18 ways to study

By Elyse Popplewell in Study
31st of July 2016

Study, study, study…

It’s easy to fall into a rut and think that rote learning is the only way to approach a tedious topic. There is so much potential for your study routine to be creative, varied, or dare I say…fun. The way you study at the start of the year may not be how you study best at the end of the year. I got to a stage where I could not look at a page of notes for another second, so I had to start making posters and timelines. At the start of the HSC year, i would have told you that I’m not at all a visual learner, but by the end, I had made several trips to the News-agency to pick up some cardboard.

The ways to study:

1. Teaching others

When you teach others content, you are forced to extrapolate all you know from the depths of your brain, which is a good reflection of what an exam paper requests of you. If you have a friend on struggle street with a particular topic, it is a win/win situation that you get to share your knowledge in a way that a text book won’t, but you also get to dig up the facts from the dusty corners of your brain. When you have to talk out loud about something, often you’ll find the gaps in your knowledge to be quite evident. So this is a great way to recognise the weak links and weld them back together in your own study time.

2. Timelines

This doesn’t have to be, although it can be, an elaborate poster with felt tip pens and A3 card board. Sometimes a timeline is as simple as mapping out the plot of a text, or the rise to power of a person in history. This works especially well for English, science, and history. I didn’t think I was a visual learner until the end of my HSC when I could no longer look at a page of words to study from. I had to resort to looking at things visually, and this kind of thing worked a charm.

3. Posters

If you are a visual learner, you’re likely to be all over this technique. Anything that involves a diagram, a flow chart, a graph, a timeline, or a list of important things to remember, can be turned into a poster. The beauty of a poster is that you can be a little creative when you’re studying and get out of the regimented routine of summarising textbooks into a word document. Posters can also be visually pleasing, if you’re on the crafty side, and far more appealing to study from than a wad of A4 paper with dot points.

4. Recording it

I recorded my essays and creative writing and listened to myself through my earphones on the way to school. To be fair, I only entered this level of intensity in the lead up to the actual HSC exams. Listening to your own voice so consistently is intense, but it helped me memorise my own stuff very easily. When I was in the exam, I could remember what I wanted to write as though it was being fed to me through an earphone, because I had listened to it over and over again, like you would your favourite song!

5. Saying it like a speech

This works for formulas, quotes, or entire essays. When you put on a funny voice or accent, you will have approximately 12 x more fun*. My creative writing piece was a speech, so I jumped into character and put on my best damsel in distress voice to suit my character, before whipping over to her sassy persona for the second half. I had such fun. This worked because I was repeating it over and over and it never felt cumbersome. I was using hand actions, making funny faces and imagining myself standing in context of the speech. I learnt my essays and creatives most quickly in this fashion.

(*not an actual statistic)

6. Mnemonics

I <3 mnemonics. If you aren’t sure what they are, I’ll give you an example. I need to remember the following for my English paragraph: Metaphor, Symbolism, onomatopoeia, bildungsroman, pathetic fallacy. But, that’s awkward and boring to remember. So instead I take the first letters from each: M, S, O, B, P. Then I make a silly little sentence: Mary slipped over banana peels. This is far more entertaining to remember than the technique’s names themselves. When you know the first letter, you will be sure to recall the technique you are supposed to write about! This works for a number of things, like remembering the purposes for punishment in Legal Studies, or the principal beliefs of a religion in Studies of Religion. There are a bunch of mnemonic generators online. I tend to think the funnier, or more inappropriate, your little mnemonic sentence is, the more likely you will be to remember it. I used mnemonics to assist with memorising my English essays – you can read more about my memorisation techniques here.

7. Writing and re-writing

This can be an organic process or it might be a planned strategy. I used the same Area of Study essay since my very first assessment task. I used it for the half yearlies, the trials and eventually, the HSC. In this time it was always evolving, being developed, receiving feedback, and being edited. Without a lot of effort, I had the entire thing memorised just because I had been going over it so many times. If you are looking at this in a more planned way, writing out the same sentence over and over is guaranteed to make it burn into your memory. Using a long quote from an English text will always present the challenge of accurately recalling it in an exam. I spent nearly an entire English class one time writing out the same three quotes. I filled 10 pages. It was exactly like Bart Simpson in the opening of The Simpsons. Literally just writing it out consistently burned it into my muscle memory.

8. Over-exposure

I had my study notes in plastic sleeves in the shower wall, on the back of the toilet door, on the mirror where I put my makeup on in the morning, at the breakfast table and all over the walls in my study space. It took some convincing to let me do an official HSC-take over in the last month or two, but I credit a lot of my knowledge to this. Without even realising that I was taking in the graphs of the Western Front, or observing the year of a piece of legislation, all of it was being absorbed when I was doing something as mindless as washing my hair. Plus, it felt amazing to take all of the notes down after my exams. Like, amazingly amazing.

