Summary of 'Study Less Study Smart' by Marty Lobdell

29 October, 2020 | 5 min read

This talk gives some of the most effective tips on learning that I've come across. That's why I'm sharing my summary of it here.

The talk is just about an hour long. This summary condenses the main points into a short read.

It's a great idea to just start slowly. Adopt one or two of the techniques today.

Once you start seeing a difference in your learning, come back and pile more on.

It's about creating better studying habits. Habits are not formed overnight. So stick with it.

Studying and breaks

We can study for about 25-30 minutes before we stop being focused.

Studying more doesn't always help. It can worsen your performance.

Lobdell tells a story about a girl that would sit for six hours to study.

After 30 minutes, she started tuning out. She sat there for six hours, but only 30 minutes were spent studying.

As psychology dictates, our behavior is reinforced through feedback. If you hate doing something, you'll do it less.

After 30 minutes, the girl started being miserable. That's five and a half hours of misery, which reinforces in her that 'studying = misery'. Now, she's even less likely to study effectively.

How do we avoid making the same mistake?

Once you start feeling unfocused or like it's not working as well anymore, take a break.

Take a 5-minute break, study again for 30 minutes. Keep repeating this.

Make sure that those 5 minutes are like a treat. That's how you recharge your batteries for studying.

If you plan your day right, you can have those little study breaks.

Reward system

You want to reward yourself for your studies. You've done something good. Make sure that your brain knows this, too.

When you've finished a longer study session, make sure that you have a big treat planned.

Dedicated studying area

The place where you study is incredibly important. Why? Because of environmental cues.

I've already written about this in my article Why Having A Good Study Area Is Important And How To Get One. Make sure you read that to learn more.

In short, don't study in a place where the primary function isn't studying.

But if you can't do that, you can get a study lamp. You turn it on only after you've completed two steps:

  1. Remove all distractions
  2. Have everything ready

Only use it for studying. Nothing else.

Don't study in your bed.

When you start losing your edge and you need to take a break, turn off the lamp, get up, and take your break. When you return to study, turn it on again.

Rote memorization vs. Active learning

The more active in your studying you are, the more you learn.

Reading something over and over is not a good way to learn. This is rote memorization. If it works for you, great. Don't change. But for most people, it's not the most effective way to study.

First, figure out if you are learning a concept or a fact.

A fact would be "Sigmund Freud is the father of psychoanalysis". But understanding what psychoanalysis is, is a concept.

It's better to know the concepts than the facts. If you know the concepts, they'll stick with you for life — and you can easily look up the facts.

You can't remember everything in a lecture. Make sure that you take notes.

Learning concepts

If you can put the concept in your own words, you know it. If you can't, you don't.

Piecing together the facts into concepts; understanding their meaning — that way you'll remember much better.

Knowledge is like a tree. If you understand the basics — have a solid fundamental understanding. Those are the trunk and the big branches. When you start adding the leaves/details, they'll stick. If you don't have that solid base, there's nothing for them to hang on to. They'll drop. You won't remember them.

Learning facts

You use mnemonics. They're quicker than rote memorization.

There are different types of mnemonics.

  • Acronyms
    • Grouping letters to remember facts.
    • If two things are similar but not the same, you get a lot of inference in your learning. When you try to memorize it, you won't be sure which one it is. If you know which one it is, this isn't tricky. But this can be fixed using acronyms.
    • Example: Afferent and efferent are similar. So Marty has an acronym for them that he teaches his students. Sensory are afferent, motor are efferent. So the acronym is 'SAME'.
  • Coin Saying
    • Sayings like "righty tighty, lefty loosey."
  • Interactive Images
    • This one is Marty's favorite.
    • Example: You might want to remember how many calories are in carbohydrates. The first letters of carbohydrate spell CAR. How many wheels on a car? 4.
    • The weirder the better.

Study groups

Study groups increase learning by a lot.

Highlighting books (Recognition vs. Recollection)

If you highlight everything, you've highlighted nothing.

So instead, people highlight 'the most important thing'. They start reading for 'the most important thing' and try to highlight it.

Then they go back over the chapter, read the first thing they highlighted, and say "Oh! I remember that!"

No, they recognize it.

We have an amazing visual recognition threshold. We will recognize something a long time after we first encounter it. But it's recognition, not recollection.

When we recognize something, thinking that we remember it, we won't study it. So what didn't we study? The most important part of the chapter!

How do you know if you know something?

If you can look at something, go to the next thing, read it, and then stop and go back to the one before, look up in the sky and in your own words say what that was about — then you know it.

Why go on to the next one? To get the first one out of your working memory. It lasts for about 30 seconds. When we go back, it's out of our working memory. If we manage to say, in our own words, what the thing was about — we can be sure we know it. We didn't just repeat something from our working memory.


We undo good studying by not sleeping enough.

While we sleep, we transfer knowledge from long term memory to a permanent one — this is called consolidation.

This process depends on rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep).

REM sleep happens about every hour and a half once you fall asleep.

If you aren't getting a good night of sleep, which is about 8 hours, what you've studied doesn't become permanent.

Sleep better and you'll do better.

Taking notes

Right after a class, sit down and expand on everything you've written down. Give it depth and flesh it out.

Don't wait until you go home. Even just a few hours later, you won't remember what you took notes on — or why you took those notes.

If you can't expand on something — maybe you didn't understand it — ask your teacher or a friend.

Active Recitation

Teaching someone else is the best way to learn.

You can speak it out loud, or you can write it down, in your own words.

"80% reciting, 20% reading" is a good rule of thumb.

Study from books (SQ3R = Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review)

You'll learn much more if you use SQ3R.

Survey & Question

Go through the entire chapter. Look at pictures. Look at what stands out to you.

As you survey, ask questions. "What is x?", "What does this mean?"

It only takes a couple of minutes. Doing this will make you start looking for answers.

If you intend to find something, you'll find it.

Reading & Reciting

Reading should be followed by recitation. This has already been touched upon in "Active Recitation".


Before a test, you should only have to review what you've learned.

The concepts and knowledge you're learning should be in your brain. It should be learned already.

You're just reviewing to make sure that you haven't lost or confused anything.

Most students don't start studying until just before an exam. They clump all the studying together, don't take breaks, pull all-nighters. What happens? They do poorly, even after all that work.

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