Good study habits to maximise learning

Establishing these healthy study habits can boost the brain’s ability to learn

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You have been procrastinating all semester, which is why you are cramming the night before the exam. You are stressed. You lose sleep. So you feel like a zombie when you actually sit the exam. You probably could have done better on that exam. You are definitely going to forget the majority of what you studied in a few weeks.

Familiar scenario? You are not alone.

Learning is more than just sitting exams though. It is about understanding new information and being able to combine it in new and useful ways. Identifying bad study habits will allow you to change them, so that you can boost your learning (and grades!).

So what are bad study habits?

When it comes to bad study habits, cramming is a biggie. Cramming leads to an elevation of stress and a lack of sleep, and as has been previously highlighted, cramming the night before rarely works.

The effect of stress on learning was recently reviewed in depth by two researchers named Vogel and Schwabe. Stress can “impair memory retrieval, hamper the updating of memories in the light of new information, and induce a shift from a flexible, ‘cognitive’ form of learning towards rather rigid, ‘habit’-like behaviour.”

How can you combat stress while studying?

Time management is key. Being on top of assignment deadlines, and organising a good revision plan that you stick to early on, can help alleviate stress. You can also learn to practice mindfulness and meditation to reduce stress and anxiety. Stop, Breathe & Think is a great app that guides you through short meditation practices and can be downloaded on IOS or Android, or accessed online. Learning these practices as a student will help you develop better long-term coping strategies and set you up for a better future.

The long-term repercussions of chronic sleep loss have been highlighted in this TedEd video. Further, as highlighted in a previous post, sleep is crucial to consolidating memories. Making sure you get enough sleep, in terms of quantity, is easy if you manage your time well. The old adage, “early to bed, early to rise” still applies. However, in addition to the number of hours, the quality of your sleep is also important. A study demonstrated that late-night smartphone use affected the quality of sleep, leaving the person depleted and less engaged in work the next day. So, it is a good idea to ditch your smartphone in the evening and keep it out of your bedroom.

Speaking of ditching your smartphone, this is probably what you should do while in class and during studying as well… or at least make sure that you turn off those push notifications! A study, which was published by the London School of Economics, found an increase in test scores of more than 6% in schools in four English cities that banned phones.

How do distractions affect the way you learn?

The brain learns using the following two methods: declarative memory and habit learning. Declarative memory, which depends on a brain region known as the medial temporal lobe, deals with learning active facts that can be recalled. An example is memorising a phone number that you can then recall.

Habit learning, on the other hand, relies on an area of the brain called the striatum, and if we use the phone number analogy, it is like learning the phone number by punching it in 1,000 times. You would not be able to recall it, but you can go to a phone and punch in the number. A research study demonstrated that these two methods of learning are in constant competition, but that habit learning takes precedence when the person is distracted. Now, both habit learning and declarative memory allows you to recall learned knowledge, so technically, you would do fine if you just have a few multi-choice questions. However, only declarative memory allows you to flexibly apply the knowledge you have gained, for instance in an essay. So it is a good idea keep smartphones, TV, and any other distractions at bay while you are studying.

What is context-specific learning?

Pioneering work by Godden and Baddeley suggested that the environmental context influences cognitive processing. This means that if you are routinely studying in exactly the same place, then you are not training yourself to remember information when thrown into an exam situation, where you are also under extreme time pressure. Instead, try studying in a widely varying contexts. Take some time to explain the concepts you have learned to your parents, younger siblings, or friends… while you are helping prepare dinner or taking a walk in the park. Attempt practice problems while standing on one foot or sitting at different spots around the library. Even better, if you can manage it, try and do a practice exam in the same classroom where the exam will be held, under exactly the same amount of time. Talk about context-specific learning!

So just to recap, here are five good study habits that can help you boost your learning:

  1. Manage your time wisely so that you stay on top of your assignments and exams.
  2. Practice mindfulness and meditation to reduce stress.
  3. Ditch your smartphone at night to make sure you get a good night’s sleep.
  4. Eliminate distractions while studying.
  5. Study in widely varying contexts.

Happy studying everyone!

Lakshini Mendis, PhD

Freelance Science Writer and Editor, Self-employed

A trained neuroscientist, Lakshini currently works as a freelance science writer and editor. She loves sharing the latest neuroscience research with the community because she thinks that science should be accessible by everyone! You can find her latest science communication project here:


Go to the profile of Komal Saini
over 4 years ago
A great read - very well written, especially liked the attached links. Thanks
Go to the profile of David Joseph
over 4 years ago
Thanks for this great information. some days ago I found another website for maximizing the skills of learning
Go to the profile of Ivan Whittey
over 4 years ago
Thank you, Lakshini. How do you distinguish between changing contexts, standing on one foot, etc. and distractions? It seems like the effect of standing on one foot would be, at least in part, distraction.
Go to the profile of Belinda Lynch
over 4 years ago
This is one of my favorite subject; learning and retention.It was very interesting and informative. I learned how to improve not only my study habits but also my retention habits. I also send the information to my 15 year old daughter.
Go to the profile of Omar JG
over 4 years ago
Thank you!! It's great!
Go to the profile of Lakshini Mendis, PhD
over 4 years ago
Thanks for your feedback all! Glad you are finding this article useful :) I just wanted to address Ivan Whittey's (excellent) question on distinguishing between distractions and changing contexts. When I mentioned changing contexts, I just meant varying the environment/space you study in or how you practice recalling information. I agree that if changing your posture while studying, like standing on one foot while you complete a multi-choice question, is as distracting as the notifications that pop on your phone, then it will not be helpful to studying. Happy for others to share their experiences!
Go to the profile of W. R. (Bill) Klemm
over 4 years ago
To explore this topic in depth, I hope you will consider my four books on improving learning and memory. See description and reviews at I also have a science-based blog with over 250 posts at Reader views of my posts now total well over two million.