There’s a reason why that guy’s top of the class.
And it’s probably not because he was born a genius, or even that he studied as much as you
assume he did. Yes, he spends a fair amount of his time in the trenches, but no more than most
of his classmates (some of whom spends upwards of 12 hours a day studying 4 weeks before
Nope. What the top guy did differently is the way he studied. The difference in the way he
studied are so subtle, he probably didn’t know he was doing it until someone points it out to him.
How do I know? Because I asked every so-called “academically gifted” people I met. And here
are the top 10 most common things they told me they did:
This is THE most common habit all ‘A’ students have. They teach. Sometimes it’s because they
like it, but most times it’s because their friends ask them for their help.
What they didn’t know is that teaching actually reinforces what they’ve learned, creating this
virtuous cycle: the more they teach, the more they learn, the more people asks them for their
In the past, there’s not much you can do if you are an average student and you want to teach.
Your friends simply won’t want to listen to you. Today, however, there are literally millions of
students online looking for help in communities like Grockit.
Join the community and contribute. No matter how bad you think you are, there’s a 99%
chance you know something someone out there doesn’t understand. Help the people who asks
questions in areas you just learned.
Trust me, it will pay off.
2. Keep It Real
Math, geography, science and many other subjects involve abstract concepts like “pi” or
“differentiation”. The human brain learns by forming associations with what’s already in there -
and abstract concepts like these have none.
To help your brain forge that link, try to associate what you’ve learned with real life. How would
an engineer use “pi” in his job, for example? How can you use differentiation in life?
In pedagogy, this is called project-based learning, and it has been shown to increase grades
across the board.
3. Use Metaphors
If you just want to learn a small concept you don’t get (like the behaviour of an atom), one of
the best ways to help your brain forge an association is by using metaphors. Most of us do
this subconsciously anyway, but if you sit down and come up with one, that strengthens your
4. Find The Roots
This is one of the most useful methods I’ve used during my studies because it helps me
understand, instead of memorize.
To understand, you need to know the origins of that particular concept. For example, how did
Newton found out that the visible spectrum consists of 7 colours? I won’t tell you how (just
Google it), but understanding how it came about can help you grasp more advanced knowledge.
5. Obsessively Rewrite
I know this is going to sound boring, but rewriting is the single most effective way I know of to
learn basic concepts. Let me repeat that in case you missed it: re-WRITING, not re-reading re-
listening, re-watching or even re-typing.
It’s a classic technique used by ‘A’ students to learn everything from languages to math for
decades, but it’s only quite recently that neuroscience caught up. I won’t bore you with the
details, but for those who are interested, here’s a page in MIT’s website and a Wall Street
Journal article that go more into this subject.
6. Pay Attention
This sounds obvious, but I’m not referring to the students who are busy texting while the teacher
is teaching. I’m referring to hardworking students who are taking copious notes while their
teachers are teaching. You are not making the best use of that lecture!
Pay attention while you’re in class and take notes when you to re-watch the recording. Most
classes record their lectures, but if yours doesn’t, you might be able to find one on the same
And if all else fail, ask your teacher for permission to record his/her lecture. In this case, tools
like Livescribe or Evernote can help.
7. Contain Distractions
This is one of those things that are so obvious, yet everyone seems to ignore it. Distractions
come in many forms – physical, functional and psychological – and they unequivocally affects
your learning ability. That’s fact, not theory or conjecture.
For more about containing distractions and the effects they have on your mind, read this article
my colleague wrote for Hack College.
8. Engage In Mastery-Based Learning
Unlike in traditional classrooms, “mastery learning” helps all students to master each learning
unit before proceeding to more advanced concepts. That is if you don’t master chapter 1, you
don’t progress to chapter 2.
Mastery learning has been shown to increase student achievement compared to traditional
forms of education in various studies because a gap in knowledge snowballs as the year
The problem with master learning is that it’s time intensive. Teachers just don’t have the
resources to help 30 odd students in her class in the current education system.
Well, if your teachers can’t help you, take matters into your own hand and seek your friend’s
help or join a community like Grockit. No matter what you do, don’t progress to the next chapter
until you mastered this one.
I know that sounds like a lot of work, but studies have found that some students may struggle
with an early concept (and thus appear to be slow learners) but once they master that concept,
they will have no problem catching up (some even appear as if they are geniuses).
9. Use Technology To Your Advantage
We’ve talked a lot of online communities and lectures that can help you with your studies, but
technology is more than just the internet.
E-books, for example, can help you quickly search for a reference instead of flipping through
the textbook, thus helping you keep your momentum when you are studying. Speaking of
momentum, mobile apps can help you refresh your memory while you’re on the move.
And certain virtual worlds can help illustrate abstract concepts into 3D models. For most people,
it’s a lot easier to watch a video about how atoms work rather than read a bunch of words and
10. Move and Breaks
This has nothing to do with studying, per se, but it’s so important, I have to include it in this list.
If you want to learn most effectively, it is absolutely critical that you move your body – that is
exercise – and that you take frequent breaks.
Exercise releases a gamut of hormones that are beneficial for your neurological functioning
and it raises your heart beat, allowing your brain to receive more oxygen-rich blood. So it’s no
wonder that, according to various studies, exercises have been shown to increase memory
retention and better learning functions.
Breaks are crucial because all of us have a limited pool of cognitive ability (despite what some
self-help guru may preach). Discipline (self-control), paying attention, memorizing, and various
other cognitive functions all draw from that same pool, and when that pool runs dry, you simply
don’t perform at your peak.
To illustrate this, a study found that hungry subjects who are tempted with delicious cookies give
up faster than the control group (not hungry at all) and group B, who was tempted with radishes
when they are asked to solve a challenging puzzle.
Breaks also include sleep. Sleep is more than just physical rest. It’s also when your brain
transfers what you learned into long term memory and integrates them into your current
This is why it is not uncommon for people to wake up with a solution to the problems they were
hard-pressed to solve the previous day.
So there. That’s what people meant by “studying smart”. Do you have more tips that I’ve
missed? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
About the Author:
Patrick Del Rosario is a Filipino business and career ninja. He is part of Open Colleges Blog. Aside from blogging and being a business ninja, Patrick is an aspiring photographer. If you want to feature his writings on your site, connect with him at Google+ or drop a line at patrick (at) oc.edu.au.