How to Avoid Study Traps

Studying is hard enough without falling into traps that cause you to be less effective. In this article, you'll learn how to sidestep the potential traps that make studying harder and can actually undo your efforts. In the long run, by taking care to avoid the traps, you'll actually end up studying less and may even score more highly on tests and assignments.


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    Be well prepared. All good study begins with being set up in a suitable place where you can study without being distracted. This helps the retention of information with greater ease and gives you a "mind's eye" view of where you were when you learned the information, making it easier to recall the information. It really helps to avoid moving around study locations while studying, unless each of those locations is distinct to a subject and remains the same to that subject. (For example, math study only on the library room, English study only at your home desk, etc.)
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    Avoid the trap of procrastination by tackling it head on. It happens to everyone, and it will happen to you. Procrastination occurs when you start to do a task that you may not necessarily love. Your brain will signal its unhappiness, and an unhappy feeling will wash over you. Thus, your brain will funnel its attention to another task that brings it pleasure; for example, checking social media. This action will make you feel better, but only temporarily.
    • One key method to beat procrastination is to use the Pomodoro technique. This technique involves setting a timer for 25 minutes, and then focusing on only that task for the entire period. Once the 25 minutes are up, you may then reward yourself whether it be with a piece of chocolate, or by listening to some music.
    • To overcome procrastination, focus on the process of getting your work done, not the product of getting your work done. The process will help form good learning habits. The product is what triggers the pain in procrastination in the insular cortex. The product is the result of the process.
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    Be careful not to fall into the trap of "illusions of competence". An illusion of competence is when you believe that you have learned something, when in reality you haven't. It is like tricking your brain into thinking you've mastered a topic. You must try to avoid this at all costs.
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    Avoid the trap of highlighting too much. You may think that highlighting allows you to identify key ideas, but in reality, highlighting too much is like tricking your brain, as it believes that whatever is highlighted you already know. Therefore, you must try to keep highlighting to a minimum. It is okay to highlight, as long as you keep it to one sentence per paragraph.
    • Margin noting on the other hand, is a great method, because it is not an illusion of competence, but it still allows you to identify key ideas and facts and it forces you to put the ideas into your own words, making it much clearer whether or not you've understood and learned it.
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    Don't fall into the trap of re-reading the text over and over again. This technique, just like the last one, hardly helps when it comes to remembering information. If you do not take a minute to really understand the text, you will not remember anything. Thus, re-reading is a waste of time. Instead, give the method Recall a try, as this method helps you to remember information easily.
    • To preform this task, read a chapter, or lesson and once you are done, try to recall as much information about the chapter as you can. Most importantly, recalling is not an illusion of competence, and it shows that you are actually getting something out of the text.
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    Don't be shy about making mistakes. It is through making mistakes that you truly learn, as you scramble to amend the errors you wish you'd not made. Give mini-testing a try. Both this method and recall together will help you learn more efficiently in a shorter period of time. This method is similar to the previous method but instead of recalling, you ask yourself questions based on the text you just read. If you can answer correctly, then this method proves that you understood the text. Making mistakes is a great way to learn, teaching you how to do a problem correctly the next time.
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    Don't try to remember everything at ––to do so is a trap. Instead, try chunking. Chunking is a mental leap that helps unite bits of information, through meaning. Chunking can be helpful, because it makes remembering information a million times easier.
    • In your brain, you have an area called the working memory. This area is almost like short term memory, because this information is not yet ingrained into your long term memory. Your working memory only has four slots, and can only hold four pieces of information at a time.[citation needed] However, if you chunk information, you can fit more information into those four slots. That chunked information will only take up one slot, rather than all four. To help form "chunks" you should try to learn bit by bit.
    • When forming chunks, beware of using a worked example, because sometimes they can be bad. Rather than focusing on the connection between the steps, and why the next step is the next step, learners will tend to focus on why the next step works. When using a worked example, be sure to look for the connection between the steps.
    • The three main steps to forming a chunk are:
      • Focus your undivided attention on the material you want to chunk- that means no TV. You are taking new information and connecting to material you already know.
      • Understand the material you are trying to chunk- Understanding will hold underlying memory traces together. Though, you need to review material, even if you understand it.
    • Practice the material you want to chunk. Practice will help you to gain the big picture context. One tip is to look at the pictures if a lesson before hand. This tip will help you grasp chunks, and understand how they relate to the big picture context.
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    Avoid repetition. Instead, give deliberate practice a try. Rather than than repeatedly practising the material that you find easy, it is important to focus on the material that you find difficult. For example. imagine you have a test on basic arithmetic. If you find addition and subtraction easy, then make sure you practice division and multiplication.
