My favourite study techniques (Part I)

Learning is one of those skills that society just assumes you have (together with Managing Money, Flirting & many more).

Unfortunately, that's not the case. Studies have shown that the most popular study techniques - re-reading, highlighting and to some extend summarizing - are inefficient.

I've spent nearly two decades in formal education and yet, until just some months ago, my main study techniques were... re-reading, highlighting and summarizing.

It was only when I read Ultralearning, that I started to ask myself: Is there a smarter way to learn? Science shouts: Hell yeah!

After that, I went down the rabbit whole of study techniques on the internet. Some advice is about general guidelines to follow when learning (see my three principles of effective learning) or about how to craft a study week.

This week however, I'll show you some of the specific day-to-day study techniques that I found. They are the foundation of my newly structured study routine for the german bar exam and I hope that you'll find them as useful and as refreshing as I do.

Without further ado, let's take a look at:

  • The Pomodoro Technique - improve your motivation and focus
  • The Retrospective Revision Timetable - decide what to revise next
  • Drills - optimize your practice and eliminate weaknesses

The Pomodoro Technique

What's your Effective Productive Time (EPT)? I don't talk about the hours you are "busy with learning". I only mean the time where you are really focused on what's in front of you.

Another question: how long are your individual study sessions?

When I first started blocking learning time, I aimed for 2 hour sessions that were quickly reduced to 1 1/2 hours in practice. I thought that I could surely be focused for that time. Plus, I knew that once I stopped officially after "one round", I'd inevitably get sucked into some reddit whormhole. So better get as much done as possible.

It did not work well.

Often, I'd work for 45 min or so before I lost motivation to keep going. My mental willpower wasn't enough. Seeing the remaining time triggered two things: realization that I was only half way done and the feeling that just quickly, quickly checking my phone wouldn't be too bad - after all, there was still a lot of time left.

Also, while I still managed to mostly start on time, I was in a bad mood from the get go. I knew how it would feel 45 min down the line.

The lesson? Setting too long work sessions without breaks is detrimental. It costs me unnecessary willpower to get through and it's ineffective. Sure, I would be busy for 1 1/2 hours studying. But probably only the first 45 with full focus, and after that, it went downhill. Add on top of that the slight frustration from knowing that I did not really do what I set out to accomplish and I've got myself a situation that needs improving.

The solution? The Pomodoro technique. Named after the inventor's kitchen timer that was shaped like a tomato, it's probably the easiest study technique to implement from today's list. But don't let that fool you. It has the potential to both improve your studying and your mood while doing so. What's more to ask?

Here's how it works:

  • Set your timer for 25 minutes. That's all you get.
  • Get to work. Drop the pen once the timer rings. No "just one more minute", no "I quickly finish this page". In the beginning, you always need to end on time.
  • Take a quick break of 5 minutes. Don't start browsing your social media feed. Get up, walk around, tidy up... anything is great except for things that will give you a quick hit of dopamine.
  • Repeat for two or three more times, depending on your energy level and then take a real break. Your first study session of the day is over.

Here's why it works:

  1. Short periods make it possible to fully sustain focus. Being concentrated for 1 1/2 hours can be hard. With 25 minutes, you always have the end in direct sight.
  2. Avoid interruptions: if you shift your focus to other things - even just quickly answering a text - it will greatly reduce the effectiveness of your work. 25 minutes is short enough so that all other obligations can wait until the next break.
  3. Fight procrastination: If you know that you'll have to study for the next 1 1/2 hours, it can be tempting to squeeze in other activities before it. And next thing you know, your window of high energy is over. It's much easier to start working if you know that the next break is just 25 minutes away.
  4. Be happier: Multitasking is bad. Switching between work and leisure without a clear distinction is worse. You'll feel like you didn't really work hard enough, but you also won't really have much benefit from "relaxing" quickly within your work session. Clear separation between the two of them will make you feel better about what you've accomplished and lets you relax without a bad conscious.

Make it your own:

25 min is not set in stone. If you feel like you got 30 until your mind drifts of, give it a try. 25 seems like an eternity? Ease yourself in with 15.

The key is to move away from long, shapeless study hours to clear-cut, distinct & focused sessions.

The Retrospective Revision Timetable

I love planning. Approaching exams would usually at some point trigger: "I've got to make a study plan". I sat down and tried to estimate how much I could learn each day and how big each topic was, so that I could assign those topics specific dates. Let's learn civil law for 8 days, then 5 days of criminal law and so on.

While structuring out the future like this can make sense from time to time, it's usually doomed to fail. We tend to ignore potential interruptions like a sick day or the need to get the cars tires changed and we just generally suck at estimating how much time something will take. Plus, making those elaborate plans takes time. A lot of time.

It's the definition of "being busy" instead of being productive.

"I'd love to start learning, but I need to make a plan first".

"That plan will take quite some time. I need to clear a full day for it. I won't have time for it right now, but I really can't start before I make it".

Afterwards, it's hard to stick to it.

"No plan survives contact with the enemy" - von Moltke

It might be even worse though if it does work out.

Sticking to a plan when it comes to revising can be quite ineffective. While planning ahead, you'll never know which things will be easy to remember and which aren't. So instead of working on the weakest topics, you'll just do what the plan says.

Instead of spending a lot of time on a plan that a) probably won't work out and b) probably shouldn't work out, I am now implementing the Retrospective Revision Timetable (s/o to Ali Abdaal).

