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Breaks, Mini-Tests, and Multi-Task Avoidance: Three Ways to Study Better

studying-2.jpgFew people like to do homework or study for a test. But it’s obviously important to do these things to perform well in school. And if you must engage in these activities, you might as well be as efficient and productive as possible. You want to get as much benefit from each hour you invest in studying as possible.

In this article I’ll share three very practical, yet science-backed ways to get more out of every hour you invest in studying.

#1 Know when to take a break.

I’m not sure if it is widely understood that the brain has two main “modes” of thinking: Focused and Diffuse. I first learned about this concept in an online course called Learning How to Learn. When most people think about the process of studying for a test or going to a course lecture, they are envisioning “focused learning” where there is conscious effort to pay attention to a fact or concept and understand how it works. This is absolutely the primary way in which we learn. We apply reason and logic to understand how the pieces of a puzzle fit together, whether that “puzzle” is about history or algebra.

However, there is another mode of learning called “Diffuse.” To understand this mode, which operates in the “background” of your brain, imagine you are struggling with a difficult math problem. You’ve been at it for 15 minutes, but there are 15 other problems you need to do for homework, so you just let it go and move on because you literally don’t have any more time.

In the diffuse mode of learning you are not consciously thinking about a problem, but without realizing it, your mind is still working on it (in a sense). You know it’s something you’d like to solve or understand, and sub-consciously, your brain connects dots in the background and sort of “tests” a large number of potential linkages that might shed some light on the problem for you. It’s unlikely that the answer to the math problem will magically come to you at 9PM that night. However, when you crack open the book to do homework or sit down in the next class lecture, you may be surprised to somewhat quickly realize that you now understand the concept.

The moral of the story here is that instead of continuing to struggle with a problem, sometimes it makes sense to take break and do something else, or at least move on to a different problem.

#2 Stop underlining, start summarizing and testing yourself

The brain retains more information when it is truly “activated.” Put differently, more learning occurs when you engage in “active” vs. “passive” studying. And, a great example of a “passive” activity is reading. Obviously, reading, as far as activities go, is a good thing to be doing and a very important part of learning and doing well in school. But, it’s important to try to get the most out of the time you invest in reading.

Many studies have shown that simply reading about something is not a great way to learn or remember it. Reading passages and underlining them often feels good, because it seems like you are accomplishing something. But studies show little benefit. In this article on effective studying techniques by Annie Murphy Paul, she discusses several more effective alternatives to underlining.

I will cover or have covered some of these ideas in other posts, but two strategies that are better than underlining include summarizing key ideas in your own words. This forces your brain to “activate” and re-formulate the idea before writing it down. Even better than summarizing, according to the article, is to use flashcards or other means to quiz yourself. Quizzing yourself is the ultimate way to truly engage with the material vs. passively absorbing it. This process of engaging is what researchers believe leads to higher levels of retention and learning.

#3 Stop multi-tasking and start focusing

You will learn a lot less and will find it more difficult and time consuming to understand and complete assignments if you multi-task. It’s as simple and clear as that. In an article in Inc. magazine, Larry Kim (@larrykim) writes about how multi-tasking lowers work quality and efficiency because it “makes it more difficult  to organize thoughts and filter out irrelevant information.” He references a study at the University of London that suggest multi-tasking while performing cognitive tasks experienced IQ drops that were similar to subjects who hadn’t slept for an entire night or who had smoked marijuana.

Multi-tasking is another topic written about very well by Annie Murphy Paul in her article You’ll Never Learn in Slate. 

On the one hand, you don’t need to overthink this one. Of course, when you try to do more than one thing at once, you are paying less attention to each thing. You’ll be more likely to miss important points altogether or not fully understand any given point you are hearing or reading about. Paul quotes a psychology professor at the University of Michigan who says “Under most conditions, the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time. It can only happen when two tasks are very simple and when they don’t complete with each other for the same resources…an example would be folding laundry and listening to a weather report on the radio. That’s fine…but listening to a lecture while texting or doing homework while being on Facebook – each of these tasks is very demanding.”

Here are five research-backed results of trying to multi-task:

  1. Assignments/tasks take longer to complete, both because of time spent on the distracting activity and the need to re-familiarize yourself every time you re-engage
  2. You’ll experience mental fatigue from switching back and forth, and that will lead to mistakes
  3. Your memory of what you’re learning will be worse, as a direct result of having been switching back and forth across tasks when originally formulating the memory
  4. Our brains process information less efficiently when we are multi-tasking. In one study, students who multi-tasked remembered facts as well as non-multi-taskers, but were far less adept at extrapolating key themes to different contexts.
  5. Finally, some studies have simply shown that students who, in general, do more multi-tasking, simply have lower GPAs overall. Most likely as a result of all of the other issues we’ve already discussed.


There are many ways to start becoming a better student and a more efficient studier. Three important ones include:

  • Knowing when to take a break
  • Choosing more “active” ways to engage with what you are reading than simple underlining, and
  • Avoiding multi-tasking at all costs when you are trying to learn or study something.