How to be an Effective Student

Updated: Mar 21

As a teacher, I try to help my students improve their learning skills so that they will do better not just in school, but also in life because I believe in life-long learning. In my experience, school teaches us what to learn, but it doesn't teach us how to learn.

I've invested a lot of resources into learning how to learn, and in this article, I share the highlights. Most of what I've learned is from Jim Kwik, a world-renowned brain coach. I've read his book Limitless, listened to his podcast Kwik Brain, and taken his classes on memory and speed reading.

I hope this article will help you improve your learning abilities!

This article will answer some common questions from students. You can click on each one to jump there, or just read them in order.

  1. How can I get a high grade?

  2. How can I stop procrastinating and go do that assignment or homework?

  3. How can I study better and do better on tests?

  4. How can I take better notes?

  5. How can I more easily remember all the things I learn?

  6. How can I read faster and understand more of what I read?

  7. How can I improve my focus in online classes?

  8. How can I reduce my nervousness before a test or presentation?

How can I get a high grade?

I once had a student email me and ask "I want to know how I can get more than 90 points. Is there anything I should pay attention to?" I was surprised because this student didn't seem to care much about the course in the few classes we've had so far.

At first, I was going to tell him it's important to do the homework, to review daily, to submit rough drafts of assignments, but then I stopped. I've told that advice to students before and it doesn't seem to help. I remembered something I learned from the book Principles, which is that the root of problems always lies in people's character. In other words, if a student gets a low score on a test, the root problem isn't that they didn't study well. The root problem is that they are not studious. They are not respectful.

So I re-wrote my response:

"The most important thing to getting a high score in school (and succeed in life) is respect. If you deeply respect the class and the knowledge, you will naturally do great. Respect means you take it very seriously and do everything carefully. It's like how you want your doctor to respect you. If you don't think the doctor respects you, you wouldn't want the doctor to cut you open and do surgery on you.

We haven't had any assignments due yet, but based on what I've seen so far, you can improve your respect in two simple ways. First is to show your face and be engaged in class. Students who don't show their face in class are usually busy doing other things like playing games or watching videos, which is why when I call on them, they don't reply me. Obviously, this lack of respect will result in them not learning anything.

Second is to do the homework with respect. That means doing it slowly and answering the questions thoroughly. Students who rush through the homework or copy and paste answers don't respect the learning, so they don't learn anything. Later, when asked about the homework in class, these students don't remember anything. Respectful students write their words neatly. They organize their notes. They add color and underline. They ask questions. These students do great in the course.

To go back to the doctor analogy, you would not want your doctor to be playing games or be distracted while doing surgery on you. All past students who have gotten 90+ in my courses had high respect."

How can I stop procrastinating and go do that assignment or homework?

Don't wait until you feel in the mood to do something. You'll never start.

Just take the smallest action you can to start. Action creates motivation. Jim calls it Small Simple Steps.

A small simple step is “the tiniest action you can take to get you closer to your goal.” For example, if your task is to read a textbook chapter, the small simple step might be to just sit down. That’s it. After you sit down, the next small simple step is to open the textbook. That’s it. Then the next small simple step is to read the first sentence. That's it.

You might be wondering, is that really going to help? The answer is yes because uncompleted tasks create tension at the front of our minds until the task is completed. That's called The Zeigarnik Effect.

For example, if you’re in the middle of watching a video, and then suddenly get a phone call, during the whole time you're talking to the person, you just want to go back and finish that video. Well, if you just start that homework, you'll want to finish it so that you can stop thinking about it. In other words, starting it puts you in the mood to do it.

How can I study better and do better on tests?

In Limitless, Jim Kwik gives six major tactics, of which I think the first two are the most critical.

First is to focus on active recall rather than passive recognition. Many people study using passive recognition, which is simply looking at your notes and seeing how much you recognize. When reviewing, you might think to yourself, “Yup, know that, seen that, remember that, got it.” And yet when it comes time to use that knowledge, it becomes hard to remember it.

To employ active recall, first study something, then close your book and actively say or write down what you remember. You can also do this with a study partner. If you can't recall the information without looking at your notes, then you're probably not ready for the test.

Second is to do spaced repetition instead of cramming. As you might already know, cramming is stressful and the result is that while you might remember the information for the test the next day, after the test you’ll probably forget almost everything. Kwik recommends reviewing once in the morning and again before dinner for four days in a row before a big evaluation.

Third is to get in a focused and enthusiastic mental state before studying. Often that can be as simple as sitting in a posture as if you’re about to learn the most important information of your life. If we slouch and are tired, we’re not going to get good results.

Fourth is to use your sense of smell. Since smell brings back memories, you can put a certain perfume or cologne on your wrist while studying, then smell that smell during the test to help bring back memories.

Fifth is to use music to put you into a state that makes learning easier. He specifically recommends baroque music because it stabilizes the mind to help you reach deep concentration and focus. As a result, it helps you learn vocabulary, memorize facts, and read more effectively. This type of music tends to have 50–80 beats per minute. He recommends simply searching for a baroque playlist on any music streaming service you use, such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music.

Sixth is take effective notes. That brings us to the next question.

How can I take better notes?

First be clear on WHY you are taking notes. For example, the notes you take in a class might be less detailed than the notes you during your textbook reading.

Second, use your own words as much as possible instead of copying word for word from the textbook or speaker. This way, you’re actually processing what you read. I can't emphasize this enough.

As a teacher, I notice some students just copy from the readings word-for-word. That tells me either they are just rushing to finish the homework as fast as possible so they can't be bothered to spend the time to translate it into their own words, or they really don't understand what they're reading so they're just copying the wording. Either way, these students tend to do poorly on tests. So make sure you spend that extra time to translate the textbook into your own words.

Third, you should use a note-taking method, such as Capture-Create, Mind Map, or Cornell.


On the left side of your notebook page, capture things that the speaker said. On the right side, create your own notes by answering questions like How can I use this? Why must it use this? When will I use this? Below is an example.

Notice that the notes aren’t just transcribing word for word what the speaker said, which is probably defining and explaining each of the leadership traits. The notes are useful because they identify how those notes are going to be used.

The Capture-Create method is great for taking notes in class.

Mind Map

This method is great for organizing big ideas. Capture the main idea in the middle. Then put sub-ideas around it through branches. You can also use color and symbols to help you remember things better.

Here is an example of mind map notes:

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The Mind Map method is great for taking quick, high-level notes.

Cornell Method

The Cornell Method is best for taking detailed notes that you can use as study sheets for tests. You need three sections. The left section is small, and you write down questions or cues. The bottom section is small, and you write a summary there. The upper right section is big, and you take your notes as normal there.

Here is an example of Cornell-styled notes:

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The Cornell method is great for taking notes in class and for taking notes from readings, which you can then study later before a test.

How can I more easily remember all the things I learn?

Studies show we forget up to 80% of what we learn within 48 hours if we don't review. That's why it's so important to take notes and review your notes! You should review your notes after 1 hour, 1 day, and 1 week. That should be enough to help you remember what you learned for a test.

Aside from taking good notes, Jim Kwik gives the following tools to improve memory:

  1. MOM (Motivation, Observation, Method)

  2. Turn words into pictures (visualization)

  3. Linking new information to old information (association)

  4. Add emotion

  5. Creating a story to link a sequence of words

  6. Use the loci story method

Memory Tool 1: MOM (motivation, observation, and method)<