girl studying on laptop

Does this sound like you?

When you’re studying for a test, you’re focused only on what you need to know to pass. For that intense study time, your notes never leave your side as you try hard to memorize every fact.

When you sit down to take the test you realize you haven’t studied nearly enough. There are questions you just can’t answer. Was this even covered in the material?

You finish frustrated, certain that you could have done better, if only you had studied harder.

You’re right, you could have done better. But you don’t need to to study harder, you need to study smarter. Instead of struggling to memorize, you should be working toward understanding if you want to pass the test.

Why cramming fails

Cramming for a test is a bad idea for two reasons. One, you put too much pressure on yourself.  A stressed brain has more trouble learning than a relaxed brain. So by stressing yourself out, you’re making it harder for your brain to understand and remember the material.

Two, you remember concepts better when you see them often with some time off in between. In fact, studies have found that if you do have to memorize a lot of information, flash cards are a great option for this very reason.

Flash cards work best when you have a big stack of them. Using more flashcards spaces out how often you see each idea. That means you’re reminded of it often enough that you don’t forget it completely. But you don’t see it so often that it stays only in your short-term memory.

Of course, flash cards won’t help you build a deep understanding of the material, and that is exactly what you should be trying to do.

Why study for understanding

Learning for understanding helps you pass the test, makes you a better employee, and a more successful person.

When you cram, you might successfully memorize enough material to meet today’s goal of passing the test. But you run the risk of forgetting the information almost immediately after the test is over. 

So even if you pass the test, you fail at your bigger goal of learning new skills that will advance your career.

Memorization gives you only basic knowledge. You know the answer (maybe) but you don’t know why that answer is the right one.

If the test goes outside of your narrow area of memorization, or if a question is asked in a different way from what you were expecting, you might find yourself at a loss.

Worse, when you have to apply your knowledge to a real-world scenario at work or at home, you don’t know how to do it. Your limited understanding fails as soon as you try to use it.

Studying for understanding means that you have deep knowledge of a subject. Even if you’ve never been asked a particular question before, you are able to find the right answer based on what you know. It puts your critical thinking skills to work for you.

The other problem with memorization is that the human brain works best when it can connect what you’re learning to something you already know. It’s harder to remember random facts.  When you study for understanding, you build connections in your brain. Later, when you try to remember those facts, your brain can reach the new ideas more easily.

Memorizing is like living in a town with only one road. If the road is damaged, you won’t be able to get to your house. But when you study for understanding, your build lots of roads. Even if one is washed out, you can still get to your house a different way.

man studying on laptop

How to study for understanding

Many students study by rereading the material. That usually doesn’t work very well. It takes a long time and it doesn’t do much to strengthen your memory of key ideas.

Here’s what you should do instead:

  • Ask yourself questions about the subject while you’re reading. Questions like, what will happen? Why does this happen? How does this apply to my life? Can I think of a real-world example? Reading this way takes longer, but you don’t have to reread later so it saves time in the long-run.
  • Connect new ideas to ideas you already know. For example, if you’re learning about electrical resistance, you can think about it in terms of water running through a hose. The narrower the hose, the less water runs through it. When your brain builds connections like this it’s easier to recall new material because it’s stored next to something you know well.
  • Give yourself practice problems. Think of real world examples and ask yourself what you would do if they happened. Your instructor will probably include some as homework or other class materials. If you feel like you need extra help on a subject you can always ask for more or create your own.
  • Draw a picture or diagram of an idea. Drawing uses a different part of your brain than reading. It helps you see the material in a new way, and that’s great for improving understanding. You don’t have to be a great artist. Even a simple sketch can help you see connections.
  • Study with a friend or family member. Explaining an idea to someone else can help you test yourself. You’ll notice where things aren’t so clear when you have to talk out loud about it. You can even get your kids to help with this!
  • Get creative with your learning. Studying doesn’t have to be boring. Find ways to make it fun and interesting. Your brain will remember everything better if it’s having fun.

Using these strategies will help you understand the material. You won’t just pass the test, you’ll also bring new knowledge into your work and home. Isn’t that why you wanted to go back to school in the first place?

Penn Foster has the tools you need to succeed

Penn Foster gives you the tools you need to study consistently so you never have to cram. Email your instructors for help, form study groups with other students, and use our online learning portal to make the most of your study time. Get started today.