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    Be careful not to over learn the material, it's another trap in studying. Over learning may not even seem like a real thing, because you can never really learn enough. Over learning is when you continuously review material that you already mastered. Over learning is really just a waste of time, because once you have already mastered a skill, going over it will not make the information any more memorable. In fact, over learning is actually an illusion of competence, because it gives the illusion that you memorized everything, when in reality, you only memorized the easy material.
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    Avoid sticking with the same problems, which gives the illusion you're prepared. Instead, interleave your learning. When you interleave the material. you are jumping between different problems, that involve different techniques. For example, when you are preparing for a math test, rather than just doing chapter after chapter of problems, that are grouped under using the same technique, it is beneficial to do a problem or two from one chapter, then skip around to another chapter, and then do some problems from there. This method helps you understand when to use a certain technique, rather than just how to apply the technique. Interleaving helps build creativity and flexibility when it comes to understanding the subject.
    • This method also helps broaden your understanding. When you are studying for a math test in particular, it would be helpful to do the mixed review at the end of the chapter.
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    Make the most of metaphors, stories, tricks and analogies when learning. Metaphors, stories, as well as analogies all make remembering information a million times easier. Use metaphors, stories, tricks, and analogies that relate to what you are trying to remember.
    • Remembering a funny story is much easier than memorizing some boring old formula or list of information. For example: To remember the great lakes, try to remember HOMES, and BAM, you have all five great lakes. HOMES is an example of using meaningful groups. Meaningful groups are when you take bits of information and combine them to form one easy to remember group.
      • H- Lake Huron
      • O- Lake Ontario
      • M- Lake Michigan
      • E- Lake Erie
      • S- Lake Superior
    • An example with a metaphor, is to relate the focused mode of thinking to a pinball machine. The bumpers of a pin ball machine are close together, and so in the focused mode of thinking, there is not much room for your thoughts to run free.
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    Visualize your learning. Our brain has superior spacial and visualization skills. Indeed, we should take advantage of it. Use your spacial skills to your advantage. Because we are naturally good at remembering how a location looks, as opposed to information, try plopping an item into that certain location you know well. This item should be related to the information that your are trying to remember. Now, when you recall that location, your will remember the item/items as well.
    • For instance, we all know our living rooms pretty well. Pretend you are trying to remember the items on a shopping list- eggs, milk, and bread. Now, plop those items straight into your living room. This will make remembering the items much easier. Put the bread on the couch, the milk spilling on the coffee table, and an egg about to roll off the TV stand, or however you prefer to arrange the items. This method is called the Memory Palace technique.
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    Do not reduce your sleep, a typical study trap that must be avoided. We all love sleeping, but sometimes we tend to think of sleep as a waste of time. Instead of sleeping, you could easily be studying or the like. However, it is essential that you get your recommended amount of sleep. (8 to 12 hours). Throughout the day, metabolic toxins form in your brain. These toxins are terrible, and can interfere with your brain when you are trying to concentrate. Metabolic toxins make it impossible to 100% focus on a task. Anything you study while tired will not stick very well in your brain. Although, it may slide for a test, it will only be a matter of time before your brain loses it from the short term memory, meaning that you've learned nothing. Going to sleep, allows your body to wash away these toxins, and that is why it is easiest to focus in the morning.
    • One especially helpful tip is to try to dream about what you are studying. This method will help you remember, as well as deepen your understanding about the material. To dream about the topic, you should specifically think about it before you go to sleep, even tell yourself that you will dream about that certain topic.
    • If you didn't get enough time to study for a test that you have the next day, and it is getting really late, it is best to go to sleep, and hope for the best! If anything, try to wake up early, and review the material in the morning. It is most likely to stick in your mind then.


  • Focus your undivided attention when studying. Put yourself in a location with no distractions.
  • Focus on material you dislike the most in the morning.
  • Use flashcards- this method is scientifically proven to be helpful!
  • Rewriting material helps memorizing it easier.
  • Keep a planner journal.
  • Make a daily to-do list, that lists everything that you plan to get done, in your planner journal. If you don't write down what you plan on getting done, it takes up valuable space in your working memory. Not only should you plan a starting time, but you should also plan a quitting time in which you should stop working/studying.
  • Do enjoyable tasks in between your studying periods. For example, taking a walk, listening to music.
  • Review your material right before you go to bed, it is most likely to stick in your mind then.
  • And remember, you can learn anything! Don't be afraid to give a new subject a try!

Sources and Citations

  • The Importance of Sleep in Learning. By Barbara Oakley. Coursera. N.p., n.d. Web.
  • What Is a Chunk? By Barbara Oakley. Coursera. N.p., n.d. Web.
  • How to Form a Chunk? By Barbara Oakley. Coursera. N.p., n.d. Web.
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