The Science of Studying: What Good Test Takers Know That You Don’t

This is a guest post written by Jay Cross, Founder of DIY Degree.

Today, I want to "lift the curtain" on how good test-takers got that way by revealing some of the actual science behind how our brains process, retain, and store information. 

Don't worry: this isn't going to become a biology lesson. I just want to share the brain science most relevant to studying effectively. 

First, let's expose the problem with how most people study: memorization. Contrary to popular belief, it is extraordinarily difficult to retain information simply by memorizing it. The challenge lies not with particular techniques or study methods, but in the very nature of our brains. 

The problem with memorization

When I was in college, our psychology professor gave us a quiz every week. You always knew which day it was because everyone would be huddled around the doorway, nervously exchanging notes and cramming everything they could before the professor arrived.

One girl (Heather) used a study approach you are no doubt familiar with: flashcards.

To most of the other students, Heather was the gold standard of studious. Her flashcards were meticulously organized, impeccably detailed, and diligently reviewed---sometimes four or five times in one sitting. I remember people being awestruck by how smart Heather was and wondering just how high her GPA must be. 

There was just one problem. 

Despite her efforts, Heather's quiz grades were all over the place. One week, a perfect score. The next, a 70. I watched her facial expressions yo-yo between excitement and agony all semester. 

How could this happen?

Heather was studying exactly the way most of us were taught. But her erratic quiz scores suggest the flash cards had little or nothing to do with her performance! Something else, something much more subtle and powerful seemed to be involved...

Schemas: your brain's never-ending search for meaning

The human brain strives to find relationships in the world. In fact, cognitive psychologists are beginning to understand much of our knowledge as existing with schemas, which are interconnected webs of information in our brains that each pertain to specific categories. 

For example, your brain has a highly developed schema about computers. Believe it or not, you likely have hundreds of "branches" in this schema, including different kinds of computers, error messages a computer might generate, emotional preferences about the computer, favorite websites and software programs, etc. All of these thoughts about a computer are subsumed under, and interconnected within, your computer schema.

Schemas are the brain's way of integrating new information with what it already knows. When you saw an iPad for the first time, you did not gape in confusion about the strange object before you because your brain immediately and effortlessly recognized it as "a new kind of computer."

Similarly, a person with a basic understanding of athletics may be totally unfamiliar with lacrosse, but would easily recognize it as a "sport" if they saw people playing it. Thanks to this conceptual foundation, they could probably teach themselves how to play in about an hour. 

On the other hand, suppose you had never heard of sports before. The notion of players, teams, competitions, and scoring were simply absent from your brain. Now imagine trying to learn lacrosse by reading about it on Wikipedia. 

Are you going to truly understand any of the rules or positions this way, much less how the entire game is played? Not easily. Probably not EVER.

The problem: when schemas and college collide

Unfortunately, college (and the way most people approach studying) is a lot like this. 

Most of us would recognize lacrosse as a sport, but what is a young student with no academic background to make of a completely foreign idea like the naturalistic fallacy? This concept is taught in virtually all philosophy courses, but it isn't especially interesting or exciting to most students. It certainly isn't taught to most of us while growing up. It really isn't relevant to our daily lives at all.

But we need to learn it in order to pass the course. 

This presents a serious problem, because the brain struggles with information it cannot schematize. When it encounters a dry academic construct like the naturalistic fallacy, there is no logical "bucket" to store this strange it just gets forgotten. 

This explains Heather's up-and-down performance on our weekly psych quizzes. 

When the subject matter was personal and relatable (like the personality disorders), she scored high. Her flashcards simply reinforced material her brain was pre-primed to understand. But when the material was more abstract (like the differences between classical and operant conditioning), her flashcards did little to overcome her ignorance. 

"But what about mnemonic devices?"

At one time or another, most of us were taught to use mnemonic devices. The idea is that by reducing a complicated process to a memorable slogan or abbreviation, we can recall that material quickly for test time. 

Unfortunately, although mnemonic devices can work, they are really just a slightly more sophisticated form of memorization!

For instance, a mnemonic device I still remember to this day is one I discovered during my biology class. We were learning the steps of cell division (mitosis) and having trouble keeping them in the right order. So our professor taught us IPMAT:






I took that class in 2008. Some would say IPMAT must have worked pretty well if I still remember it in 2014, but they would be wrong. For although I still know the names and the sequence of the mitosis steps, I have totally forgotten the meanings! 

If a test question asked me to pick the correct definition of metaphase from four options, I would be choosing blindly. That is the failure of memory-based learning. It can get you by in a pinch, but does little to instill deep, lasting mastery. 

Don't memorize, schematize!

It should now be clear to you why memorization via flashcards and mnemonic devices would never make you a high-flying academic achiever. If you simply pound your brain with new information and expect repetition to drill it home, you have already lost. 

Luckily, there is a better way to study. It involves translating the dry and often boring textbook summaries you read into personally meaningful knowledge your brain can schematize. 

Specifically, it involves replacing memorization with analogies and examples.

Let's analyze social loafing, a topic we learned about in my psychology course. This is the dry textbook definition:

"Social loafing is the phenomenon of people exerting less effort to achieve a goal when they work in a group than when they work alone."

This is what most students write down, repeat to themselves, and rely upon for real understanding. Unsurprisingly, most forget come test-time. 

Conversely, here is what I wrote down in my notes: 

"Social loafing is when everyone in a group assumes that someone else is taking care of important tasks and that they, therefore, can slack off. An example would be group work in college. One person usually takes on a huge share of the work while the others lag behind, knowing they'll benefit from that person's effort."

Now that you understand schemas, isn't it obvious why this definition is so much better? You have turned a bland psychological theory into a personally relevant example. Now, when you think, "social loafing", you think "group work" and instantly know what it means. 

What about the naturalistic fallacy, which is the assumption that anything natural is also good for you? That by itself is not very meaningful, but we can turn it into an example, like this one:

"The naturalistic fallacy means we should not assume something natural is automatically good for us. An example would be poison sumac, which causes severe skin inflammation despite coming from the earth."

That is true understanding, not simply the ability to regurgitate the right answer on a test.

When you learn more, you study less

Let me be clear: learning your college material this way IS harder. It IS more challenging. And it DOES take more first. 

But when you invest the effort in making academic material personally meaningful, a beautiful thing happens: you actually STUDY LESS.

Think about what cramming really is. It's a last-ditch effort, a rush job to try to condense a week's worth of studying into a few hours. You are basically crossing your fingers and praying for information you don't understand to magically encode itself into your brain long enough to spit it back out again. 

Conversely, the student who studies correctly has no need for this. Cramming becomes totally unnecessary because their brains now recall the naturalistic fallacy and social loafing as easily as lacrosse or iPads. 


Jay Cross is the Founder of DIY Degree, a program that helps students earn real, accredited bachelor’s degrees by taking exams at their own pace—instead of taking classes at a college’s pace. The program includes a private “members only” forum, study resources for passing your exams, a personalized “progress tracker” to show how close you are to graduating, and post-graduation advice. Learn more here. 

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