Here's how it works:

  • Make a list of all the topics for the exam. Write them on the left side of a piece of paper or in a spreadsheet column.
  • Whenever you revise a topic, write the date next to it and indicate with a color how well it went. Classic traffic light scheme should be enough.
  • Whenever you decide what to revise for the day, you'll quickly see a) topics not revised yet b) topics that went poorly and c) topics that you haven't done in a while.

Here's why it works:

  1. Super quick to set up. You need to have an overview over the exam topics anyway, so barely any additional work
  2. Revising a topic you're got mostly down has a far lower marginal utility than revising something you barely know. Use your time efficiently.

Quick sidenote: in case you don't know, marginal utility is a concept taken from economics. It describes the added benefit from doing one more thing. If you are very hungry, eating a first cookie has a great marginal utility. If you had already a three course meal, eating the cookie has a low marginal utility, because you really don't need any more food. But it's a chocolate chip cookie, so economics can shut up for the moment. I'd eat that cookie too.

Drills

One of the biggest insights from Scott Young's book Ultralearning was the idea of Drills.

A drill is the isolated practice of one component of a bigger task.

Almost anything you learn for will consist of different skills that come together to form the whole picture. When I wrote about the 3 principles of effective learning, I argued that practicing exactly what needs to be done on the final exam would greatly improve your learning. Now I'll add that sometimes, it's even more important to dissect that final task.

The concept of Drills tackles two major problems of learning:

  • attack the bottleneck
  • accelerate the improvement of complex tasks

First, isolating parts of the tasks allows me to practice my weak skills first. In a weak area, my improvement will most likely be higher compared to fine-tuning some already great skill. Obviously it would be best to have full mastery over all parts of my final task. Most of the time, that's unrealistic though. By isolating my weakest skills and training them in insolation, I'll increase the overall quality of my work the most. Before I go for perfect in one area, I now go for "good enough" in all areas. This way, my study time has the maximum marginal utility.

Second, even if my skill levels were even across the parts of a task, doing Drills makes sense. A critical factor for improving is feedback. This idea comes from the concept of "deliberate practice":

Just repeating something over and over isn't enough for improvement. If you make mistakes repeatedly without awareness, you practice the mistake, not the skill. The solution? Feedback. Whenever you practiced something, get feedback on how well you did. Feedback doesn't mean asking an expert, though that's always great. It could be as little as looking up the correct answer after you tried to actively recall it.

Feedback = Comparing your result to the desired result looking for differences and for the cause of such differences

Whether good feedback is readily available will greatly depend on the type of result your supposed to produce. Multiple-Choice test? Perfect. Mathematical problem sets? Great if the whole solving process is provided. Essay-style answers? A nightmare.

When your end result is one big mashup of different skills that gets a unified grade, it can be hard to extrapolate reliable feedback.

Let's look at an example:

In the german bar exam, you get five hours to produce a court decision. If we break up that one final result into individual, smaller tasks and skillsets, we need:

  • Text Analysis and Understanding of the provided case
  • the ability to write a concise abstract of facts
  • the knowledge of the applicable law
  • Time Management
  • Mastering the language, style & formalities required in a court decision

Now, in an ideal world, you would get a breakdown of each skill and a quantifiable answer to see how well you performed and where your weaknesses are. Unfortunately though, in most cases, you'll get a unified grade for your essay and are left to your own to figure out the why.

Let's take it one step further: say, you figured out that your main problem is the abstract of facts. Out of the five hours of a typical exam, you'd spent roughly 30 minutes on that part. Applying the concept of Direct Practice to the letter would mean, that you spent 5 hours for 30 minutes of much needed practice. That's an efficiency of 10%.

Solution? Drills.

Here's how it works:

Take a good look at your "ultimate task". Does it bend more towards the singular, isolated nature of multiple-choice-tests or towards an essay-style mashup of various sub-skills?

For singular & isolated tasks, Drills come down to picking your weakest areas and testing them repeatedly. If you're studying medicine and have a problem with the cardiovascular questions, practice those in isolation and skip on the ones regarding immunology for now.

For complex mashup tasks, try to dissect it into separate steps that can be practiced on their own. Good approaches for that are:

  • Mentally go through your process of solving the task. Where are natural breaks? Where do you feel your focus shift?
  • Look at the structure of the end result. Are there similar, repetitive elements in every task? Essays for example can - very broadly - be broken up into introduction, body and conclusion
  • Look at your past work and the grading. Does a pattern emerge? Are there mistakes or weaknesses that are repeatedly addressed? If so, which common label could you put on them?

Here's why it works:

  1. practicing skills in isolation increases the marginal utility and thus the efficiency of your practice. Improvements in weak skills are typically bigger than optimization of near-perfected skills
  2. Singular focus reduces cognitive load. In the example of the german bar exam, even though you go through one step at a time, it's hard to keep your mind from wandering to other areas of the exam. Isolating just one part lets you fully focus on it - for insights, that might otherwise be squashed by the thought of what's yet to come
  3. Create specific feedback
  4. Increase the number of practice sets by reducing the overall time required for practice.

There you have it, three study techniques worth trying out.

Those are just a part of what I try to implement into my study routine to make my practice more deliberate. No more autopilot-just-do-what-you've-done-all-along, but actually thinking about what really makes sense.

In a few weeks, I'll write part II and share some more techniques as I apply them in my exam preparation and get more insight into what works and what doesn't. If you don't want to miss out on, make sure you sign up for my newsletter!


You want more resources on how to improve your learning, waste less time and get more out of your study sessions? Check out the Effective Learning Hub.

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