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Why all study tips are the same, and none of them work

(Feature Photo: lolsheaven.com)


Just for kicks, type “study tips” into Google.

You’ll get things like:

“Everyone is different. Different methods work for different people; the following are only suggestions on improving upon your current studying techniques.”

WRONG – research in cognitive science has shown that “learning styles” are a myth, and that there is a definitive set of best practices for learning new material that apply to all humans.

“It is best to review the material right after class when it’s still fresh in your memory.”

WRONG – memory research conducted by research team Robert and Elizabeth Bjork out of UCLA, show that you need a period of time for your brain to forget new information in order to solidify a new memory later.

“Have all of your study material in front of you: lecture notes, course textbooks, study guides and any other relevant material.

WRONG – in order to truly solidify your ability to solve problems and recall information on a test, you should always attempt to start from scratch and recall the information from your memory before going to any reference material. And even then, you should have specifically targeted set of notes and example problem solutions to guide you, not a hodgepodge of every piece of information you’ve ever received.

This stuff is everywhere you look.

Teachers say it. Parents repeat it.


Why is the same set of overly-general, totally unhelpful, and mostly factually incorrect study advice continually propagated each year to students?

Couple things…


1. Fear of saying something wrong


Here’s a fundamental truth about advice: the more specific it is, the better the chance of someone pointing out something wrong with it.

The problem is, most people (especially teachers and parents) want to avoid being exposed to criticism at all costs.

It’s almost political: you don’t want to upset this or that demographic, so you make statements like, “We’re going to institute a revolutionary, conservative, tax policy that will serve the American people…”

“They misunderestimated me.”
~President George W. Bush

It’s the same thing when teachers say, “Set aside a block of time to really focus on your Pre-Calc studying. Make sure you eliminate distractions and have all of your books out in front of you.”

First off, suuuuper general.

You basically just said, “Make sure you study, and don’t do it in front of the TV, and remember to bring something to study with.”


(Photo: quickmeme.com)


Second, there are no actual specifics that someone could question.

Block of time?
How much time?
30 minutes or 1 hour?
During weeknights or on weekends?
How far apart should these sessions be?
What time of day?

What type of distractions?
Can I play music?
Do I have to turn off my phone?
What if I live by a busy street?
What if my room is messy, should I clean it first?

Sadly, there are answers to a lot of these things (study in short bursts of ~30 mins, distributed over multiple days, sometimes right before bed, some music can be helpful, changing contexts makes knowledge more robust, etc., etc., etc.)…

But teachers are afraid of upsetting parents, parents are afraid of telling their children what to do, and educators are much like politicians trying to stay in office, often saying noting at all.


2. The expert fallacy


Another problem?

Most of our educational guidance is coming from people (professors, teachers, parents, educators) who are years and years past the point where they initially learned the core material they’re trying to teach.

(Photo: quickmeme.com)


And because of this, they’re susceptible to what’s called “the expert fallacy,” which wrongly assumes that depth of knowledge in a subject area correlates well with the ability to teach that subject to new learners.

Unfortunately, this is rarely the case (as anyone who has taken calc or physics in college can attest).


3. False attribution error and status quo bias


To be quite honest, parents and teachers are also probably just responding to the things that they THINK they should have been doing when they were in school, based on what THEIR parents and teachers were telling them.

The permeation of advice that has been handed down, generation to generation…

So if your teacher’s teacher was always telling her to “find a quiet place to study at the same time each day,” and she never did it, and ended up performing poorly, then that becomes this thing:

“Hey, my teacher was always telling me I should be doing this, and I never did, so that’s why I did poorly. I’m going to instill this in MY students early on so that they do well.”

This is what psychologists call “false attribution error,” and we all do it. But in this case it’s taking away from your ability to learn effectively.

And because the educational machine just keeps on churning, little effort has been spent on figuring out whether any of it TRULY works or not.


So what to do?


(What? You thought I was done? I’m not just gonna leave you hangin on a downer like that!)

Well, #1, read my material… CHECK.

#2 – Do a little bit of digging.

You should go into any interaction where someone is giving you study advice with a healthy amount of skepticism.

#3 – Use RESULTS as your guide.

Plenty of people will tell you that grades don’t matter, but don’t be fooled – they’re the most reliable metric we have to go by.

#4 – Keep refining your process.

Remember, paying attention to HOW to learn best, is just as important as learning the actual material itself. The more you pay attention to what works, what doesn’t, what leads to results, or what’s just simply a waste of time, the easier things are going to get for you.

Don’t worry though, there ARE definitive answers.

On how to break down and learn technical material

How to most effectively develop problem solving ability and prepare for exams

How to study things like engineering

You just have to be willing to question, look past the BS, keep what works, and throw out what doesn’t.

So in the words of the most interesting man in the world:

“Stay thirsty my friends.”

  • Ben April 28, 2015, 12:19 am

    Are you sure about that false attribution error? I’ve heard of the fundamental attribution error which is something to the effect of judging another person’s actions by assuming they have an internal disposition for the action while judging your own actions by taking situational factors into account.

    • Tom May 14, 2015, 7:39 am

      Hah! Yea you’re right I think I made that up. Do you know the “official” name for that type of cognitive bias?

      Regardless, the point remains the same – falsely attributing success with some factor that occurred at the same time but didn’t necessarily contribute to it. I guess more of a correlation vs. causation error.

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