Mixed race male studying

—Tanner*, Camarillo, California 

(*Name changed)

I’m so glad you asked this question because it gives me an opportunity to address the process of choosing effective study strategies. In the spirit of education, let me begin with an equation:

Subject matter + Method of testing + Learning preference = Study strategy

What I mean by this equation is that choosing the best study strategy involves determining three variables:

  • Subject matter. What subject are you studying? The content in a history class is different from the content in a math class. And both of those subjects differ from a speech class. How you build your study strategy will greatly depend on the nature of the subject matter.
  • Method of testing. How will you be tested? A cooking demonstration in a nutrition class will dictate a different study strategy than if you were given a multiple-choice test. If you’re not sure how you will be tested, look for clues in your syllabus or in the types of assignments your teacher gives you. Or just ask, “What will we be expected to do on the test?”
  • Learning preference. How do you prefer to learn? Do you learn better by seeing the material, reading it, listening to it, or doing something with it? Your preferences may depend on the subject matter you are studying as well. While there has been much debate about the validity of learning preference research, I do think that knowing how you like to learn can be used to maximize your study strategy.

Now, let’s put this into practice. Say you have visual arts class in which you must view examples of art and identify the artistic movement and the artist. Your learning preference is auditory, which means that lectures are a good way for you to learn material. A study method you could use that takes into account the three variables above could be to choose examples of images you may be asked to identify and talk through their characteristics or explain them to a study buddy.

A math class would require a different approach because the subject matter and testing method will focus on applying the content and solving problems. An auditory learner in this case would have to practice solving problems to study but may also want to talk through—or teach another student—the process by which the problem gets solved.

Now, you didn’t ask how often and how long you need to study, so I will save that answer for another day. Just remember that you’re better off trying a variety of study strategies spaced out over time to gain the maximum benefit.