Your Students Might be Wasting Tons of Time "Studying"



At Method Test Prep, the school year is primetime. Students work with us not only for SATs and ACTs, but also for a variety of subjects spanning the high school curriculum. We help students on all levels, from the remedial to the accelerated.


Each year, we hear from the distressed parents of these students, who tell us that their children are “awake at all hours”, often studying until 1 or 2 AM in efforts to cram into their brains the knowledge they are tasked with learning. Students read multiple chapters a night, diligently outlining textbooks, creating study sheets, and in some cases, even recopying their notes from the previous school day.

All this leads to sleep deprivation, which can be especially detrimental to adolescents. But here’s the kicker: much of the lost sleep time due to students’ “studying” is time that has been utterly wasted.


Despite all their toil, many students find they don’t reap the expected reward of higher grades. The phenomenon is baffling. More work and no progress? It’s antithetical to the American ethos.

It turns out that there’s no mystery at all. Several of the methods discussed above are simply ineffective at helping students learn and retain the information needed to ace a history test or blaze through math problems. There are a few important points.

1. Recopying notes and verbatim textbook outlining are minimally effective time-sinks. Maybe the culprit is the natural-seeming analogy between sports and learning (“practice makes perfect”), but somewhere along the line, students hear that simple repetition is going to help them learn. While repetition is definitely necessary for retention, the sports analogy stops there. Unlike a tennis swing, which can be perfected through consistent repetition of the same motion a thousand times, recopying notes does little, if anything, for perfecting understanding. The learning brain is best engaged when it makes new connections for previously encountered experiences, not when it’s run through identically phrased sentences. When students recopy their notes or outline a book by verbatim rewriting of a textbook’s language (or worse yet, verbatim cut-and-paste using a keyboard), they are turning on a sort of mental “autopilot”. Thus, instead of absorbing, they simply gloss over without retention.

2. Just “looking at it” does almost nothing. You’ve heard the phrase: learn by doing. It’s time more students put the adage into practice. Particularly for logical and process-oriented learning––which occurs especially in the maths and sciences––an hour or two spent simply skimming over previously completed problems or processes is mostly a waste. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had a student struggling with math come to us for help, only to find out that the student’s “extensive” studying included zero time spent working through questions. Here’s the simple fact: to master a subject that involves logical reasoning and processes, students must do problems from scratch. Period.

3. Cramming is bad. There isn’t much to say here, because this is such a well-established fact. While not a hopeless waste, studying multiple history chapters or reviewing four different math topics the night before an important exam is poor form. Research shows that intermittent study over extended sessions is much better for retention and comprehension. Too often, this is a fact students don’t learn until college. All students, therefore, should be encouraged to study early and often. Big biology exam? Begin reviewing at least three days in advance. To many students, doing anything academic before it absolutely must be done is anathema, but ultimately, they will be rewarded, especially when the habit is developed by the time they pursue their undergraduate degrees.

4. Multitasking kills concentration. At this point, it’s almost cliché to rue the takeover of the digital world in our daily lives. However, the stream of distractions presented by tweets, Instagrams, texts, Facebook posts, Snapchats, WhatsApps, FaceTimes, and other media really does affect students’ ability to focus on a single task, be it studying or anything else. By now, multiple studies have shown that it takes a surprisingly long time to “refocus” after experiencing a distraction while trying to complete a task. The time spent getting back on track represents a huge loss in students’ already crunched schedules.

My point isn’t to ban digital media during after school hours. Students may even be required to use digital means to complete their work or prepare for a test (I can think of at least one such program). That said, it’s time to discuss with students how distracting an open computer screen, smartphone in the hand, and tablet on the desk can be during normal study time.

5. One size does not fit all. Some students flourish using index cards. Others love color-coded sticky tabs. Still others create dances for themselves. Whatever floats their boats. We need to be open to––and to encourage––the various study methods that students find work best for their own learning styles. As teachers, counselors, parents, and tutors, we cannot insist that one studying method is the “right” way, regardless of how well it works for us.


Learning how to work hard is crucial for student success in future schooling and later in life. At the same time, though, students should always think about how to work in a smarter way. This means greater efficiency, and in turn, less waste. Consider talking with your students about more effective, less time-consuming studying. One 15-minute discussion about study habits followed by periodic tweaking can have a huge impact on the quality of your students’ education.

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