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The Perfect Studying Routine | Scott H Young

The Perfect Studying Routine | Scott H Young
The perfect studying routine has five ingredients: instruction, retrieval, spacing, understanding and feedback. Which one might you be missing?


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The best routine for studying

The best routine for studying

It is often unhelpful to hear that the perfect routine is the one you can stick to to help you reach your goals. As everyone is different in personality, constraints, and preferences, the ideal method will differ.

Instead of outlining an exact routine, look at the essential parts of a routine, and season them as you desire.

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Previously, I explained the difference between learning bounded and unbounded subjects . School is bounded. Life is unbounded. The difference is critical.

In today’s lesson, I’d like to shift from search strategies to routines. What’s the best routine for studying?

The correct answer is that the perfect routine is one you can stick to and will let you reach your goals. Everyone has different personalities, constraints and preferences—so the perfect routine will be different.

That’s true, but it’s also unhelpful. Obviously some routines are better than others, even if we’re all unique.



The ingredient of the perfect studying routine

  1. Instructions can be in the form of lessons, books, or tutoring. They are useful to avoid wasting time with trial-and-error.
  2. Retrieval involves deliberately remembering the knowledge, not just passively reviewing it.
  3. Spacing is repeated reviews, spread out over time. It forms part of a regular routine where you cover old knowledge along with new.
  4. Understanding. The goal of learning is for ideas to make sense. Explain the concept to yourself. When you get stuck, find a textbook or teacher to help you.
  5. Feedback. You don't have to get feedback from other people. When you can get accurate feedback that doesn't need another person, go there first.

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Instead of specifying an exact routine—let’s look at the ingredients any such routine would have. Get the essential recipe right and the spices are up to you.

There are five main ingredients to include in any studying schedule you could dream up:

  1. Instruction
  2. Retrieval
  3. Spacing
  4. Understanding
  5. Feedback

There are few subjects where omitting one of these is safe. Conversely, get all five, and the rest is mostly fine-tuning. Let’s look at each:



Fixing your current studying routine

To perfect your studying routine, look at your current routine, and see what's missing. For example:

  • An amateur painter will grow faster if they add instruction to their existing knowledge.
  • Learning history by reading a lot: Why not write an essay or converse with other history buffs?
  • You work correctly through a course, but don't space your learning: A ten-minute pop-quiz on previous topics can help you remember and save hours later.

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Retrieval means deliberately dredging up knowledge from your mind—not just passively exposing yourself to it.

Countless studies show retrieval practice works better than passive review . If you’re going to use the knowledge in a specific place, practice in that place. Do practice tests, work on real problems and apply it.

Spacing is the idea of repeated reviews, spread out in time . It’s one of the most robust effects in cognitive psychology, benefiting many subjects.



The mechanism is less clear. Consolidation via deep sleep may play a role. Other theories suggest activating knowledge from different prior contexts makes more robust cues for retrieval (e.g. studying it from both your class and from home, gives two starting points to recall a fact.)



Regardless of how it works, its effectiveness is certain. A good routine needs to cover old knowledge along with new.

The goal of learning is for things to make sense. If something feels like an arbitrary collection of facts, that’s a sign you aren’t investing in understanding it.

Failures to understand can be fixed. The Feynman Technique remains my most popular studying advice. The method is simple: explain the confusing idea to yourself, as if you were teaching it. When you get stuck, find a textbook or teacher and you can now ask a much more specific question.



Not all understanding needs formal methods. With understanding as a goal, you change how you learn. The question stops being, “How do I cram all of this into my head?” and becomes, “How do I make all of this obvious?”

Feedback is obviously useful. But there are some common misconceptions.

The first is that feedback has to come from people. This is false. “Did that work?” can often be answered directly from the environment. Human feedback can introduce biases, delays and social difficulties, so it isn’t always ideal.



Here’s your homework for today:

  1. Pick something you’ve been trying to learn.
  2. Go through each of the five ingredients. Which is missing or weak?
  3. What’s one way you could add it in?
  4. Go to the comments page and write down your response!

Bookworms almost never miss #1 (instruction), but often miss #2 (retrieval). Practitioners get #3 (spacing) and #5 (feedback) for free, but may miss out on #1. A lot of improvements to your routine can come from simply hitting all five.

That’s it for today’s lesson. On Monday, July 6th, I’m going to be reopening Rapid Learner , my six-week learning course. This course covers all of these ingredients in more depth, along with other strategies for improving how you learn.




When to Study

When to Study

Studying time is more efficient if it is spread out over many sessions throughout the semester, with a little extra right before the exam.

Cover each piece of info five times from when you fi...

What and How to Study

Testing yourself, so you have to retrieve the information from memory, works much better than repeatedly reviewing the information, or creating a concept map (mind map).

After the first time learning the material, spend the subsequent studying to recalling the information, solving a problem or explaining the idea without glancing at the source.

What Kinds of Practice to Do

For a particular exam, use the following:
  • Mock tests and exams that are identical in style and form.
  • Redo problems from assignments, textbook questions or quizzes.
  • Generate your own questions or writing prompts based on the material.

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There are Two Strategies for Learning Something

There are Two Strategies for Learning Something
  • Depth-first. This is where we pick one area and drill down.
  • Breadth-first works by first exploring your surroundings. If that doesn't work, pi...

How to Explore a New Topic Efficiently

When learning any new topic efficiently, we need to learn the most useful, basic and broadly applicable ideas first.

After that, we can move onto the obscure, advanced or specialized.

Academic Research: Follow the Citations

The learning space for an academic subject is composed of papers, books, and courses, linked via citations.

  • Start with a course or textbook. It will provide an easy entry-point.
  • For more specific topics, use literature reviews and meta-analyses, as they combine different studies.
  • Follow citation trails, focusing on papers that surface repeatedly.

Practice loops

Practice loops are useful as a concept to think about learning any skill. A practice loop is an activity or group of activities you repeat over and over again while learning somet...

Loops and drills

Many loops aren’t straightforward repetitions. You may never write the same essay twice. The loop isn't writing a particular essay, but the overall process for writing essays.

In the same way, each thing you learn may have more than one loop. Drills are smaller loops to focus on smaller parts of the bigger loop.

Designing Your Practice Loop

Step one involves figuring out what your loops are. These are the activities you repeat over and over when learning something.

Next, analyze the loop for different parts to see whether you can make improvements. It will result in faster learning.