The 3 Secrets Top Students Know that You Don’t!

Time to let you in on a dirty secret: top students aren’t always the brightest, or even the most hardworking. In fact, there are students out there right now who, despite having the brain capacity to be a surgeon, are racking up C minuses in Biology. It all boils down to technique, and here’s how academic powerhouses manage it:


1. Knowing When to Use Spaced Repetition versus Cramming

“Spaced repetition” is a fancy way of saying “long breaks between revision sessions.” An example of spaced repetition is to revise the same topic every Monday, Thursday, and Sunday for a month.
Spaced repetition is an alternative to exam cramming, in which you re-read all your notes just before the exam. Successful students use both methods.
Exam cramming improves your results on a test – provided the test is taken 10 to 15 minutes after the cram session. Any longer, and your brain flushes most of the information from your short term memory.
For example: how long can you remember a phone number, even if you recite it to yourself over and over? You might be able to recall it if asked within the first 10 minutes. But if I ask you next week or even the next day, chances are you’d have forgotten.
The place for cramming is right outside the exam hall, minutes before the doors open. Not the night before.
Spaced repetition starts the revision process two to three weeks before the exam. The sessions are spread out, with a fixed routine – it’s better to revise topics for an hour a day (or every other day), than to pack everything into a marathon, once-a-week session that lasts three hours.
The secret is to do both: start revising early, but mark the pages for a cram session immediately before the exam starts.


2. Teaching as Learning

The worst way to retain information is to repeatedly re-read something. This produces diminishing returns: reading something twice improves memory retention, but between the 25th and 30th time you reread it, there’s little difference in retention.Top scorers don’t just re-read their notes – they “teach” the subject. Some subtle examples of this include:

  • Arguing about the subject with others (particularly in subjects like literature)

  • Blogging or otherwise writing down their opinions on the subject

  • Correcting the work of friends or siblings

  • Explaining what they learned in school at the dinner table

When we “teach” a subject in this way, we’re forced to break the concepts into small parts. The gaps in our understanding are also highlighted to us, because we can’t teach what we don’t know.

Some teachers make students write a five minute presentation of the subject, or get them to correct deliberate errors in an essay. Some of our tutors also do this (for more on our tutors’ various teaching methods, feel free to contact us).

Notice that this learning method seems very close to lifestyle choices (e.g. choosing to blog, habitually discussing lessons at the dinner table). To some degree, it is true that academic success is based on students who have such a background / environment.


3. Write About Subjects Even When You Don’t Have To

This dates back to ancient Rome, when Marcus Aurelius was instructed by his tutors to write an essay every day. Do recall that Marcus Aurelius ran an entire empire without e-mail or spreadsheets, which should tell you how amazing his memory was.

Also, due to the sheer power of this technique, China was able to use it to brainwash American soldiers into turning communists.

The process of writing is a neurological wonder – it engages long and short term memory, forces you to speculate on how information can be applied, and can even change  personality traits over time.

Students can do this by writing short blog or journal entries every day, describing what they learned in school. A tutor or parent should be tasked with reading it, and then discussing the topic with them; this also highlights issues like boredom or dissatisfaction (if a student gets disgruntled, it will show in their sparse commentary).

For details on how to help your children create a learning journal, like us on Facebook. You’ll get an update when we put out the instructions.

What methods do you or your children use to study?
Comment and let us know!