You’re Doing It All Wrong: This Is How To Study Effectively

I used to hate them too: those kids who just seemed to turn up to exams after doing no visible revision and ace them. I’d work five times harder but grade lower. Every Bloody Time. It wasn’t until my university finals that I realised I had not been studying effectively which meant I was working longer but not smarter. These are the revision hacks that changed the trajectory of my life. So ignore at your own risk:

Recognising vs. Understanding

Ever walked out of class thinking ‘yeah that made sense’ but when you sit down to try go through the questions, they’re impossibly difficult? If so, you’re not alone. I’ve taught over 100 students and they all share the same problem. Here’s the reason why:

Recognising: the ability to follow the teacher’s steps to reach the right answer.

Understanding: the ability to independently recreate this answer without any external help (from notes and teachers).

Let’s use an example to clarify this. Watch this video (SPOILER ALERT: it’ll blow your mind):

Life hack:

So now you can tie your shoelaces in one second right?


Obviously not.

I recognise that I have to put my pinky under my right thumb, but it took me like 100 attempts and 3 further videos until I was able to do this on my own – only then did I understand how to do it. People misuse the phrase ‘I understand’ all the time when they really mean that they acknowledge or recognise how to do something. To beat your studies, you need to accept that, just like the shoelaces, watching someone else do something is a long way off from you being able to do it independently.

So the first step in studying effectively must be to separate what you know, what you recognise, and what you have never seen before:

Task 1: Plan your studies like a military operation.

The enemy? The exam.
Your troops? Your notes.
(Don’t have any troops? Then you’re launching a rebellion, and you had better start recruiting!).

Firstly, open up the syllabus (usually lecture 0 or lecture 1). We’re going to build a triage system:

1. What do you recognise, have notes for and need to practise?

2. What do you need to make notes for and learn?

3. What, if anything, can you afford to leave out?

Task 2: Organise your troops.

Ever noticed how the best students always have well-organised folders? Well, think of your brain as a revision folder. Consequently it’s full of random facts, figures, graphs, quotes, ideas and arguments etc… In the exam, you will need to retrieve relevant bits of this information. Furthermore the better organised your notes are, the better organised your brain will be, and you’ll waste less mental energy trying to remember everything, allowing you more time to get marks.

Artist’s impression of the average student’s brain.

So to achieve organisational bliss you’ll need to sort out any existing notes by topic or week, separated by a titled blank piece of paper (a make-shift divider). Separating the information physically, means that your brain can more easily organise it mentally. It may feel like this is wasting precious revision time, but the process of de-jumbling your thoughts means you’ll be 3 times more likely to remember information.

Artist’s impression of a straight-As student’s brain.

Shopping List

Do this one thing: BUY
Sticky Notes – Essential for the next task

Once you’ve purchased an almost-excessive-amount of folders and arranged your notes systematically, we can move onto the real stuff!

And then… check out how to keep on top of your studies with our Revision Hacks.