Break Your “Good” Study Habits! What Learning Science Can Teach Us About Effective GRE Studying

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Distractions are bad. Routine, concentration, and hard work are good. These all seem like common-sense rules for studying, right? Surprisingly (for many people, at least), learning science tells us that these “good” study habits may actually be hurting your learning process!

When you were in college, your study process probably looked something like this: for a given class, you’d attend a lecture each week, do the readings (or at least most of them), and maybe turn in an assignment or problem set. Then, at the end of the semester, you’d spend a week furiously cramming all of that information to prepare for the test.

Since this is the way you’ve always studied, it’s probably how you’re approaching the GRE, too. But I have bad news: this is not an effective approach for the GRE!

Taking notes and then cramming the night before the test is beneficial for tests that ask you to recite knowledge like “what were the major consequences of the Hawley-Smoot tariff” or “explain Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.” You can hold a lot of facts—for a brief time—in your short-term memory when cramming. You memorize facts, you spit them out for the test… and then, if you’re like me, you find that you’ve forgotten half of what you memorized by the next semester.

Why the GRE is Different

The GRE doesn’t reward these study habits because it’s not simply a test of facts or knowledge. The GRE requires you to know a lot of rules, of course, but the main thing that it’s testing is your ability to apply those concepts to new problems, to adapt familiar patterns, and to use strategic decision-making. You’ll never see the same problem twice. Even with vocabulary, you need a robust understanding of words, not just memorized definitions.

Shallow memorization is not nearly enough. You need deep conceptual understanding.

In How We Learn*, science writer Benedict Carey outlines decades of research about how this kind of learning happens. Many of the findings go against what you probably thought were “good” study habits.

Distractions are a Good Thing

Your teachers or your parents probably told you: “Always study in the same, quiet space. Create a ritual of studying, and keep it consistent.” And of course, that’s good advice to a point; if it’s too loud or distracting to think, you won’t learn very much.

But Carey tells us that subtle variations in our routine – going to a different room, or library, or coffee shop; alternating between light background music, silence, or the hum of people talking – can actually improve our learning. When we’re studying, we’re also subconsciously registering clues from the world around us, and weaving them into what we’ve learned. Different subconscious markers create richer connections.

These connections are further strengthened if you review the material in a different context than you initially learned it. As Carey says, “each alteration of the routine further enriches the skills being rehearsed, making them sharper and more accessible for a longer period of time.”

Study Less… More Often

There’s a good reason why you don’t remember most of the material you spent long hours cramming before the final: long study sessions are bad for retention.

If you want to hang onto the information that you’re working so hard to learn, you should try what learning scientists call “the spacing effect.” Don’t try to learn a topic in one long sitting. Instead, study a little bit, then return to it a few days later. According to Carey, “people learn at least as much, and retain it much longer, when they distribute—or ‘space’—their study time than when they concentrate it.”

If you plan to spend 90 minutes learning exponent rules, for example, it’s more effective to spend 45 minutes on it on Tuesday, then return to the topic for another 45 minutes on Thursday or Friday (or even better, three 30-min sessions) rather than just concentrating your learning into one long session. Especially when learning vocabulary, it’s much more effective to study a word on three different occasions than three times in one sitting.

Get Mixed Up

Stay organized and see it through until completion. Guess what? Those ideas are wrong, too.

Data suggests that instead of studying one topic until you’ve mastered it, then moving on to the next, you should mix up your studying. If you’re quizzing yourself on quadratics, mix in a few questions from inequalities, weighted averages, etc. By throwing your brain some curveballs, you’re training yourself to adapt and make strategic choices. It may seem more confusing at first, but forcing yourself to think more will cause you to learn and remember more.

“The mixing of items, skills, or concepts during practice, over the long term, seems to help us not only see the distinctions between them but also to achieve a clearer grasp of each one individually,” says Carey. So, mix it up!

Testing is Learning

The best way to learn is to study the material thoroughly, then test yourself at the end to prove that you’ve learned it, right? You guessed it… wrong again.

The data shows us that you’re more likely to retain information if you test yourself before you learn it or while you’re in the middle of your learning process. By “failing” at particular questions the first time around, your brain will flag those concepts as more important when you do learn them, and you’ll be more likely to retain them for longer.

Testing yourself periodically throughout your study process (rather than waiting until you’ve learned everything to take a practice test) will strengthen your recall. It’s harder work to try to retrieve a memory when you’re being tested than it is to passively read over your notes. Harder work means stronger neural connections and a higher likelihood of remembering on test day.

Sleep on It

It’s the week before the Big Test, and you have a choice: stay up until 2 a.m. and get a few extra hours of studying in, or go to bed and get a good night’s sleep. I’m going to give you the same advice your mother would give you—get some rest!

Your brain actually does a lot of work offline while you’re sleeping. As Carey reminds us, “brain scientists have published an array of findings suggesting that sleep plays a critical role in flagging and storing important memories, intellectual and physical.” If you rob yourself of sleep, your brain might not actually store those extra facts that you stayed up late to cram!

Think of yourself as an athlete in training—your brain needs exercise, but it also needs rest. Exhaustion is very bad for performance.

Breaking “Good” Study Habits for the GRE

So, what should you take away from all of this? Here are some “bad” study habits that are actually very good for your GRE studying!

1. Vary your routine. Study in different places, at different times of day, with different backgrounds.

2. Don’t study hard… in one sitting, that is. Study in smaller intervals of time, but go back and review the material several days later. Space it out.

3. Mix it up. Don’t just practice one concept or skill at a time. Weave in some practice problems from other areas to make your brain work harder.

4. Quiz yourself—often. Try quizzing yourself with the problem set before you read the chapter in your strategy guide. Take practice tests periodically throughout your process.

5. Sleep on it. If you’re struggling with a concept, sleep on it. Sleep is an important part of memory building.

Good luck with these “bad” study habits! ?

*Carey, Benedict. How We Learn. New York: Random House, 2014.


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ceilidh-erickson-Manhattan-Prep-GMAT-InstructorCéilidh Erickson is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Boston, MA. When she tells people that her name is pronounced “kay-lee,” she often gets puzzled looks. Céilidh is a graduate of Princeton University and a master’s candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Tutoring was always the job that brought her the greatest joy and challenge, so she decided to make it her full-time job. Check out Céilidh’s upcoming GRE courses (she scored a 760, so you’re in great hands).

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