How to Study Smart and Do Your Best Work.

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How often do we actually stand back and assess the way we are going about things and ask ourselves if this is the best way? This is particularly true of how we study. Many students tell us that they just haven’t been taught how to study. They have been taught what to study and shown how they will be graded on it – but not how to go about learning it in the best possible way.

Focusing on the process of studying rather than the results can improve our motivation, confidence and ultimately our grades.

Many students feel as if they are still in the dark searching out the ‘right way’ to go about revising. This includes the planning and organisation stage, the learning and memorising stage and also the exam stage.

Thinking about how to study and how to think about studying is called metacognition and research is highlighting just how effective this approach can be.

In general what students feel they know goes something like this:

  • Revision is hard. 
  • It should feel hard. 
  • If it does’t feel hard I’m doing something wrong.
  • If it feels hard I’m doing something right.
  • I will get rewarded for working hard. 

This sounds very straightforward and obvious. However this approach can carry enormous pitfalls. 

1. Using whether activities feel hard as a way to measure  our performance can lead us to dismiss our best work! When we’re naturally good at something it doesn’t always feel hard. It comes easily, naturally and quickly and we can work for long periods without forcing ourselves. It can in fact feel effortless.

Not only might we dismiss our best efforts – we won’t even recognise that they were our best efforts. We dismiss them because the feeling wasn’t what we identify with good performance. Furthermore, if we do actually get a good grade as a result of these efforts – because it didn’t feel like hard work – we feel that it was a fluke and we make excuses. We maintain the belief that if it didn’t feel hard – it wasn’t effective.

2.  Dismissing our best work gives us very poor guidance in terms of developing our strengths. A student who feels that they ‘should’ be re-reading their notes, even though they find this un-motivating and boring, will not take seriously how engaged they become when they use the internet, documentaries and visual archive material to revise their history topics. They will in fact, be dismissing the type of learner that they are, the way they best learn certain topics and how best to motivate themselves. They will dismiss this as play, or at the least ‘not serious’, rather than highly effective, fun and sustainable revision practices.

3. By not recognising our best performances we are left to focus on how to push ourselves to recreate our most difficult performances. After all, if it feels hard we’re working hard right?  This approach forces us to focus on what we are not good at. We value the effort we put in rather than the results. For instance, a student who sets themselves to work for eight hours every day and forces themselves to do this, can end up valuing how hard it was to force themselves to work, but pay little attention to the quality of their work.

Time and again students describe working to stop the feelings of guilt rather than to recreate their best study conditions and results. This makes complete sense if we feel uncertain of how to study we would naturally guide ourselves based on our feelings. Here are some top tips on study techniques:

4. If we are not able to recognise our strengths then it becomes increasingly difficult to use these strengths elsewhere. Transferrable skills is a key part of high performance. When we undervalue and dismiss our strengths, we are unable to consciously engage them and feel confident in our approach to new situations. This undermines our confidence in general let alone how we go about studying particular subjects. Recognising our strengths and feeling capable of transferring them into other areas is a key to success. For instance, the students who realises that his best football performances happen when he is relaxed and feels prepared to take risks can use this awareness to approach his revision in the same way.

5. We are actually training ourselves to find things hard if we don’t value the fun, interesting and effortless aspect in how we study. And this will undermine our motivation. So often we begin studying for fun and interest and find that over time we lose all that enjoyment. It becomes bogged down in the need to attain results and the anxiety associated with this. When we focus on results and believe that good results come from working hard rather than working effectively or productively or even enjoyably then we are training ourselves to chase after all the strategies that feel hard and difficult. Our motivation to work goes down, we procrastinate more and increasingly resort to forcing ourselves in order to work.

Remember – In the exam we get no marks for how much we have suffered in the lead up to the exam! Nobody knows and nobody is interested. If you learned the subject matter and did it through enjoying yourself you will still get (and deserve) the same marks as if you learned the material through gritted teeth and long, unproductive and painful hours in the library.


  • There is no one right way!  Open up conversation. Ask questions. Find out what has worked best for your child. What work have they most enjoyed and why? Find out not only what is enjoyable about that topic, but also what conditions they put in place when they do that topic. Often it is recreating the conditions around our work that improves our performance. These conditions necessarily involve the way that we think about the topic and what we want to achieve from it.
  • It feels like a risk to go for results and not feelings. Encourage your children, finding things fun and enjoyable and seeking this out as a general condition for the way in which you work is a highly effective strategy. IN my own life this means being in my favourite cafe with a piece of short-bread when I have to do my accounts. For your child this might mean starting a difficult topic by looking at Youtube clips on the topic, or going to a cafe and having a big hot chocolate and brain storming what they know about the topic. Or even writing down their favourite bits of the subject and adding to it their least favourite bits and thinking about why they like some aspects and not others. This is meta cognition in action. Before they know it they are studying and they are preparing themselves to improve the way that they will proceed with their studies in the future.

In summary: Going for results is a longer term strategy than going for feelings which can assuage our guilt and give us something to say to others, but isn’t about actually remembering the information and being able to answer questions on it.