9. Writing study notes

There’s a misconception that in order to study, you need to have study notes. The reality is, that making study notes is in itself one of the best ways to study. When you are making study notes, you’re summarising enormous chunks of information and putting them into bite size pieces. You’re extrapolating your knowledge from the course and putting it into one handy dandy spot. I re-wrote my study notes for Legal Studies for the trials and the HSC. I was completely at a loss with how to study for Legal, so the only way I figured I could approach it is to go in order of the syllabus, converting my notes from palm cards to paper, and from paper to posters, and so on.

Expressive study notes written by Jake Silove, who obtained an ATAR of 99.80 with these exemplary notes.

10. Making a cheat sheet

This will be the very last thing that you look at before entering the exam room. I call it a cheat sheet because you obviously won’t be cheating from it, but if you had the chance to take in one sheet to the exam, this is what it would be. So for Legal Studies, I was all about the legislation and those finer details of statistics and cases. I had one page for the core and one page for each option. It was just the most tricky stuff that I struggled to remember, but would mean a lot to the accuracy of my essay. For modern it was key dates, historian quotes and important facts. For Studies of Religion, it was the census data. Essentially, make this sheet full of the information that you would take into the exam to give you some help, if you were allowed. I laminated mine and colour coded each sheet, I felt that I could recall things better mentally if they were coloured.

11. Making the notes look great

Don’t let anyone butcher your great looking notes. To me, that laminated finish was a real reward; it felt like I had finalised notes! Using felt tip pens is always a dream, and using coloured graphs or images does help visual learners to study, so let’s not act like pretty study notes are all aesthetics and no function!

12. Testing with a friend

For anything fact based, a yes or no/true or false answer, or a language oral, this works perfectly. On one side of a palm card you can write a question in your language other than English, get a friend to read it out, and then test you for accuracy based on your prepared response on the other side of the card. You could ask your friend which year Hitler became Chancellor, and they respond with the answer. Testing your knowledge with a friend gets you out of the rut of rote learning.

13. Listening to the content

For language and music, this is important! For language, I struggled the most with the listening component. So, I started to listen in to French music, French films and French radio. That exposure to the content meant that my ears were far more tuned in to listening to the delicacy of the language and responding to small tricky colloquialisms that might throw me in an exam. You

14. Past papers

I’ve written about how much I hate past papers here, and how I managed to get around them. If you’re like me, you want to whiz through past papers as quickly as possible to optimise your study time. Other people really benefit from emulating the exam conditions at home so that you can learn how to respond to the time constraints, the anxiety and the most common problem: legible yet fast handwriting.

15. Work sheets

You’ve probably received approximately 247 of these every time you have a substitute teacher, but they do come in handy! A lot of text books have revision sections that you can scan and use as a worksheet. Simple comprehension activities and “fill in the gaps” sound very primary school, but can be that simple thing you need to kick your brain into gear. Plus, moving through a sheet of study feels really rewarding. Make sure you take a break or eat something tasty at the end of each sheet.

16. Having a chat

Jake Silove suggested this one, and he pointed out that this is different from actually teaching something to your friend. This technique of study breaks down the typical educational hierarchy and is, to quote Jake, “less testing each other, more just running through content in a banterous way.” Are you a bit of a social hermit these day? You can test out this exact study technique on our online forums!

17. YouTube

If you’re struggling to understand a concept, YouTube might have your answer. Looking at an animated explanation of something is perfect for the visual learners among us, or those who cannot possibly look at a textbook for another minute. YouTube is great for explaining sciencey things, world order issues for Legal, and you’ll often find summarised plots of your English texts too! Sooo many subjects have relevant resources on the channel: CrashCourse. For the HSC scientists here, make sure you check out ASAPScience and MinutePhysics.

18. Brainstorm

My last minute study for Legal Studies was spent in the library with a white board, a marker, and a few peers. We wrote up all of the potential questions we could think of for the Crime essay, one by one. When the topic was on the board, we’d flesh out every single thing we could recall from this topic. We’d include facts, case studies, media articles, etc. Then we’d try organise how we would put it into an essay. This works beyond legal Studies, it’s important to remember! For any essay subject, brain storming is the perfect way to spit information out of your head in a visual manner for you to organise. Similarly, this works for Science!


What else is important?

  • Give yourself breaks
  • Reward yourself
  • Study at a wise time
  • Change it up every now and then
  • Focus on weaknesses and reward strengths
  • Drink up (water, I mean…)
  • Choose the right environment


Some other handy-dandy links:

Study smart, not hard.

How to study for Legal Studies.

5 Mistakes that Studies of Religion Students make.

How to write a HSC essay.


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