We’ve all been there before. You study for hours for an important exam and feel like you have a pretty good grasp of the material. You sit down to take the test, read the first question and your mind goes blank. Unfortunately, grades are not always proportional to the effort students pour into their studying. Learning strategies, familiarity with the course material, confidence and the quality of instruction all play important roles in the grade you receive.
What makes matters worse is that students often attach their self-worth to their grades. When they don’t see the results that they want, they may consider themselves to be not smart enough or bad at the subject. But this is an unhealthy way of thinking and simply untrue; all students can learn anything, and failure is the best learning experience one can ever have.
Grades are not everything, of course — there are cases in which students have completely mastered the course material, but other factors like testing anxiety hinder their ability to perform well on exams. Depending on your intended profession, your grades might not even matter if you’re passing all your classes.
However, you may still want to learn more efficiently because your graduate school admissions depend on it, you want to see your grueling labor reflected in your grades or you just want to prove to yourself that you can. If that’s the case, here are some learning strategies you can use to give your GPA an extra boost this semester.
1. Don’t Memorize
Upon their arrival at college, many students face overwhelming amounts of course material and succumb to their temptation to memorize. It can seem so much easier to chow down on as many facts as possible and then regurgitate them back when asked to do so.
But memorization does not coincide with understanding. Especially in STEM-related fields, professors will often explain basic theories yet expect students to extract a deeper understanding and contextualize those concepts in real-life applications. Pure memorization does not hold up in those instances.
If you’re on a time crunch, working to understand fundamentals can feel pointless. But knowledge is cumulative, and having a strong foundation to work off of will get you much further than being able to spout complicated facts that otherwise mean nothing to you.
Psychologists agree that incorporating a certain level of difficulty into the learning process, although initially burdensome, can lead to deeper processing of the material that leads to longer-term retention. In short, learning shouldn’t always be easy — embrace the challenges that come your way and reap the benefits of what you sow.
2. If you do have to memorize, do it effectively
The fallacies of cramming are shown in the “forgetting curve,” a pillar of memory psychology that shows how quickly we naturally forget information we learn. Research studies on forgetting show that, on average, people can forget 70% of new information within 24 hours of learning. I’ve seen this hold true for myself — I can usually force myself to remember facts well enough for an exam the next day, but without fail I have to re-learn that information weeks later when preparing for a final.
However, effective learning strategies like spaced repetition can allow students to hack their brains and overcome the forces of forgetting. Repetition strengthens neural connections and allows for a stronger recall of information.
You can study more efficiently by attempting to retain information at increasing time intervals and lock down important facts in your mind just before you forget them. This learning strategy usually works best with flashcards — questions you answer correctly right away will be revisited less frequently in the future, while those you get wrong will require more attention.
Since spaced repetition works over a period of time, it clearly won’t work the night before an exam. You might learn something on day 1, then study it again on day 2, and again on day 5, and so on. Getting the timing right can be difficult, so I would recommend an app like Anki that does it for you.
3. Solidify your understanding with active recall
Active recall is a method long praised by cognitive scientists and students alike. Passive methods like rereading your notes or re-watching lecture videos can help you recognize information, but will rarely help you on exams where you must recall what you learned. That’s why making learning an active process — like by generating and answering your own questions — can be a life-saver come test day. Students also use active recall when studying flashcards or doing practice problems without consulting their notes.
On that note, practice, practice, practice. More exposure to difficult concepts and exam-like questions can help erase that sinking feeling of having never seen the types of problems that are asked of you on a test.
4. Make learning interesting with elaboration
Although this might be trickier to implement, elaboration refers to the process of further describing the information you’re learning — maybe even beyond what you’re expected to know. That might mean asking yourself why a particular phenomenon happens the way it does, making connections with other material from the course or making the content relatable to your own life.
Knowledge doesn’t exist in isolation. Make learning enjoyable by satisfying your curiosities, and sit back as your understanding settles comfortably into your mind. I’ve used elaboration without even noticing what I’m doing, and often march into office hours to demand answers beyond what I “need to know” so I can scratch the itch of my curiosities.
5. Consider your personal learning style
This can be a small thing, but catering toward your personal learning style can make a big difference. If you’re a visual learner, reading hundreds of pages of text might not be your best bet. Try out several different learning strategies such as watching YouTube videos, listening to lecture recordings and writing summaries of large chunks of knowledge. Notice what learning style is most effective and enjoyable for you. Or, take an online quiz to figure it out.
For me, I’ve noticed the act of physically writing down concise summaries of my notes helps me cement important concepts instead of getting bogged down by the smaller details.
6. Get help, even if you think you don’t need it
An important yet overlooked part of learning is knowing when to get help. Semesters always begin with professors practically begging their students to attend their office hours. But students might think their professors or teaching assistants wouldn’t explain things well enough, or maybe their schedules are too full.
Whatever the case may be, go to office hours — even if you’re already satisfied with your grades. The course staff make themselves available to help students specifically with course material. They will probably know how to explain a concept in a way that will help you on your next exam — after all, they’re the ones making the tests.
You can ask for advice on how to best study for the course, get help on a homework problem or have concepts explained in a way that makes sense to you. If you’re frustrated with your grades, it’s time to take learning into your own hands and implement the learning strategies you need to succeed in all your classes this semester.