You have been procrastinating all semester, which is why you are cramming the night before the exam. You are stressed. You lose sleep. So you feel like a zombie when you actually sit the exam. You probably could have done better on that exam. You are definitely going to forget the majority of what you studied in a few weeks.

Familiar scenario? You are not alone.

Learning is more than just sitting exams though. It is about understanding new information and being able to combine it in new and useful ways. Identifying bad study habits will allow you to change them, so that you can boost your learning (and grades!).

So what are bad study habits?

When it comes to bad study habits, cramming is a biggie. Cramming leads to an elevation of stress and a lack of sleep, and as has been previously highlighted, cramming the night before rarely works.

The effect of stress on learning was recently reviewed in depth by two researchers named Vogel and Schwabe. Stress can “impair memory retrieval, hamper the updating of memories in the light of new information, and induce a shift from a flexible, ‘cognitive’ form of learning towards rather rigid, ‘habit’-like behaviour.”

How can you combat stress while studying?

Time management is key. Being on top of assignment deadlines, and organising a good revision plan that you stick to early on, can help alleviate stress. You can also learn to practice mindfulness and meditation to reduce stress and anxiety. Learning these practices as a student will help you develop better long-term coping strategies and set you up for a better future.

The long-term repercussions of chronic sleep loss have been highlighted in this TedEd video. Further, sleep is crucial to consolidating memories. Making sure you get enough sleep, in terms of quantity, is easy if you manage your time well. The old adage, “early to bed, early to rise” still applies. However, in addition to the number of hours, the quality of your sleep is also important. A study demonstrated that late-night smartphone use affected the quality of sleep, leaving the person depleted and less engaged in work the next day. So, it is a good idea to ditch your smartphone in the evening and keep it out of your bedroom.

Speaking of ditching your smartphone, this is probably what you should do while in class and during studying as well… or at least make sure that you turn off those push notifications! A study, which was published by the London School of Economics, found an increase in test scores of more than 6% in schools in four English cities that banned phones.

How do distractions affect the way you learn?

The brain learns using the following two methods: declarative memory and habit learning. Declarative memory, which depends on a brain region known as the medial temporal lobe, deals with learning active facts that can be recalled. An example is memorising a phone number that you can then recall.

Habit learning, on the other hand, relies on an area of the brain called the striatum, and if we use the phone number analogy, it is like learning the phone number by punching it in 1,000 times. You would not be able to recall it, but you can go to a phone and punch in the number. A research study demonstrated that these two methods of learning are in constant competition, but that habit learning takes precedence when the person is distracted.

Now, both habit learning and declarative memory allows you to recall learned knowledge, so technically, you would do fine if you just have a few multi-choice questions. However, only declarative memory allows you to flexibly apply the knowledge you have gained, for instance in an essay. So it is a good idea keep smartphones, TV, and any other distractions at bay while you are studying.

What is context-specific learning?

Pioneering work by Godden and Baddeley suggested that the environmental context influences cognitive processing. This means that if you are routinely studying in exactly the same place, then you are not training yourself to remember information when thrown into an exam situation, where you are also under extreme time pressure. Instead, try studying in a widely varying contexts.

Take some time to explain the concepts you have learned to your parents, younger siblings, or friends… while you are helping prepare dinner or taking a walk in the park. Attempt practice problems while standing on one foot or sitting at different spots around the library. Even better, if you can manage it, try and do a practice exam in the same classroom where the exam will be held, under exactly the same amount of time. 

So just to recap, here are five good study habits that can help you boost your learning:

  1. Manage your time wisely so that you stay on top of your assignments and exams.
  2. Practice mindfulness and meditation to reduce stress.
  3. Ditch your smartphone at night to make sure you get a good night’s sleep.
  4. Eliminate distractions while studying.
  5. Study in widely varying contexts.



Lakshini Mendis, PhD

Article published with permission from