It is not often, that we take the time to reflect on how effective the study techniques we’ve been using are. With exams in just a short month away, this might be a good time to do just that. Surprisingly, the most popular study techniques have been found to be the least effective.
Never having received instruction on evidence-based learning techniques, throughout our years of formal education, we tend to rely on our intuition and popular techniques. Intuition, however, may not be very reliable as it fundamentally depends on the illusion of competence we experience while studying. Hence, intuitive techniques tend not to be the most effective.
There are decades of research in cognitive and educational psychology, evaluating and developing effective learning techniques. Some of the most famously cited studies, reviewed the literature behind 10 different, commonly used study techniques and rated the relative utility of these techniques based on their promise for improving student learning with respect to their generalizability. While the most popular techniques; highlighting, and rereading received low utility ratings, practice testing and distributed practice received high utility ratings.
Despite the faith most of us put in it, evidence shows that rereading is not very effective. Even when it was reported to improve learning, it was mostly a case of, ability to recall main ideas than details. Rereading allows us to mindlessly memorize, while not helping improve our understanding or draw links between concepts. So, while rereading can help recall tasks, not much evidence is there to support its effectiveness on comprehension.
The appeal for this technique is mainly due to how simple it is to use. It doesn’t require us to spend much time, beyond what is necessary for the reading material. However, what we really experience, is just a false sense of productivity. Unless, we know how to highlight more effectively, or when texts are too difficult to follow through, it doesn’t seem to be any more beneficial than just reading. Moreover, highlighting could result in bad performance, on higher level tasks that require inference making.
These passive techniques may feel useful at first, as it helps us to familiarize ourselves with the content, although, familiarity is not a strong indication that we’ve been successful in actual learning. Especially in university level courses where inference making is required, familiarity of the subject material is simply not enough.
While the simple fact of the matter is learning takes effort, although that does not necessarily mean it has to be time-consuming. Learning is the process of remembering the content while understanding the connections between concepts, putting it into our own words, creating examples, and adopting a general curiosity for the subject. In fact, when utilizing techniques such as practice testing and spaced repetition, learning could be both effective and efficient.
In contrast to rereading, practice testing boosts learning and guarantees long term retention. Often, we experience testing in the form of summative assessments that involve a lot of pressure, which causes us to view tests in general as an “undesirable necessity of education”. There are more than 100 years of research and several hundred experiments that backs not only the effectiveness, but the generalizability of the advantages of practice testing.
Practice testing, however, is not limited to just the traditional testing method. As in the broader sense, it is essentially, active recall.
Active recall is simply studying and retrieving that information from memory. Moreover, we’ll know of our current understanding of a topic, which apart from its efficiency as a learning technique, could ultimately help build confidence during high-stake exams.
Other ways to use active recall as a basic technique: making flashcards, completing practice problems at the end of the textbook, “copy-cover-and-check” method.
It shouldn’t be a groundbreaking insight, for all of us, by now, to know that cramming is an ineffective revision technique. Although it could help us recall information during the exam, it is only from our short-term memory. Hence, we tend to forget it very soon.
The time spent cramming the night before the exam, would be much better off spread throughout the revision week. As distributing learning over time, whether it be during single or across sessions, promotes long term retention more compared to mass learning. There is a great volume of research supporting this technique.
In order to effectively learn and retain information in our memory, this method suggests spacing the repetition of studying that information, ideally using active recall techniques, over a period of time. By doing this, it interrupts the forgetting curve. Every time we interrupt the forgetting curve, it would then take longer for us to forget it, increasing retention.
To sum up, distributed practice is when we should study, and active recall is how we should study.
Implementation in education system
As university students we are expected to study, a large portion of our course material outside of lecture, through self-regulated study. However, multiple studies show that most of us are just unaware of these effective study techniques. Thus, learning how to study should be a foundational part of university.
While the scientific study and evidence of human learning and memory, goes back over a century, the findings of these research often don’t get translated into the education system.