The Science Behind Studying

Being at university means we have to study (no matter how you frame it!). But have you ever stopped to think about what is the best way to study, and are you doing it most effectively? This week, Krishna takes us through the best studying techniques.

With the start of the new term, the academics have hit us with maximum force. “Not at all overwhelming! I managed to keep up-to-date with all my tasks and managed to optimize my study schedule.” These are the words I hope I could say. Sadly, none of it is true.

Jokes apart, the start of a fresh term is best suited to harmonize your life. Likewise, this is the best time to harmonize your learning.

We’ve been learners right from our childhood. But have we been learning the right way? Before we explore this question, let’s see what the most popular strategy of learning is.

The Popularity of Different Learning Strategies (Karpicke, Butler and Roediger, 2009)

A survey from Karpicke, Butler and Roediger (2009) showed that ‘re-reading’ is the most popular learning strategy among university students. Practicing problems, flashcard-based revision and rewriting notes were also relatively popular, but group study, memorizing information and mnemonics were less so.

However, re-reading and rewriting notes are passive learning habits that require low effort. If content retention is your aim, these passive habits do not help you.

Active techniques such as practice problems and flashcard revision rank are popular too. But in reality, only 10% of students use these techniques as their primary learning strategy. So, a majority of university students follow ineffective study techniques. Can we improve this and start to study more effectively?

The Best Way to Learn

Two words – ‘Active Retrieval’. Active retrieval is the process of engaging actively with new content. This includes taking self-quizzes, tests, or solving practice problems.

Any strategy that requires high effort in recollection is a good way to learn. Active Retrieval enhances learning in a variety of contexts and settings. This also helps in retaining the learnings for a long period of time.

The mantra is simple – “Retrieval creates Learning”. The more you can practice retrieving, the more you can learn and utilize. Especially, for inference and problem-solving tasks, active retrieval is a must. The same cannot be said for passive revision strategies.

Here’s a study showing how different learning strategies fared against each other. 

Retention Capacity: Active Retrieval vs. Passive Learning (Karpicke, Butler and Roediger, 2009)

You can see that Active Retrieval performed far better than any kind of Passive Learning. Interestingly, spacing out your active retrieval sessions boosted your retention significantly. “Spaced Active Retrieval” – as we call it, outperformed “Passive Repetition” by 3 times. It also outperformed “Passive Study” by a factor of 16 times.

So, here you have it. You can learn better and retain content for longer if you actively recollect information. Spacing out these retrieval sessions is even more beneficial.

You might be wondering – “Okay, I buy what you are selling! But, how can I implement this in my studies?” Here are some tips and tricks that can slide into your study routine.

Tips and Tricks for Improving your Retention Capacity

  • After 2 times of reading new content, take a quick self-quiz. This helps you figure out the parts you have understood and the parts that need some work.
  • Space your retrieval session. If you’ve taken a retrieval session today, try taking another session on the same content after a few days.
  • After a lecture, take two minutes to ask yourself these questions –
    • What was the lecture about?
    • What did I understand?
    • What did I not understand?
    • Write a 2 line summary for each lecture
  • Make your questions after reading the course material. This helps you focus on the main themes of the content.
  • Interweave different subjects in your study session. Let’s say you are taking Physics and Mathematics classes. Instead of tackling one subject at a time, try tackling two at once. For example, you can start learning a portion of Physics content. Then do a portion of mathematics content. Then you could return to doing Physics. This makes it easier to retrieve content and hence enhances your learning.

Would you like more support with study? Check out our blog on ‘Structuring Your Study with Apps’ or have a look at the Online Courses available from The Library. If you want to look at other blogs, head over to our Contents page.

What study techniques do you use? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below, tweeting us @WarwickLibrary or emailing us at


  1. Data on Study Techniques and their Retention Values – Kapricke & Bauernschmidt (2011) Retrieval

  2. Figure 2. Student study strategy usage. Survey data from Karpicke, Butler, & Roediger (2009).

  3. Figure 1: (Balota, Duchek, Sergent-Marshall & Roediger, 2006; Fritz, Morris, Nolan & Singleton, 2007).

  4. Brown, Peter C. Make It Stick. Belknap Press, 2014. [If you want to find out about more study techniques, read this book]

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