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Moving the Needle While Studying

There is a difference between movement and progress.  Movement is aimless action. Progress, on the other hand, is intentional action toward a clear objective. Students, like the rest of us, confuse movement for progress all the time. When studying for a test or working through an essay, the allure of “action” is sometimes too great. This is particularly common when students are overwhelmed by concurrent deadlines or a multi-step assignment.

For example, let’s say John has a research paper due for his A.P. U.S. History class next Friday. The rubric requires 6,000 words, an annotated bibliography, and a short class presentation. John has eight days to complete the assignment. He has a measly introduction paragraph and a handful of sources. What should John do next?

He should probably get some words on the page, right? Maybe he should outline the next section so he can see what research he needs. John chooses a different path. He spends five of his eight remaining days reading and annotating various research materials. When he hits the forty-eight-hour mark, his paper is a few thousand words light, but he assures his concerned parents that he’s been working hard on it all week. After all, those sources did not highlight and underline themselves.

John has mistaken movement for progress. Like many a student before him, he’ll realize the error of his ways a day or two before the deadline and crank out a hastily drafted paper. Unfortunately, John will not be the only student in his class to make this mistake.

The antidote to the movement versus progress predicament is clarity. Students should avoid vague ambitions in their planners. When they sit down to get work done, the next step should be obvious. Avoid the following supposed action items: study for test, write essay, do homework, prepare for finals, do research paper, write lab report, and do project. All of these are way too broad. Broad objectives can be overwhelming.

Instead, students should create actionable targets to keep studying productive. Ideally, students should break down umbrella projects into their component parts. Thus, the useless ‘write essay’ becomes a tidy triumvirate of action items: (1) write a thesis and three topic sentences, (2) find three quotes to back up each topic sentence, and (3) draft an introductory paragraph.

Likewise, the vague ‘study for test’ becomes a series of clear action items. Because ‘study for test’ is a particularly potent offender in the movement versus progress plague, the following section provides four bite-sized strategies to study for almost any subject. All of these strategies demand progress rather than its illusory cousin, movement.

Translate Contents to Questions

Many students underestimate the power of understanding how tests are created. It’s a fundamental concept that can make a significant difference in your approach to studying. Tests are often constructed by teachers who revisit course materials and translate statements into questions. By recognizing this process, you can prepare more effectively.

Consider this strategy as a way to reverse engineer your studying. Instead of merely reviewing notes, textbooks, or lectures, try to anticipate what questions your teacher might ask based on the content. Think about the main themes, concepts, and key information. Formulate questions that encompass these aspects.

When you study with the intent to answer these self-generated questions, you not only reinforce your knowledge but also become better prepared for the types of questions you’ll face in exams. This method shifts your focus from passive reading to active engagement with the material. As a result, you’ll not only cover more ground but also develop a deeper understanding of the subject matter, which is essential for retaining information and performing well in assessments.

Teach a Study Partner One Key Concept

One of the most effective ways to learn and remember complex concepts is to teach them to someone else. Explaining a difficult concept to a study partner can work wonders in solidifying your understanding of the topic.

When you teach a concept to someone, you’re required to retrieve information from your memory and present it in a clear and concise manner. This process taps into the testing effect, a psychological phenomenon that suggests our memory retention improves when we actively retrieve information. By explaining a concept to someone else, you’re essentially testing your own knowledge.

Moreover, teaching a study partner provides the added benefit of immediate feedback. Your study partner can ask questions, seek clarification, or challenge your explanations. This interactive dialogue not only deepens your understanding but also helps you identify any gaps in your knowledge.

So, next time you’re struggling with a challenging topic, find a study partner and take turns explaining key concepts to each other. You’ll be amazed at how this approach enhances your comprehension and retention of the material.

Five-Minute Free Recall

When it comes to efficient study techniques, the “Five-Minute Free Recall” method is a valuable tool in your arsenal. This approach involves quick bursts of focused studying that can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses in a particular subject or topic.

To apply this method, start by checking your syllabus or study guide to pinpoint a topic that will be tested in your upcoming exam. Set a timer for five minutes and begin writing down everything you know about that topic. Try to include basic rule statements, exceptions, policy considerations, and key facts you’ve learned during your studies.

The beauty of this technique lies in its brevity. Five minutes might seem like a short time, but it’s long enough to gauge your understanding of the topic. After the timer runs out, take a moment to self-assess your work. Identify any gaps or areas where your knowledge is lacking.

This self-assessment helps you prioritize your study time effectively. You can now focus on revisiting the areas where you struggled during the Five-Minute Free Recall exercise. This targeted approach ensures that you make the most of your study time, addressing weaknesses and reinforcing strengths.

Summarize & Simplify

Summarization is a valuable skill in academics. It involves distilling complex information into concise, easy-to-understand summaries. This technique is often recommended by teachers, and here’s why it’s so effective.

When you summarize and simplify information, you are forced to identify the core concepts and key points of a topic. This process requires you to prioritize information and understand the hierarchy of ideas. By doing this, you gain a deeper understanding of the material.

One practical way to apply this technique is to imagine that you have to explain a complex concept to someone with no prior knowledge of the subject. How would you convey the main ideas in a clear and concise manner? This exercise not only enhances your comprehension but also sharpens your communication skills.

Additionally, some teachers allow students to bring a single three-by-five index card to the test. This card can be a lifesaver if you’ve already summarized and simplified the essential information on it. By creating a concise summary, you have a quick reference guide during the exam, helping you recall key details and concepts.

Closing Thoughts

Understanding the difference between movement and progress is not just an academic distinction; it’s a critical skill that can significantly impact a student’s success in both the short term and the long term. At SAOTG, we recognize the importance of addressing this issue and helping students overcome the common trap of confusing activity with achievement.

Our research-driven Executive Function curriculum is designed with precisely this in mind. We understand that students often grapple with managing their time, setting clear goals, and breaking down complex tasks into manageable steps. Our program empowers students to develop the essential skills they need to excel academically and in life.

By providing students with the tools and strategies to avoid the pitfalls of aimless action, we help them unlock their full potential. With our guidance, students learn to set clear objectives, create actionable targets, and harness effective study techniques. We believe that every student has the ability to not only move through their educational journey but to make meaningful progress toward their goals.

To learn more about our curriculum, please see more of our free resources. Better yet, reach out to learn about our flagship one-on-one academic coaching program.

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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