How to Allocate Study Time

When you're studying before a test, the question of how to allocate your study time inevitably arises. What should you study first? Where should you spend the most time? Janet Metcalfe and Nate Kornell designed three clever experiments to find out.

In the first experiment, participants were allowed to choose how to allocate their study time. They were tasked with learning English-Spanish word pairs of varying difficulty (easy, medium, and difficult), under three different timing conditions (5s, 15s, or 60s). In each trial, one pair from each category appeared and participants could choose where to spend their study time. The most important takeaway from this experiment was that, under tight timing conditions, allocating study time to the easiest items was the most effective strategy.

However, Metcalfe suspected that advantage would shift to medium items if participants were forced to spend the bulk of their study time on them. So, in Experiment 2, participants were not able to choose how to allocate their study time. They were given 10s to study the emphasized word pairs (easy, medium, or difficult), and 1s to study the other two. The results were clear: emphasizing the medium items outperformed both the easy and difficult conditions. This was the study's most important finding.

But now Metcalfe wanted to understand why emphasizing the medium difficulty items worked best. She hypothesized that, with easy items, learning quickly plateaued such that additional time was relatively ineffective at improving performance, but with medium items additional learning continued to occur as the amount of time increased. Experiment 3 largely confirmed her hypothesis. While participants improved more quickly with easy items when the time allotted was low, the advantage quickly shifted to medium items as the time allotted increased.

The implications for how to spend your study time are clear: studying easy concepts will produce rapid gains, but those gains will quickly level out. You should spend the bulk of your time on medium difficulty concepts. Once you've mastered those, obviously moving on to the most difficult concepts makes sense. But even within that category, I would recommend subdividing the difficult concepts into three categories: difficult-low, difficult-medium, and difficult-high. Torturing yourself with the most challenging concepts is, as Metcalfe says, likely to be a "labor in vain."

So challenge yourself, but don't spend too much time on concepts that are easy or too difficult. Neither strategy is likely to be very effective!


Peter A.

Harvard PhD Student | Expert SAT, ACT, & GRE Tutor

900+ hours
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