What are smart tips for studying by myself?

Master these 5 tips for smarter and more effective studying, so you waste less time preparing for your important exams.

Tip #1. Visualize being a pro!

This technique is called building a mental model: you imagine in detail how you expect things will go during your studies and even when you get to exam time. By telling yourself a story, you train your brain to anticipate next steps and expect a positive outcome. Here’s how:

  • Start your day by visualizing your success with studying. Do this before you begin your study session, and set aside about 5–10 minutes for this activity. You can do it either before you get up in the morning, while you’re having breakfast, or right after breakfast as you’re sitting with your eyes closed.
  • Be detailed in thinking about all the steps you will take. This can include covering the chapters and exercises planned for that day, to taking the time to review the material, to writing out an outline of important concepts, to practicing exam questions and knowing the answers.
  • Anticipate and identify which parts you will find challenging to understand and remember. This helps you prepare for problems so you don’t end up getting surprised because you don’t understand a part of the lecture. Then, come up with ways to resolve this (for example, by asking a classmate, reaching out to the professor during office hours or via email, or by designating a little extra time for review).
  • Imagine yourself at the end of the day feeling great about covering all the material and understanding the important stuff. It’s not all about just what happens on the day of the exam that can contribute to your feeling of success. Celebrating small wins every day will boost your motivation and help you feel more positive about moving ahead.
  • Take a minute to think what you will do in the evening to treat yourself for all your hard work. Maybe you’ll want to go for a long walk by yourself or with a friend, go on a long bike ride, run, prepare a dinner with some of your favorite ingredients, watch a fun movie, or spend some quality time with a friend or partner.

Tip #2. Study the most difficult material early in the day.

  • Why study early? It’s all about taking advantage of your circadian rhythm, which dictates which activities we’re more likely to do best at certain times of the day. For most people, your brain’s peak performance  happens 2-4 hours after you wake up. This is the time when your brain can focus on analytical thinking that requires the most concentration. For studying, this can be reading, writing, coding, analyzing, critical thinking, or problem solving.
  • When should you study? If you wake up at 8, your peak times are between 10 and 12. You can extend this time until lunch to maximize your peak performance. This also means you should turn off your phone (at least the volume), avoid responding to calls and text messages, and ignore any other distractions that can disrupt your study time (emails, watching the news, socializing, etc.).
  • What are the benefits? Doing your hard work early in the day allows your brain to focus fully on the problem at hand, with fewer distractions, less inputs from your environment, and with a lot of energy that you’ve gained from a restful night. It’s the exact opposite of what can happen if you leave your toughest studying for nighttime, when you are exhausted from the day. That time is much better for going over the material you’ve already studied and practiced earlier in the day.

Tip #3. Time it right.

For most efficient studying, you don’t need to be sitting at your desk for hours. Use a timer to better manage your study session. That way you allow your brain to focus in a more targeted and effective way. Here are some suggestions:

  • Read and review study material: Set the timer to 30 or 60 minute increments to maximize concentration; or, for really short bursts of study, try the Pomodoro technique which consists of 25 minute blocks of time, followed by 5 minute breaks.
  • Practice exam questions: Use the review questions from your textbook or handouts prepared by your professor (or create your own questions based on the most important concepts from each chapter). Write the questions down on a sheet of paper. Then, use the Pomodoro technique to rehearse for the exam. Give yourself only a short time to answer each question. Use each 25-minute block of time to cover several questions, and go down the list until you’ve covered them all.
  • Take breaks: When you’re done with one timed segment, step away from your desk and do something completely unrelated to work: get some fresh air, stretch, have a snack, grab a cup of coffee or tea.

Tip #4. Memorize faster with the teaching technique.

One of the most powerful memory techniques is recalling newly learned information by teaching it to someone else or simply retelling it to yourself out loud. This helps you review, recall, and retain what you’ve learned better than just silently looking over the material. Here’s how to get started:

  • Get an audience: it can be a close friend, study partner or family member. Too shy to speak to anyone? Pretend you have a couple of invisible students who really need to learn what you just covered, and talk to them!
  • Create a private classroom: take a large sheet of white paper (or tape together several sheets for a bigger writing surface), then tape it to your bedroom wall at eye level. Be sure you have some leg room to stand in front of it. Have a pen handy, and a thick black marker (or different colored highlighters) to underline important concepts.
  • Get to work: Write an outline of the most important points in the chapter you just covered, then go over the concepts aloud one by one. Make your “lecture” come alive by drawing diagrams on the side and by providing a few examples; add some humor or a short story to make it even more interesting. At the end, summarize the key parts of your lecture and highlight these sections with your thick marker or highlighter. This helps you recall details better and solidify what you’ve learned.

Tip #5. Use sleep to help your brain organize everything you’ve learned.

  • What are the benefits of sleep? Neuroscientists believe that sleep can help us learn and memorize better, and also give our brain time to get rid of unnecessary waste. Conversely, chronic sleep deprivation can reduce our cognitive abilities, can impact our concentration, and can even reduce IQ.
  • How can you optimize your sleep? Sleep on your side. According to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the brain’s glymphatic pathway (the exchange of two fluids, the cerebrospinal fluid in your brain and the interstitial fluid in your body) helps to eliminate “brain junk,” and this process of elimination is most effective when we sleep on our side. The result? You wake up more refreshed the next day with a clear mind.
  • What helps to unwind fast in the evening? Try this:
    • Step away from electronics (mainly your computer and TV screens), because the light may be keeping you alert without you even being aware of it.
    • Have a cup of herbal tea or some other warm drink without any caffeine, for example warm milk with honey or a magnesium supplement (in tablet or powder form).
    • Do something relaxing 15–20 minutes before bedtime: listen to music or just close your eyes and breathe deeply for 10 counts before you brush your teeth and get ready for bed.
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