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The 3-Pile Method of Studying: A recipe for no-stress success

You know there's a better way to study than last-minute cramming, and here it is! Jerimiah Bergstrom, the learning disability specialist in our Center for Academic Achievement, lays out a simple plan to reduce stress and improve the retention of course material.

A no-stress success study method. Sounds pretty ideal, right? The goals of this method are to maximize the benefit of each study session while minimizing the amount of effort needed as well as to learn as much as possible with the least amount of stress.


  1. Flashcards—physical or digital (Example: Quizlet)
  2. Study materials—textbooks, study guides, etc.
  3. Pencils, pens, or markers if using physical flashcards

Step-by-Step Directions

  1. Grab some flashcards.
    A key part of the 3-Pile Method is sorting your cards into different piles, so a piece of paper with the answers covered up is difficult to use for this method.
  2. Make your flashcards.
    Once you are done, you now have the first of your 3 Piles. We’ll call this Pile 1: “I don’t know.”
  3. Do one run-through of your flashcards.
    Put the ones you get correct into a separate pile, which we’ll call Pile 2: “I kinda know.” Leave the cards you get wrong in Pile 1: “I don’t know.”
  4. Go to sleep. Seriously!
    Unless you have a time crunch and your exam is right around the corner, try to put a day’s distance between each study session. (Sometimes studying needs to happen without the luxury of several days to do it. In these cases, keep the same rhythm, but shorten the time spans. Instead of once a day for Pile 1, maybe its morning/night for Pile 1 and a Pile 2 review every three days.) Your ultimate goal is to lock the information in so you can recall it at any time, not just immediately after you’ve looked at the flashcard.
  5. When you wake up, run through Pile 1: “I don’t know.”  
    Put the cards you get right into the growing Pile 2: “I kinda know” and the ones you get wrong back into Pile 1: “I don’t know.”
  6. Repeat this process every day for a week.
    If you run out of cards in Pile 1: “I don’t know” before the week is up, don’t review Pile 2: “I kinda know” early unless you really want to. Simply enjoy the free days.
  7. Once the week is up, it’s time for a retention-check.
    For today’s study session, start by running through Pile 2: “I kinda know.” Any cards you get right, move to Pile 3: “I really know.” You’ve shown that you still know the information, even when a good deal of time has passed. It’s probably locked in. Any cards you get wrong, go back down to Pile 1: “I don’t know,” because it needs more time to sink in.
  8. Keep this pattern going until the day of your exam.
    Make your final study session a grand run-through of all your cards. If you keep to the 3-Pile method while studying over the weeks there shouldn’t be that much stress, as you’ll have focused all of your energy on studying what you didn’t know and not waste time and stress on what you did know.

About the Center for Academic Achievement

The Center for Academic Achievement is a place where Lesley students can get free tutoring and support on course topics, long-term projects, writing, reading comprehension, research, brainstorming, or time management. It's also home to our Disability Support Services. Contact caa@lesley.edu to learn about tutoring options for undergraduate and graduate students.