The Science of Study Techniques

It’s exam season; one of the most stressful yet important times in the year. If you’re looking to ace your exams and end the school year as the ultimate academic weapon, then you’ve come to the right place. This article will provide you with scientifically-backed tips that will help you do your best this exam season and all the school years ahead! 

  • “The key to studying efficiently is finding a study habit that suits you best. Some techniques presented are effective for other students, while others may not find them helpful.”
  • Active recall refers to retrieving information from memory. Creating flashcards, diagrams, maps, and charts are some ways to practice active recall.
  • Spaced repetition involves studying in consistent intervals. It is best used to prepare for exams in advance.
  • Bite-sized learning breaks down information into succinct, digestible chunks that makes learning easier for those with tight schedules and short attention spans.
  • The Pomodoro Technique allows you to maximize your productivity without getting burnt out. 
  • Cornell Note Taking is a great note taking system that is efficient for summarizing and organizing a lot of information. 
  • Teaching other people enables you to understand and comprehend your lesson material much better.

Active Recall

Have you experienced trying to study late at night, reading the same paragraph over and over again, yet you just can’t seem to comprehend what’s written?

Try active recall: the act of retrieving information from memory. Simply put, this technique involves formulating questions from the materials you read and then testing yourself to determine whether you have retained and understood the information. 

A study by Butler (2010) reveals why active recall works—to quote: “taking a test after studying may result in the encoding of additional features or the formation of alternative routes to access the memory trace.” In short, taking practice tests creates memory paths, so when we take the actual test itself, our brain already knows which path to go to retrieve the information. When we practice, we constantly activate the connections between our neurons—an essential component in the brain that stimulates learning. 

How it works: 

  • Create a set of questions after reading your material. The next time you study, try answering them and take note of the questions you found difficult to answer. 
  • Make traditional or digital flashcards–it is a fun and engaging way to stimulate learning! Quizlet and Anki are flashcard-making apps that you can download and use on-the-go.
  • Experiment with diagrams, maps, and charts to help you find the connections between concepts yourself as compared to just reading the information passively.

Spaced Repetition

Have a scheduled exam a week ahead but you already want to prepare in advance? You might want to try spaced repetition: a technique where you review in set intervals. This comes from the term “spacing effect” which explains how the brain can learn more effectively when study sessions are spaced out. For example, five 30-minute study sessions with ample time for breaks is more efficient than a 6-hour straight one since we let our brain strengthen the newly created neural connections. When we study in intervals, our brain finds it easier to recall the information as the breaks in between have solidified the neural connections beforehand. 

When it comes to the interval time for when you have to study, science reporter Benedict Carey developed the following intervals depending on the exam date:

Time of testFirst study gap
1 Week1-2 Days
1 Month1 Week
3 Months2 Weeks
6 Months3 Weeks
1 Year1 Month

How it works:

  • Make a timetable or a study schedule where you’ll mark the days when you’ll study. You can follow the intervals mentioned above, but you can also decide on it based on your test dates (e.g.: every after 3 days, twice a week). 
  • Learn and relearn your question set and flashcards based on intervals. Spaced repetition is best paired with active recall. 

Bite-sized Learning

Do you catch yourself feeling instantly overwhelmed with the plethora of sub-topics you need to study just for a SINGLE lesson? If yes, then this one’s for you! 

Bite-sized learning is a technique where you break down information into succinct, digestible chunks. Instead of sitting through a 3-hour video lecture of the whole lesson, you can watch 10-minute informational videos of each subtopic instead. Time is precious–especially to those with tight schedules, thus, it is important for us to maximize the limited attention spans we have. Through bite-sized learning, we allow ourselves to focus on one objective at a time, preventing information overload and unwanted stress. 

How it works: 

  • Utilize learning videos online such as those from TED-ED, Khan Academy, and Bozeman Science. Most of their videos don’t take up too much time and can be useful for recalling topics for exams. 
  • For those interested in learning languages, Duolingo is a recommended app that offers fun, bite-sized language lessons that you can squeeze into your daily schedule.

Pomodoro Technique 

Ever struggle to complete your tasks because you’re so overwhelmed or lack motivation? Then it’s time to try the Pomodoro technique! With this technique, you can accomplish more without experiencing extreme mental and physical burnout. 

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management system that allows you to balance both work and break times. If you would normally sit down to do work for 2 hours straight without taking breaks at all, the Pomodoro technique breaks this into 25-minute straight work sessions followed by5-minute breaks. 

