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How many hours a day should you study? Hint: Its far less than you think

  • Sean 

When it comes to studying time students are all over the place. Some top students seem to slave away for hours and hours per week while some seem to spend just an hour or so per day, leaving time for social life and hobbies. So the question remains, how many hours a day/week should you study? What can we learn from these high-performing students?

The answer is that your studying time should be optimized to maximize the cognitive processes that underlie learning, this is what separates high-performing students. What we can learn from these students is that you shouldn’t necessarily be aiming for a fixed time. You should be aiming at what you are doing to facilitate high-quality learning rather than how long you are studying for specifically.

How Many Hours Does the Average Student Study?

Most universities recommend studying around 2-3 hours for each credit hour (usually credit hours are equal to hours in class). Most university courses are 3 credits and the weekly class time matches the credit. So with some simple math, we can see that if you take a full course load of five courses you will need to study a recommended 30-45 hours per week! This comes out to 4.2 hours all days of the week. However in reality students should and do study far less to get good results. In America, the average student seems to spend around 17 hours a week preparing for class according to the National Survey of Student Engagement of 2014. This comes out to 2.4 hours per day all days of the week. But what about top 4.0 GPA students?

How Many Hours do 4.0 Students Study Per Day?

Many top 4.0 GPA students report studying wildly different amounts. Answers vary anywhere from 10+ hours per day to just 1 hour per day! The scientific evidence actually reflects this. A number of studies (1, 2, 3) have shown that time spent studying does not relate to your GPA. This may be surprising to many students but it should be a clue that what you do is more important than how long you do it. The time commitment of these students is not what you should be learning from them.

It seems safe to say that you should be ignoring what your teachers and university recommend as a normal estimated time for your studying. Many successful students study far below the recommended hours and there is evidence that the number of hours is not really what matters.

However, if you are using a schedule, it makes sense to have a rough idea of how many hours you individually need to commit to your studies (It’s just that the number of hours you commit should not come from someone else’s due to how subjective studying time is). So, how much many hours should you study in a given day?

How many hours a day should you study?

Studying is not about time spent. It’s about facilitating the cognitive processes that underlie learning.

learning is a cognitive skill. This means that learning is not achieved after a given amount of time has passed while you stare at a book or your notes (or even by using higher-quality studying techniques). Your learning is achieved after your brain goes through a series of cognitive processes. The question should be, “What do I need to do to learn?“. In other words, how do I activate these cognitive processes?

So when it comes to the question of “how many hours a day should you study?”, the answer is that your learning should take the minimum time for the cognitive processes that constitute learning to take place. learning can be radically improved through practice. This is the meta-skill of learning how to learn. This is not the subject of this article as it is a whole slew of topics on its own. But this meta-skill is what should determine your subjective studying time commitment. As you improve you will be able to study less and less.

If you don’t work on this meta-skill of learning you are going to have to spend much more time going over the material to learn it again and again (trust me I have been there and it’s not fun). It is important to realize that if you have to spend extremely long hours studying effectively that your techniques are likely not generating much learning. This is because studying and learning are two different things.

Studying is not learning (unless you do it correctly)

Much of what students consider to be “studying” consists mostly of practices that do not generate any significant learning benefit. These include techniques like passively rereading notes and textbooks or Listening to a lecture multiple times. In reality, these are mostly just busy work that doesn’t efficiently activate learning processes. Disconcertingly, these practices are widespread and are often recommended by teachers and professors who don’t know any better despite the obvious inferiority of these common techniques in the research. The use of these poor techniques can result in poor quality of learning and much higher study times.

Learning is a cognitive process that can be facilitated via solid evidence-based effective studying techniques that activate key cognitive learning processes. So, if we shift our attention to improving our techniques, our studying time will come down to a more optimal level.

The takeaway

We need to realize that time is not what matters when it comes to learning. What matters is efficiently facilitating the cognitive processes that underlie it. The way we facilitate this is not through the common and traditional study techniques that are widely used by students and recommended by teachers. Learning is facilitated via a focus on maximally activating its associated cognitive processes through evidence-based techniques.