How to Study More Successfully and Get Better Grades

By George A. Boyd © 2001

Learning involves

  • Exposure to new information (you give your attention to reading, a lecture, a video, an audio tape, a television program, a computer application, or a multimedia presentation)
  • Encoding information (you intend to remember it)
  • Storage (the brain remembers it for later use)
  • Retrieval (you pull it out of memory when you need the information)


If you don’t pay attention, you don’t learn. Your brain won’t remember things unless you tell it to do so. If you don’t mark the data as something to remember, it won’t go into memory (that’s why you underline or highlight written material, or make a mental note to remember something that is said, or write down important information).

You learn best when you actively process incoming data (this means you need to be an active learner, thinking along with the speaker in a lecture, or following the main ideas of the author of a book). You forget–not because it isn’t still in memory–but because you can’t retrieve it. Successful learners use strategies to encode their information so they can readily retrieve it.

Types of Learning

Rote Memory – you learn by repeating something over and over again. Examples include reviewing flash cards, listening to something several times on a tape, writing something over and over, going over the words of a speech again and again.

Associative Memory – you use mnemonic strategies to help you remember. This includes anagrams or abbreviations, poems or jingles, picturing items in different locations in a garden or other familiar place, or making a word picture of the item, (so catabolize becomes cat • a ball • lies), or matching words with fingers and toes.

Cognitive Mapping – forming a conceptual matrix for understanding. This is also called deep processing or mind-mapping.

Super learning – you use multi-sensory modalities, emotion and imagination to fix information into memory. This is usually done in a light state of hypnotic trance, called an alpha state.


A lot of people use Rote Memory strategies to cram for a test. But Rote Memory is usually not retained for very long after you take your test. You typically forget this type of information unless you refresh it regularly. It’s good for learning multiplication tables, names of state capitals, and other factual information, but it isn’t helpful in trying to learn abstract, conceptual information.

Associative memory strategies can help you retain information, but doesn’t help you really understand it.

Cognitive Mapping promotes genuine understanding, and allows you to retain information for a long time.

Superlearning makes new information easier to grasp, but it is sometimes hard to retrieve information learned in an alpha state.

Tips for Successful Studying

  • Relax before tests, and get into a calm state of mind. Anxiety shuts down the cerebral cortex, and locks you into the flight-fright mode of your limbic system. You don’t think well in a state of panic, and you don’t remember well, either.
  • Get enough rest, so your mind is clear.
  • Feed your brain before a test. Make sure you are getting sufficient choline and the other B-vitamins, phosphorus, essential fatty acids, good quality proteins and carbohydrates that are easily digestible.
  • Study regularly throughout the week, not just at the last minute. Cramming is not a successful strategy to do well on a test.
  • Put emotional problems out of your mind when you are in class, while studying and while test taking. Schedule time to think about your problems and work them out—just don’t do this during your learning time.
  • Have a regular, quiet place to study. Organize your study materials.
  • Study with a group to go over the key concepts, and to quiz one another.
  • Protect your study time. Don’t allow others to distract you.
  • Don’t study with music, TV, or other noise in the background. It makes it harder to concentrate on your study material—and it may actively contaminate what you are trying to learn with extraneous, unrelated information.
  • Set goals for each study session. Review what you have learned before retiring.
  • Determine when is your best time to study. Try to study at those times if possible.
  • Make study and learning a top priority. Say no to demands that take you away from studying.

Studying for Understanding

When you study, study for mastery of the concepts of your topic. Start by having questions, by actively inquiring about your subject matter. You acquire knowledge by remembering information; understanding by seeing how this information fits together as a whole. Try asking questions like this as you do your study [We use as an example questions you may ask to study a Vocational Nursing textbook]:

  1. What is the purpose of this body system or body part? How does it affect the body as a whole?
  2. What is the function of this body part or system? What do its constituent parts do?
  3. What are the gross structures of this body part or system? What are its parts called? What are its microscopic parts? What important biochemical molecules does it secrete or produce?
  4. What is healthy or ordered functioning of this body part? What major tests measure its functioning? What are normal ranges of these tests?
  5. How does this body part or system interact with other body systems? How do changes in the internal or external environment affect its functioning?
  6. What are diseases or disordered functioning of this body part or system?
  7. What tests or diagnostic procedures are used to determine the disease of this body part or system?
  8. What medical procedures are used to restore normal functioning to this body part or system?
  9. What medications are used to treat disease in this body part or system?
  10. What nursing procedures will I use to help my patients get better? What are key points that I need to keep in mind to make sure my patient gets better?
  11. How can I specifically apply this material in my clinical experience as a CNA or VN?

Deep Processing

Building a cognitive map will help you organize the data into understanding of the topic you are studying. It allows you to clearly explain the concept to others or write about it in an essay test. When you use Rote Memory or Associative Memory strategies, this may help you retain information to recognize it in a multiple-choice question, or to fill in a word on a short answer quiz, but it doesn’t give you a real understanding of your subject matter.

You gain understanding by

  • actively questioning
  • gathering information to fill in the gaps in your knowledge
  • organizing your knowledge in a easily retrievable schema
  • reviewing the material you have learned to see if you truly grasp it
  • creating analogies to make the concept understandable to you
  • thinking about the topic to see if you can discover connections, similarities and differences

Make Deep Processing, or acquisition of understanding, the primary goal of your studying.

Use Rote Memory and Associative Memory strategies to learn new vocabulary, names of medications and medical procedures, but use Deep Processing to understand why these procedures and medications are used, and how you will apply this knowledge to your job as a CNA or VN. [You can use a similar procedure to study your current study topic and apply it in whatever career you pursue.]


Superlearning begins with a deep fascination, an insatiable curiosity about the topic. You wish to learn everything about it. You devour knowledge. You read multiple books. You think deeply and often about the material. In this heightened state of awareness, you begin to engage all of your senses, your imagination, with intense concentration.

In Superlearning, you become one with the topic of your study. You don’t merely read or think about a red blood cell—you become a red blood cell. You see it, you hear it, you taste it, you smell it, and you feel it. You travel in the blood stream. You feel what it feels like to incorporate an atom of oxygen, and release it across a capillary membrane. You feel how it is different to carry an atom of carbon dioxide.

Insights pour into your mind during this heightened learning state. Your intuition becomes extremely penetrating. You understand systems from subatomic fields to the living organism, from environment to universe, as a seamless holism.

East Indian philosophers have referred to this state of mind as Samadhi. Western philosophers have called it Illumination or Enlightenment. It is a very ecstatic state of experience in which you acquire knowledge at an accelerated rate.Some people believe that by entering into a mild hypnotic state or alpha rhythm, that you can stimulate Superlearning. New multisensory teaching strategies also seek to evoke this heightened learning state.

What is likely true about this state? Its profound insights may not be readily accessible in normal awareness. You cannot force or trick the mind into this mode. It usually arises as an intense, absorbing quest for knowledge. It is a highly creative, temporary state in which you process information in a unitive state of experience.