Developed by a university student Francesco Cirillo who was actually facing the same difficulty of focusing on his work, the technique is widely used because of its simplicity and efficiency. The science behind its effectiveness lies in the simple mechanism of our brains. Our brains inherently cannot take long, non-stop hours of work as it drains our mental energy and contributes to stress. The Pomodoro Technique addresses this by breaking down these long hours of work into shorter amounts of time. At the same time, knowing you will take a break right after 25 minutes of work is scientifically proven to incentivize many to work. From Dr. Gazzaley and Dr. Rosen’s book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, “The shorter the time between reinforcements (rewards), the stronger the drive to complete that behavior and gain the reward.”

How it works: 

  • Take a look at your to-do list and get a timer. Set this timer for 25 minutes, then work on one of your tasks until the 25 minutes ends. Once this work session is finished, spend the next 5 minutes taking a break. It is recommended to take a longer break of 15-30 minutes after four pomodoros. 
  • Make sure to stick to the task at hand during the 25-minute session and avoid all sorts of distractions. If you’re working on larger projects or work that cannot be completed in just 25 minutes, you should divide this into smaller and more concrete steps. 
  • Use special apps and websites like Pomofocus, Forest, and more, built for implementing the technique with an array of helpful features. A simple phone timer works too! 

Cornell Note Taking 

Are your notes extremely unorganized and hard to understand? Well, you should try the Cornell note-taking method to solve this issue. 

With the Cornell note-taking method, you can create a note-taking system that will help you better comprehend your notes. It encourages intentional note-taking where your brain can reflect on the most important points rather than having to store so much irrelevant information. At the same time, it pushes you to understand the content you’re learning much better in order to summarize it. This helps when you’re reviewing or revising your notes as they’re presented logically so your brain can easily process the information. 

How it works: 

  • Divide your paper into 3 main sections with two columns and one block at the bottom of the page. The left side of your paper should be the smaller column, taking about approximately 30% of the page. This space should be used to put questions and comments about the lesson. Typically, students use this space only after they are done writing down their notes to organize the material and assess what they already know. Use these questions to quiz yourself when revising.
    • The largest part of the page on the right side is where you will write down your notes. All your notes from your textbook, from class, or from online sources will go here. 
    • The bottom of the page is reserved for a summary of your notes. This portion of the paper is where you can write your learnings in a few sentences. 

Teaching Someone Else 

This study technique is as simple as it sounds—you teach the subject content to someone else. This is scientifically proven by the Protégé Effect, a psychological phenomenon where teaching, pretending to teach, or preparing to teach information to others helps a person learn and understand that information. This is true for a few reasons. First, teaching other people requires you to have a deeper understanding of the information you will share. This motivates you to implement learning strategies that will help you comprehend that information. Next, teaching motivates you to learn since you are now responsible for helping another person digest that content apart from yourself. Finally, you will be more conscious about your learning process to find ways to improve—making you a better teacher. This will ultimately help you retain much more of your learnings. 

How it works: 

  • Study the material as if you will teach it to someone, preferably a toddler or someone much younger. To do this, you may also implement the other study techniques mentioned earlier in this article. Whatever study technique you choose, it is important that you feel confident in teaching the material to someone without much knowledge on the topic. 
  • Take advantage of study groups, friends, and other networks you could teach this to. Maybe your friends are having difficulty studying for that upcoming biology test. There is probably someone in a Discord study server asking for help on the same lesson you are learning. These are people you can try sharing your knowledge with while increasing your knowledge as well. 
GRAPHICS BY Juls brizuela


Active recall – how to use this effective study technique to score a good GPA? (2022, May 20).  Windsor University School of Medicine.  

Burton, C. (2022, August 9). Bite Sized Learning: A New Strategy For Teaching (How It Works & Tips). Thinkfic.

Butler, A. C. (2010). Repeated testing produces superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 36(5), 1118–1133.  

Collins, B. (2020, March 3). The Pomodoro Technique Explained. Forbes.

Cornell Note Taking – The Best Way To Take Notes Explained. (2017, August 9). GoodNotes Blog. Retrieved January 21, 2022 from 

Frank, T. (2020, July 17). How to remember more of what you learn with spaced repetition. College Info Geek.  

Gupta, J. (2016, January 23). Spaced repetition: A hack to make your brain store information. The Guardian.  

Renard, L. (2020, May 18). 12 microlearning apps that are the perfect fit for your classroom. BookWidgets.

Sarrasin, J. B., Brault Foisy, L., Allaire-Duquette, G., & Masson, S. (2020, May 14). Understanding your brain to help you learn better. Frontiers for Young Minds. 

Shatz, I. (n.d.). The Protégé Effect: How You Can Learn by Teaching Others. Effectiviology.,a%20person%20learn%20that%20information.

Simmons, M. (2019, January 11). Protégé Effect: teaching someone else is the best way to learn, according to research. LinkedIn.

What bite-sized learning is and how it can improve attention span.  (2019, March 12). Acer for Education.   

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