Improve Your Study Techniques

August 01, 2022 Annette H

Not all study techniques are equal. Summaries, highlighting and reading textbooks are not effective ways of studying.

Understanding the concepts in a topic is vital for application questions. A tiny fraction of the exam paper is knowledge recall and without real understanding you cannot apply your knowledge. 

Studying should be enjoyable and exciting when doing correctly. Conquering new territory, gaining knowledge and new skills are empowering and to one’s self worth, but unfortunately most of use see studying as chore. Once you learn how to study effectively you will change your view of studying chores to studying enjoyment. ‘Increasingly, learning and innovation skills are being recognised as the skills that separate students who are prepared for increasingly complex life and work environments in the 21st century, and those who are not’ (Burnage, 2018)

In my experience as a teacher of twenty plus years, I have observed many students reading textbooks, highlighting every word on a page, or making summaries by rewriting the textbook. Most of the time this is done without really thinking about what they are doing or understanding what they are copying. This does not work, and it is painful and just a waste of time. To learn effectively you need to think about what you are doing, ask questions that needs answers, and explore the big concepts you need to understand and apply. Deep learning requires the student to take an active role (Marton, 1976).

I developed a six-week study skill plan that students can use themselves or that teaching staff can use to help students develop effective study skills.



Learning needs to be hard and messy. If it is easy, you are not learning. There is ‘considerable empirical evidence to support the claim that confusion is prevalent during complex learning’ (D’Mello et al., 2014).

Understanding is developed through ‘continued situated use’ (Brown, et al., 1989).

Learning is anchored in the ability to negotiate new meaning (Wenger, 2013).

Consider the value of vicarious learning (Cox and Bandura) and Sfard’s (1998) participation metaphor.

Form a Community of Practice. ‘Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly’ (Wenger).


Evaluate current learning techniques. Be honest and open your mind to change. It is easy to fall into a groove and a belief that your methods work. If your grades do not reflect that, it is time for change.

Students who have difficulty obtaining good grades tend to use reading, summaries, underlining and highlighting to study.

Accentuate the importance of a healthy balance lifestyle and the usefulness of planning studying to not become overwhelmed. Online tools such as Trello are free, and easy to use. Paper and pen work as well.

Technique 1: Concepts and methods (relates to the Feynman method).

Introduce concepts and methods (simplify, deconstruct, metaphor).

Examples 1:

 Deconstruct the first scene of Romeo and Julia by identifying possible themes. The play start with a fight and therefore it can be assumed that violence might be a theme. Think about the characters and their purpose in the scene and possibly in the play. At this point most ideas are assumptions that will be revealed throughout the play. The benefit is that the student has a set of questions now and will test their assumptions as they read.

Example 2:

Simplify complicated concepts by finding synonyms for complex words and rewrite the concept or definition in your own words.

Example 3:

Use metaphors to clarify abstract concepts. In algebra, for instance it can be useful to use the idea of a scale. Whatever is on the left side of the equal sign should be the same as what is on the right side. Keep the idea of a balance scale in mind which means if you remove anything from one side you should do the same on the other side. This can create a visual representation for students who have difficulty with the abstract notions of algebra.


Find a topic from any subject and identify and use the most effective method above to study said topic.


Report back on effectiveness or any problems or questions.

Technique2: Know your subject specifications, marking specifications s and assessment outcomes.

Have subject specifications on hand. Print or downloaded the online version and use red, amber, green colouring system to identify topics you are familiar with or are having difficulty with. Paste this on a wall or have it close by on Trello or any other project management site to allow you to continuously interact with it.

Understand and know the assessment outcomes and marking criteria for specific questions. If anything is vague ask for clarification. For example, will you be penalised if you write too much or too little? This will vary from subject to subject or even question to question within a subject. Understand all the expectations and ask if you do not know.


Choose a difficult topic from any subject and use the colour system to identify specific areas that you need to work on. Find questions on that topic and look at the assessment objectives and marking criteria for those specific questions.


Report back on effectiveness and provide own examples. If the students work in a group learn best practices from each other.

Technique 3:  How to use video effectively.

Most students use video to help with difficult concepts and it can be effective if used correctly. Both Khan Academy and Veritasium have YouTube channels. Khan Academy use instructional videos while Veritasium use vicarious learning methods. There is an argument that Veritasium’s ideas are more effective as students learn by watching common mistakes that others make.

If video is used incorrectly, it has no value and it is therefore important to know how to interact with video resources. GCSE-Pod have short video of around five minutes each. After watching the video, the student needs to answer a set of questions before moving on. This interactive method is effective as the student will immediately know which questions, they got wrong and will then have an opportunity to watch the video again. With a specific question in mind the student is actively busy learning and will retain the information better.

Teachers can advice students on effective YouTube channels, but it is important to know that some of these videos can be long and the student need to control their learning by stopping the video and recall the information before continue watching. With mathematics for instance, it is easy to think you understand the solution as the it is explained, but unless you attempt it yourself afterwards, you might forget it quickly or you will find that your assumption of understanding was false. This is what Sealy Brown refers to as ‘situated learning’. You do it.


Experiment with topic and technique.


Report back with specific evaluation on topic studied, effectiveness, and possible improvements.

Technique 4: Test yourself by practising questions, and exam papers. Try to formulate your own questions and answer them. By formulating a question, you need to think about the assessment outcomes and marking criteria (especially for long form answers).

Test your knowledge even before you feel confident. Trying to solve a problem is one of the most effective methods of learning. Do not be scared to be wrong. Rather be wrong while learning than in an exam. Make mistakes. Fix mistakes. Relearn. Try again.


Choose a difficult topic and practise questions on the topic. Challenge yourself with hard questions.


Report back on experience and its effectiveness.

Technique 5: Write long form answers clearly and concisely.

Remember that when you write essay answers that you need to make an argument and proof it. In science-based subjects there might only be one correct answer, but in subjects such as English literature there can be a variety of interpretations. You need to be able to justify your interpretation with evidence from the text and say why you interpret it as such. It is good to keep the words, ‘what’, ‘how’, and ‘why’ in mind. Being able to provide more than one possible interpretation shows that you can think critically and entertain more than one idea.

A Basic Plan:

Topic sentence (point)

Explain the point you make.

Provide evidence (quote/ paraphrase).

Explain the premise of the quote and zoom in on a word or phrase if necessary.

Is there another possible interpretation or counter argument? (To get the highest marks you need to show your ability to think critically) This might not apply to essays based purely on scientific facts.

Do you need an introduction and closing paragraph? This can be subject specific so make sure you understand the expectations for the subject.


 Collect the necessary information for the essay/ long answer you want to write. Know the assessment criteria and attempt to answer. Assess your work based on the criteria. Note areas for improvement. Redo if necessary.


Report back and show evidence.

Technique 6: Teaching a friend/ toy/ cat. Consider Communities of Practice and collaboration.

The Best way to know if you really know something is by talking or writing about it. Talking and writing are ways to make sense of your own thinking. Other methods you can explore alongside includes, mind maps, graphic organisers, visual representations, drawing etc.

It is Important to use a variety of techniques, and to challenge yourself the entire time.

Do not be afraid to be wrong. Be wrong and then find the correct method, content, skill and practise it.


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