Your study approach

How do you tend to think about your studies? Psychologist Dr Rob Yeung takes a look at how academic researchers have investigated how students approach their work and achieve better grades.


To analyse your study approach, take a look at the following statements. To what extent do you feel each one describes you?

  1. ‘I frequently find that studying gives me a feeling of deep personal satisfaction’
  2. ‘I learn some things by rote, going over them repeatedly until I know them by heart even if I do not understand them’
  3. ‘I test myself on important topics until I am sure that I understand them completely’
  4. ‘I see no point in learning material which is not likely to be in an exam’
  5. ‘I find most new topics interesting and often spend additional time trying to obtain more information about them’
  6. ‘I find the best way to pass exams is to aim to memorise answers to likely questions’
  7. ‘I find that I like to do enough work on a topic so that I can form my own conclusions before I am satisfied’
  8. ‘When I don’t find a topic very interesting, I keep my work on it to a minimum’

Distinguishing between surface and deep study approaches

In a notable study, Lennart Svensson, a researcher at the University of Göteborg in Sweden, began by asking 30 university students to read and learn a 1,400-word newspaper article for an upcoming test.

When Svensson interviewed the students in depth about how they had approached the task, he found that some students had engaged in what he called a ‘surface’ study approach: they had focused on detailed parts of the article without particular regard for the importance of the passages. These surface approach students were also more likely to have memorised specific facts and figures mentioned in the article.

In contrast, other students had taken a ‘deep’ study approach: they had made more of an attempt to understand the meaning of the article and the main arguments made by the author. They thought about the author’s intentions and the broader implications of the piece too.

Svensson then asked the two groups of students about the exam results that they had received in general. Sixty-three percent of the students who favoured the surface study approach reported having failed some of their past exams. However, only 9% of the deep approach students reported having failed past exams. In other words, this showed that an individual’s approach to studying could really affect their exam performance.

A later investigation looked at the relationship between study approach and exam performance in 226 accounting students. Arizona State University West researcher Ronald Davidson began by analysing the content of the exams that these students had taken. Exams with questions requiring mainly definitions, the memorisation of facts, or the use of simple classifications or algorithms were categorised as lower in complexity. Exams that had more difficult questions requiring combinatorial, proportional, hypothetico-deductive or correlational reasoning were categorised as higher in complexity.

Davidson discovered that students who engaged in deep study approaches tended to get better grades in the exams that involved higher levels of complexity. To put it another way, using a deep study approach – ie one that involves thinking about meaning, broader implications, links to other material and so on – may help you to get better results when it comes to the more complex exams that you may be facing.

Adapting your study approach

The eight statements at the beginning of this article are derived from a questionnaire created by researchers led by John Biggs, a professor who was then at the University of Hong Kong. The more you agreed with the odd numbered statements (ie 1, 3, 5 and 7), the more you may lean towards a deep study approach. On the other hand, stronger agreement with the even numbered statements may indicate more of an inclination towards a surface approach.

To excel not only in your exams but also as a professional in the future, the better long-term strategy may be to adopt a deep approach to your learning. To better retain material and boost your performance particularly in exams containing more complex problems:

  • tackle your work with the intention of understanding how new concepts relate to other concepts, knowledge or even experiences that you have had. Try to look for relationships, similarities and contrasts between concepts and topics
  • think about how new concepts and knowledge may be relevant to the real world. Look for examples that either illustrate or contradict what you have learnt
  • critically analyse new concepts and form your own point of view on topics even if you may not be required to share your personal opinions
  • consider statements 1, 3, 5 and 7 at the start of this piece and find ways to make them more applicable to you
  • when you discover anything that seems interesting, give yourself the time to pursue that interest. Even if it may not appear immediately relevant to your exams, allow yourself to explore and reflect
  • browse and take pleasure from reading supplementary materials because doing so may create links in your mind that further help you to retain the knowledge, and
  • when you have completed a topic, reflect on it as a whole and try to assemble it into a coherent structure. For example, try to identify patterns, themes or perhaps the intentions behind any rules you are trying to learn.

Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace

"Using a deep study approach may help you to get better results when it comes to the more complex exams that you may be facing"