Using Feedback When You Study

October 4, 2008 – 6:43 am

How can you tell how effectively you’re studying?

What I’m about to tell you can really turn your grades around if you can get your head around it. Don’t pass it off as something simple and perhaps not worth thinking about because I believe it is one of the easiest ways to improve your grades if you bother to make it a part of how you study.

Before I tell you what it is I want to ask you a question. Let’s say there are two music students who want to learn the piano but one of them is unfortunately deaf. Which student do you think will be able to learn to play piano faster and better?

I don’t play piano but I would assume the deaf student would have a lot of difficulty learning to play at all. You may say that it’s obvious that if you can’t hear the notes you’re playing, you will have a lot of difficulty learning to play piano, but what’s this got to do with how you study for your exams?

Well… imagine that studying is like learning to play a piano, but, like the deaf music student who can’t hear how well they’re playing and don’t know they’re hitting all those wrong notes, you don’t know how well you’re studying.

Let’s take this a little further. If the deaf music student spent a whole year learning to play piano but wasn’t able to hear any of the music supposedly learnt during that time, how well do you think they would play in the concert at the end of the year compared to the student who had no hearing problem?

If you’re studying the whole year for those exams at the end of the year and you have no idea whether you’re actually learning anything (making music), then how are you going to feel when you go into the exam to perform for the examiners? Pretty nervous I would say. Perhaps a sick feeling in your stomach, or self talk like "I don’t know anything" or "my mind has gone blank" etc. Am I hitting a few familiar notes here?

In contrast, how would another student feel who knew for sure that they understood and remembered everything they’ve been studying during the year? How could this be possible you’re probably asking. Let me explain…

What’s the difference between the two students in each of the previous examples?

In one word it’s called… FEEDBACK

When I was putting together my own personal study system, I came up with five different ways of learning. One of the most important of these was feedback. It’s one of the natural ways we learn, not just when we’re at school, college and university, but in all aspects of our lives, from our professional lives to playing sport.

Feedback is defined as the return of a portion of the output of any process or system, to the input. In other words, it tells you how you’re going and is extremely important in learning.

In a sport such as tennis for example, this return of output comes from a number of sources, some of which are: your tennis coach, the scoreboard, the spectators, and your own observations of how you’re playing the game.

In music, eg playing the piano, you get instant feedback when you hear a wrong note. The importance of feedback in learning is obvious if you try to learn the piano with ear-plugs in your ears!

In the sport of study, when do we get a chance to obtain feedback… in the exam when it’s too late. I admit that some feedback is given in tutorials and assignments, but this only goes to show how important it is and that there should be more of it. We need feedback for a number of reasons:

  1. It gives us a way of measuring our progress.
  2. It tells us whether we’re studying enough.
  3. It convinces us of what we know which gives us confidence that we’re studying effectively.
  4. It tells us what we don’t know, thus identifying areas which need more time spent on them and those which have already been learned and don’t need more time wasted on them.
  5. It helps us improve.
  6. It gives us encouragement, satisfaction and motivation by allowing us to see the results of our efforts.

Feedback is extremely important when it comes to fear and anxiety which occur often before and during exams. They usually arise from the unknown, in this case not knowing what’s in the exam and also not knowing whether you have in fact learnt and remembered all the information necessary for the exam.

As for not knowing whether you’ve actually learnt and understood all your study material, any method you decide to use for studying effectively should continuously provide you with feedback on the effectiveness of your study.

By reducing the unknown in this way, the fear and anxiety which accompany exams will be reduced, thus increasing confidence and performance. There’s nothing more reinforcing when you study than knowing that you’ve learnt all the material that you’ve spent so much time trying to absorb. Feedback has been described as the breakfast of champions.

So whatever you do… make sure that the study system you use provides you with lots of feedback. Does your current study system drown you with feedback? If not, make sure you get one that does.

About the Author

Robert Seiler is an authority on how to get A’s in your exams and has helped thousands of students around the world ace their exams. To learn more about how he can help you get A’s in your exams, visit his site at

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