topic to listen to, browse the topics section in a bookstore or library, or find a video on the topic.
  • Create something. You can make a video explaining the topic and post it on Youtube. Record some interviews with experts in the field. Create a website around the topic. Organize (or participate in) a reenactment. Graffiti information about the topic all over the streets of a large city. Well, maybe the graffiti idea isn’t so great. Anything you can do to involve your creativity will help you remember the topic.


  1. says

    I particularly enjoy the ‘write about’ comment. I use both a personal notebook to capture thoughts and ideas and then if I am feeling really interested I will write a post on the computer – perhaps for my blog.

    I think one of the biggest things to remember about learning is not to rush it. This is particularly important for younger people since many of us are used to cramming and rushing for exams only to forget about all the material we ‘learned’ within a few hours of writing the test. Take it slow and at your own pace. There’s no use to rushing it anyway since you will never learn all there is to know, no matter how hard you try…

  2. Elisa Miguel says

    I have always found that taking the information down in different ways is helpful.

    I read the book, write the material, type out the material, speak it into a tape recorder, and listen to it. This allows me to take the information in using all of my senses and different parts of the brain.

  3. Mohammad says

    I’m looking for techniques regarding text mark-up, summarization and memorization. I used to highlight the key words in a text but I’ve heard that drawing a box around the key words in a text is much more effective. In this way they are catched and sticked to the brain better. I’d like to inform myself more on this subject. I’d also like to know how should I link them and make a logical map of it so that I can recall the whole text just by glancing at the map. Does anyone know any resource or website regarding that?

    By the way, thanks Mark for your great effort. Useful article, amazing site. Highly appreciated. I’ll recommend it to my friends.

  4. says

    I have found that what works best for me is to read the material before a lecture, then listen (note taking distracts me from learning so I don’t do it) and ask questions during the lecture, then re-read the material, do the home work, go do something else.

  5. says

    @Mohammad – It’s all about how engaged you are with the text. Highlighting can be fine so long as you don’t highlight every word. Another technique is to write very small summaries next to each paragraph, saying what it’s about.

    Whenever you finish a chapter or (if the chapters are long) segment of a chapter, close the book and write down a 1-2 paragraph summary of what you’ve just read. This will really help solidify it in your mind. Also, when you get to the end of the book, you’ll have this lovely recap to jog your memory.

    In terms of mind-mapping, think about what the main idea in the chapter was and put that in the middle, then branch out from there into major themes and sub-themes.

    Hope this helps!

  6. says

    I agree that teaching something is often the best way to learn it – especially maths in my experience! Algebra and such seem to suddenly make sense when you are on the explaining side of things :)


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