What is the most effective study method?

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As exam season is approaching, students are starting to study and/or are finishing AP exams. 

So I thought I would try different study methods to see which ones worked the best. I decided to apply these nine study methods below. 

Note that these study methods aren’t going to work for everyone. So I will give equal consideration to each method and note the pros and cons to help narrow down different options for you. 

As someone with diagnosed ADHD, I have struggled with focus and paying attention. I often get distracted when studying, opting to study minutes before the test. So, I’m here for those fellow humans that can’t focus, finding the best method to keep me focused. 

Here is the list of all the methods I’ll be going over:

  1. Spaced repetition 
  2. The SQ3R and the PQ4R method 
  3. The Feynman method 
  4. Leitner system 
  5. Mind mapping 
  6. Study before bed 
  7. Active recall 
  8. Color-coded notes
  9. Pomodoro study method
  • Spaced repetition or also known as spaced practice

Alright, so this one is about spacing out your studying instead of just studying the night before. I’m studying for a math test on Monday, and I will study each night for 15 minutes until Friday. 

It’s been a few days now — I can say that this method is effective but only if you study for more than ten to fifteen minutes. I ended up studying only for 5 minutes each night because my life was busy and I didn’t always have time to do this. 

With limited time it was hard to study. It wasn’t until after three days that I started seeing patterns and remembering the equations. 

I wouldn’t recommend this if you’re not a super dedicated person, but this method was actually one of the most effective for remembering topics because of the repetition. I would recommend this to someone who has the time and memory to commit to this. 

  • The SQ3R and PQ4R method

These two methods are acronyms for two different but very similar methods. First is the survey, question, read, recite, and review. And the second method is preview, question, read, reflect, recite, and review. 

These methods are so similar that I decided just to combine them and use each similar technique at the same time. 

I used these methods for studying math equations and notes I needed to remember about circles. I thought this method was similar to writing and active recall, first I started with skimming and reading headings and topics, next, I questioned and asked myself how I could better learn this and any other questions I had about different math problems.

Afterward, I wrote and reviewed everything more in-depth. I think both of these are overrated, they’re so similar to traditional studying methods and each other. But I liked the steps that it created, they kept me on track. The next day in class I felt more confident, but with all these steps it isn’t sustainable to do this every night for every class. 

  • The Feynman method 

This method is used for quick learning and reviewing. You take the subject you’re learning and write down everything you know and act like you’re teaching it to someone. If you can successfully teach the topic, then you have mastered the topic and the Feynman method. 

For me, this method was more difficult. Although I can easily teach someone about Spanish; I’m not someone who is very good at verbalizing what I know. I tend to get distracted in my words or thoughts when I don’t have something to read. This method is a great one for those who want a quick but firm understanding of something, and if verbalizing your learning helps you this method could work the best for you. 

It creates a deeper knowledge that if you can teach it, you have to first understand it, so I wouldn’t try this for topics you have just learned or are still in the process of learning. 

  • The Leitner system

Out of all nine methods I tried, this one was the most confusing, so confusing I had to look up a lot of different sources to even try the method. First, you start with different boxes and you write flashcards for each term you need to remember and place all the cards in the first box. If you get the card right then the card moves up a box, and if it gets it wrong then the card moves down a box. 

Visually, it can be confusing but you have up to five boxes, and each box number represents how often you study them. For example, in box one you study every day, then box two you study every two days, and in box three every three days…

This was very confusing for me and took a lot of energy and time to keep up. I would recommend this to someone who likes doing repetitive spaced studying. It allows better study for those words and equations you can’t remember and less for the ones you got down pat. 

Personally, this would not be something I would try to reach for because I would need boxes and flashcards, and to me, that is already enough supplies to not want to study anymore. It’s also very similar to regular flashcards. I don’t see the need to update the way we already use flashcards. 

  • Mind mapping

Mind mapping is where you draw a diagram with thought bubbles that connect related ideas. 

I tried this out before a Spanish quiz. I can say as I am a very visual learner, so this method worked great for me. I enjoyed this one the most too. It was fun to make my diagram color-coded.

I got distracted six times, but I would say that is much less than other study methods.

I could visually see everything I needed to know all grouped in different ways. I drew pictures and color-coded everything and that definitely helped. 

This method works well because that’s how human brains are set up to take paths, and group different things. I could easily recall information based on what color and category I remember it as. For example, I had sports equipment in the color yellow, was on the top left side of the page, and was attached to the heading bubble “La tienda de equipo deportes” or in English “Items in a sporting store.” I thought this method was super useful and I liked it alot and could see myself continuing to use it. 

The pros are: it’s good for visual learners, organized, easy, 7/10 chance of getting distracted, and is colorful.

