Guide to Being a Productive Learner

Despite the fact that our academic career is all about learning, schools often do a miserable job of actually teaching students how to learn. The ease and efficiency of studying plays a major role in grades and in the amount of work a student can perform. The main difference between the students who learn easily and those who have a hard time absorbing material is not where they study or how organized they are. In other words, it has nothing to do with any of the common solutions offered to those struggling with study materials. Instead, being a productive learner is all about how a student studies.

Everything You’ve Been Taught About Learning is Wrong

Those who learn slowly tend to memorize but fast learners know how to connect ideas instead of memorizing. The good news is that efficient study methods are trainable and people who learn the right techniques are able to reduce the time they spend studying by as much as 75 percent while also improving their grades.

Below is a look at some of the studying techniques that most students are taught early on, but that numerous studies have shown to be inefficient:


Conventional study techniques typically focus on rote memorization. For the most part, school teaches us to remember facts with no emphasis on absorbing it. In other words, we are taught to pass tests without getting a good grasp of fundamental principles and concepts.

Memorization can keep you from developing time-saving insights into the material and therefore should be avoided as a first option. While it will be necessary to memorize with some subjects, this is not usually the case.


Highlighting is a popular, easy-to-utilize method of studying; however, it has limited benefits. Studies on its effectiveness as a learning aid showed that it provided little benefit in terms of retention of information or improved test scores. In fact, the benefits of highlighting or marking study materials were essentially the same as reading the materials.


A summary requires you to capture the essence of the materials that you are studying. Creating summaries of materials is effective for some kinds of learning but not so effective for others. The studies that have been performed on the effectiveness of summarization show mixed results. For example, this method of studying is not effective for a student who is taking a multiple-choice test or other tests where the production of learned information is not necessary. In testing where knowledge has to be analyzed, the use of summarization actually led to decreases in performance.

Studies show that summaries are only effective if the student is good at summarizing. The most effective summaries were those that provided more information and that were connected to the student’s previous knowledge.


Rereading is another popular study technique that science has shown to be less than effective. In theory, it should work since it increases the amount of information taken in; however, the time investment shows relatively little in the way of returns when compared to other methods of studying. This is despite the fact that rereading requires no training.

***For more information on the ranking of various study techniques, go here***

How to Learn the Right Way

Use Practice Tests

Practice tests have been an established study method among education experts for a long time. Practice testing is seen as one of the best tools for remembering what you learn. This article from John Dunlosky of Kent State University states that student learning can be improved by almost any kind of practice testing.

A practice test does not need to be a literal test taken in a conventional testing environment, though you can use that method if you want. You can take a practice test at any time, in any location and on any subject. It is as simple as answering your own mental questions. You can also test yourself using flash cards. Try coming up with practice problems without using notes or material from a textbook.

Theories as to why practice tests help with remembering what you learn include the notion that testing helps with the retention of knowledge. It does this by aiding the processes involved in retrieving information. Another theory is that the tests improve the ability to organize information mentally. This improves the speed with which you are able to retrieve knowledge.

Practice tests do not take a lot of time and not a lot of skill is needed to perform them. They also work for a variety of subjects.

Practice testing works best when sufficient time has passed between tests. Studies have shown that immediate retesting delivers very little benefit.

Use Distributed Practice

According to this study from the University of Illinois, distributed practice shows some of the most powerful effects in memory research. This study method involves splitting studies over time instead of doing all of it at one time. Distributed practice has been shown to do a better job of enabling retention according to various studies, especially when compared to cramming.

It works because the brain gets time to grasp the information by switching back and forth between focused and diffused modes of thinking.

***For more information on why distributed practice work, go here to read more about the forgetting curve.***

Use Both Focused Mode and Diffused Mode Learning

The focused mode of thinking is the state where the material being learned completely dominates the student’s attention. They are deliberately focusing on what they are trying to learn.

The diffused mode of thinking lacks that level of focus; instead, the information is not the person’s immediate focus. This kind of thinking can be done while performing some other task.  For instance, diffused mode is letting ideas peculate while you walk or take a shower.

The focused thinking mode can be considered the basis of learning. Here you lay the first memory traces on which the knowledge base is built. This is the point at which you build a foundation for knowledge that is applied to whatever field you are learning. Focused mode learning revolves around the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain controls much of our executive function and is responsible for us making decisions and solving problems. The prefrontal cortex is also responsible for memory and attention.

The diffused mode of thinking is just as important for learning.  While in diffused mode, your brain can make connections using information not in its immediate purview.

So when you are unable to solve a problem while in focused mode, get up and do something else for awhile.  That will put your brain into diffused mode and allow your brain time to take a step back and get a new look at a problem.


Being a productive learner and studying effectively requires that you be obsessive about your focus in order to increase the efficiency of your study process. It is not enough to memorize, summarize and reread. Being a productive learner involves careful management of your time and calls for you to take control of your learning process. By using the right methods of study, you can ensure that you get as much as possible from your learning experience.

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