Some study techniques accelerate learning, whereas others are just a waste of time – but which ones are which? Scientific American Mind magazine reviewed more than 700 scientific articles on 10 commonly used learning techniques. And this is what they found.
Most students report rereading and highlighting, yet these techniques do not boost performance, and they distract students from more productive strategies. Underlining, highlighting or otherwise marking material is simple and quick – but it does little to improve performance. In fact, it may actually hurt performance on some higher-level tasks. It may be that underlining draws attention to individual items rather than to connections across items. 84 % of the students said they reread textbooks or notes during study. It requires no training, makes modest demands on time, and shows some benefits on recall and fill-in-the-blank-style tests. Yet the evidence is muddy that rereading strengthens comprehension. Most of the benefit of rereading appears to accrue from the second reading, with diminishing returns from additional repetitions. Don’t waste your time! In head-to-head comparisons, rereading fares poorly against more active strategies. But which are these?
There are two clear winners: self-testing and distributed practice. How it works. Unlike a test that evaluates knowledge, practice tests are done by students on their own, outside the class. Methods might include using flash cards to test recall or answering the sample questions at the end of a textbook chapter. Although most students prefer to take as few tests as possible, hundreds of experiments show that self-testing improves learning and retention. This technique seems to trigger a mental search of long-term memory that activates related information, forming multiple memory pathways that make the information easier to access. Regarding the second technique, distributed practice, this is how it works. Students often “mass” their study. But distributed learning over time is much more effective. Longer intervals are generally more effective. 30-day delay improves performance more than lags of just one day. To remember something for one week, learning episodes should be 12 to 24 hours apart; to remember something for five years, the material should be spaced 6 to 12 months apart. Although it may not seem like it, you actually do retain information even during these long intervals, and you quickly relearn what you have forgotten. Long delays between study periods are ideal to retain fundamental concepts that form the basis for advanced knowledge.
The techniques presented above are proved to be the most practical. Along with them, there are a few with moderate utility. Elaborative interrogation requires to put yourself in the position to ask “Why?”. “Why does it make sense that ….?” or “Why is this true?”. This is effective especially if you already know something about the subject. Another technique is self-explanation. In this case, students generate explanations of what they learn, reviewing their mental processing with questions such as “What new information does the sentence provide for me?”. Similar with elaborative interrogation, self-explanation may help integrate new information with prior knowledge. It helps in solving math problems, logical reasoning puzzles and learning from narrative texts. At the bottom of my list is interleaved practice. In this technique students alternate a variety of types of information or problems, instead of study in blocks, finishing one topic before moving on to the next. It improves performance on algebra problems and is effective to train medical students to put correct the diagnostic. But this technique is useful for those who are already reasonably competent.
Why don’t students use more effective study techniques? The research done by Scientific American Mind magazine found some explanations. It seems they are not being taught the best strategies, perhaps because teachers themselves are not schooled in them. A second problem may be that in the educational system, the emphasis is on teaching students content and maybe some critical-thinking skills. Less time is spent on teaching them how to learn. The result can be that students who do well in their early years, when learning is closely supervised, may once struggle once they are expected to regulate their own learning in high school or college.