Too Much of a Good Thing: Studying and the Law of Diminishing Returns

Published on June 13, 2017 by arothstein

The bGirl sleeping on a pile of books in the libraryest way to demonstrate the law of diminishing returns as it relates to studying is through a story:

The sun is burning bright overhead, and you have been outside cutting the grass for hours. Sweat is dripping down your body, and you feel a bit dizzy from the heat, but the most noticeable discomfort you are experiencing is extreme thirst. All of a sudden, your neighbor’s children come outside and set up a lemonade stand. You can hardly contain your excitement as you rush over to be their first customer.

Each glass costs $1, and you have a $5 bill in your pocket. Quickly, you snatch up five glasses. As you guzzle the first, you are thrilled. It is delicious, and you can feel your thirst becoming quenched. The second glass is almost as delicious as the first, but as you are not quite as thirsty, it’s not quite as delicious.

About halfway through the third glass, your stomach starts to churn, but you decide to finish it anyway. You stare at the fourth glass, and while you are no longer thirsty and feel a little ill, you decide to chug it anyway. By the time you are finished, the sight of the fifth glass makes you gag a little. You politely take it inside and pour it down the sink. Your stomach aches something terrible, you have a headache, and you decide never to drink lemonade again!

How Do Diminishing Returns Apply to My Study Habits?

As a student, you can never be over-prepared for class or for an exam, but you can get stuck in a rut studying in the same way to the point where you are actually wasting your time. Your brain is saturated. The lack of variety in your study method invariably leads to a lack of engagement with the material, and even though you are spending hours with the material you need to learn, you are not making strides in your understanding and recall.

How to Avoid Burnout and Maximize Time Spent Studying

Luckily, there are many ways you can alter your study habits to avoid this type of mental burnout and ensure that the time you are spending on material is going to pay off in the long run.

Constantly vary your study strategy – use the 30% method

No more than about 30% of your study time for any one subject or exam should be completed using the same study method. For example, if you decide to review your notes, read through them a time or two, but don’t spend your entire study time reading and re-reading them over and over.  

Mix it up and incorporate other study strategies:

Approach the material in a different way.

To help your brain create new pathways and retain information, reverse your study method. Read the terms aloud and try to recall their definitions. This small change in your study method could lead to exponentially better results when you are assessed on your knowledge of the information you are reviewing.

Partner up!

Every person has a unique understanding of the material being presented, and the person with whom you switch notes could have identified items of importance that you missed, and vice versa. Trade outlines. Make copies of notes for one another. Having access to the way another person digested the material you are reviewing is an invaluable tool for helping you learn.


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