And then the cons for this method: It takes a while to create the diagram, easy to run out of room to write, not good for nonvisual learners, not good for a quick study unless you already have the visual diagram written out. 

  • Study before Bed

Studying before bed is as it says, studying before bed. I have a love-hate relationship with this one — yes there are studies that prove studying before bed is good because of the sleep aspect, and the more you sleep the better memory you have. 

I agree with this because it’s simple science, but I disagree with the fact that it’s before bed. At that point of the day you’re tired, and you don’t want to be studying. I have used this method a lot in the past, and I can say it’s not something that is super helpful. Studying before bed makes me feel rushed and oftentimes I just let it slide because I’m so tired. 

Having a study session right after school is a lot better because your brain is still awake and ready to be productive. I would not recommend this unless it’s last-minute studying. I don’t think it’s the most reliable or great at information learning.

  • Color-coded notes 

This one is similar to spaced repetition and active recall; many have already been doing this. Everyone has at some point made colorful notes, and to me, it helps a lot being organized in your notes is incredibly important, this is the first step in a good study session having the materials you need to study. 

Color-coded notes are highly recommended to everyone, it helps divide information and keep things together while connecting different topics. Color-coded notes often help to take away different information and I used it with my mind map diagram and it helped me tremendously. 

A con is that most people are too lazy to make their notes color-coordinated. I think if you really want to succeed this is the first step. I could easily pair this method with any of the other methods — it’s just that helpful, and I would recommend it to everyone who studies. 

  • Active recall 

Active recall is when you try to take your active memory without anything to remind you of what you need to remember. For example, study the words or information you need to recall. Then put your notes away and quiz yourself on the information you just learned without flashcards, or questions, simply just state what you can remember, and repeat until you’ve learned what you need to. 

Osmosis does different analyses of different studies done about students and Active recall. These studies found that active recall is the most effective, high-yielding study method. Personally, this is the quickest easiest way for me to study, if you don’t already know I’m a last-minute student, this method has saved me a few times when a quiz I forgot I had popped up. This is the type of study method I would recommend the night before or the day off to confirm quickly that you know the information. 

It is also the method that I paired with spaced repetition and flashcards.

Retrieval practice is similar to the other study methods, such as spaced repetition. Retrieval practice is when you study a topic and would say to use this with other methods because alone it isn’t as effective. Alone it was very hard for me to stay focused with little structure, time, and continuous purpose on why I was continuing. 

Active recall is also one of my favorites though because it’s quick and is the most effective. I would recommend this long-term for better effects, but could also be used right before a test in case you forgot to study, or just want a quick review. 

  •  Pomodoro method

The Pomodoro method is one that I constantly see online where those “It girls” are using it to create an aesthetically pleasing study time. But I’m not going to lie, this was probably the worst method for me because it was so hard to stay focused. 

The Pomodoro method uses time. For example, you could study for 25 minutes, and then take a break for five or ten minutes, and repeat as many times as you need. I used this for studying and doing a bit of work, and I can tell you this was the hardest method to use. 

I would set my timer and do some studying and get bored of just looking at flashcards and writing until I just went on my phone or played a game. Even when I could redirect and get back on track, it was hard to consciously stay focused for 25 minutes. I kept just watching the clock go down. Then when I got my five-minute break I ended up ignoring my alarm and just continuing my break until it was thirty minutes later. 

There is little structure in this type of method and as someone who thrives off structure, it was hard to keep focused. Those aesthetically pleasing videos are not made for people like me. If I’m not engaged at a steady rate I often get distracted. I would recommend this to any traditional non-ADHD studiers, those who need to be reminded to take breaks between their work, and who become unmotivated by long and daunting study times. 

Alternatively, I think having shorter times works better. For example, work for 10 minutes, then have a break for two minutes and then when you come back do active recall for one minute and repeat. But I would have a time limit on how long you plan on studying. It makes it a lot less scary and a lot more reachable. 

My favorite method had to be mind mapping, just because I’m such a visual learner and it allowed me to use the natural neurological pathways of my brain as well as accommodate whatever method of studying I decided to use it for; it’s flexible. I loved color-coding my diagram and making it mine. All in all, I’m not a great traditional studier, and this method showed the most improvement for me.

Again to reiterate, not every method is going to work for everyone. It’s important to choose the one that does work for you and try new ones to branch your knowledge. Wherever you start is a great place as long as you get started. 

I believe the best strategy to accomplish a good study is to use multiple study methods at once, but be careful to not overload yourself with them, choose ones that complement your learning skills, and each other.  Studying can be a daunting task but if you break it down and choose a method, it might make it a little easier. And good luck to all those students who are taking exams these next few weeks!

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