Study Less, Study Smart: A Longtime Psych Professor Explains How to Study (or Do Any Intellectual Work) Effectively

If you’ve left for­mal edu­ca­tion, you no doubt retain a few good mem­o­ries from your years as a stu­dent. None of them, safe to say, involve study­ing — assum­ing you man­aged to get any study­ing done in the first place. The unfor­tu­nate fact is that few of us ever real­ly come to grips with what it means to study, apart from sit­ting by one­self with a text­book for hours on end. Despite its obvi­ous inef­fi­cien­cy as a learn­ing method, we’ve all found our­selves doing that kind of “study­ing” at one time or anoth­er. Hav­ing taught psy­chol­o­gy class­es for 40 years, Pierce Col­lege pro­fes­sor Mar­ty Lob­dell has seen thou­sands of stu­dents labor­ing, indeed suf­fer­ing, under sim­i­lar study­ing-relat­ed assump­tions, and in his 8.7‑million-times-viewed talk “Study Less, Study Smart,” he sets out to cor­rect them. He has also dis­pensed his wis­dom in a book by the same title.

Not many of us can get much out of a text­book after a few hours with it, or indeed, after more than about thir­ty min­utes. It’s thus at such an inter­val that Lob­dell sug­gests tak­ing a reg­u­lar five-minute break to lis­ten to music, play a game, talk to a friend, med­i­tate — to do any­thing but study — in order to recharge your abil­i­ty to focus and head off these dimin­ish­ing returns of absorp­tion. At the end of each entire study ses­sion, you’d do well to sched­ule a big­ger reward in order to rein­force the behav­ior of engag­ing in study ses­sions in the first place. Ide­al­ly, you’ll enjoy this reward in a dif­fer­ent place than you do your study­ing, which itself should­n’t be a room that comes with its own dis­tract­ing pri­ma­ry use, like the bed­room, kitchen, or liv­ing room.

Even if you have a ded­i­cat­ed study area (and bet­ter yet, a ded­i­cat­ed study lamp that you turn on only while hit­ting the books), you won’t get much accom­plished there if you rely on sim­ply read­ing texts over and over again in hopes of even­tu­al­ly mem­o­riz­ing their con­tents. Lob­dell rec­om­mends focus­ing pri­mar­i­ly on not facts but the broad­er con­cepts that orga­nize those facts. An effec­tive means of check­ing whether you under­stand a con­cept is to try explain­ing it in your own words: Richard Feyn­man premised his “note­book tech­nique” for learn­ing, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, on just such a process. You’ll also want to make use of the notes you take in class, but only if you take them in a use­ful way, which neces­si­tates a process of expan­sion and revi­sion imme­di­ate­ly after each class.

Lob­dell has much more advice to offer through­out the full, hour­long talk. In it he also cov­ers the val­ue of study groups; the more ques­tion­able val­ue of high­light­ing; gen­uine remem­ber­ing ver­sus sim­ple recog­ni­tion; the neces­si­ty of a good night’s sleep; the “sur­vey, ques­tion, read, recite, review” approach to text­books; and the use­ful­ness of mnemon­ics (even, or per­haps espe­cial­ly, sil­ly ones). If you’re a stu­dent, you can make use of Lob­del­l’s tech­niques right away, and if you once were a stu­dent, you may find your­self wish­ing you’d known about them back then. But prop­er­ly adapt­ed, they can ben­e­fit the intel­lec­tu­al work you do at any stage of life. Nev­er, after all, does con­cen­tra­tion become less valu­able, and nev­er can we claim to have learned some­thing unless we can first make it under­stood to oth­ers – or indeed, to our­selves.

If you want the cliff notes ver­sion of the Study Less, Study Smart lec­ture, watch the video below:

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Craft of Writ­ing Effec­tive­ly: Essen­tial Lessons from the Long­time Direc­tor of UChicago’s Writ­ing Pro­gram

How to Speak: Watch the Lec­ture on Effec­tive Com­mu­ni­ca­tion That Became an MIT Tra­di­tion for Over 40 Years

The Cor­nell Note-Tak­ing Sys­tem: Learn the Method Stu­dents Have Used to Enhance Their Learn­ing Since the 1940s

Richard Feynman’s “Note­book Tech­nique” Will Help You Learn Any Subject–at School, at Work, or in Life

The “Feyn­man Tech­nique” for Study­ing Effec­tive­ly: An Ani­mat­ed Primer

Richard Feynman’s Tech­nique for Learn­ing Some­thing New: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

What’s a Sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly-Proven Way to Improve Your Abil­i­ty to Learn? Get Out and Exer­cise

Wyn­ton Marsalis Gives 12 Tips on How to Prac­tice: For Musi­cians, Ath­letes, or Any­one Who Wants to Learn Some­thing New

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • Sheikh Razaul Islam says:

    Instruc­tions are high­ly praise­wor­thy and it is a com­plete guide line about study­ing. Thank you sir.

  • WW says:

    I pre­fer the Bill W. Study Method: 1.) Put-on some good Jazz, prefer­ably Miles Davis 2.) Get com­fort­able 3.) Drink good beer to achieve a buzz, being care­ful not to get out­right-drunk 4.) Study, or write your col­lege paper-mas­ter­piece. Do your work prefer­ably after Mid­night, and do it in one-sit­ting, even if for hours. 5.) When com­plet­ed, don’t change a thing you wrote in your alco­hol-induced haze; go to bed, if able.

    I got an “A” every time!

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