Whatever level you’re at with your education, you want to be putting your best foot forward when it comes to studying. Unfortunately, research has shown that the most commonly used and popular methods of study are actually relatively ineffective for your learning and remembering. Lesser known are the successful, proven methods that actually work.
If you’re wanting to give your grades a boost or ensure that the information you’re studying actually gets learned rather than being forgotten the instant you leave the exam room, you’re in the right place. Here are some methods to ditch, and some to adopt to perform to your potential.
There is a commonly believed and promoted myth that studying in accordance with ones preferred mode of learning is the most effective study strategy. This is the myth of ‘learning styles.’ Just because it’s plausible, doesn’t mean it’s true. The vast majority of individuals do not fit perfectly into tidy boxes, we are more complex than that. As with most things, we all lie somewhere on a spectrum, not entirely one thing, and not quite another, often somewhere in between.
In one study, students who were instructed to use their self-prescribed learning style to study either performed equally as well as, or worse, than the control group who studied without this instruction. Moral of the story: don’t confine yourself to a ‘learning style’ when there are more successful and evidence backed methods out there.
Highlighting is a trusty go-to for most students. It’s easy to do, makes you feel like you’re actively engaging with material, and adds some aesthetic points to your notes. It seems like a win-win, but unfortunately, it’s basically useless, (sorry). Highlighting has been shown to have no impact on learning. Basically, studying with highlighting does nothing to improve your performance, so you’d be better off-putting your effort into a study method that’s actually going to do you some good.
The issue that’s been found with highlighting is that it tends to be misused. It can be an effective method if used properly, because highlighted information stands out more than unhighlighted text, helping you to remember it. We tend to, however, either over highlight or under highlight. Over highlighting stops the highlighted text from standing out anymore rendering it pointless, while under highlighting misses important information. It’s also been shown that performance suffers when you are tested on the information you missed out of your highlighting.
Essentially, highlighting as a study technique on its own is unhelpful. I would advise that you use highlighting to complement other techniques, to allow you to go back and identify the information you want to cover.
This again is a super common method, and while it does improve performance above if you hadn’t studied, it’s one of the less effective methods. If you are pressed for time or don’t have time to learn how to properly use one of the highly effective techniques shown here, rereading is worthwhile. On the occasions when you’ve left yourself enough time to not have to cram, you’re better off using your time doing something else.
Often, we mistake the improved ease in reading a text for having learned the material. This is called the ‘illusion of competency,’ and is just the result of familiarity with the writing improving fluency. The benefits of rereading are actually, unfortunately for all of us who do this, not very significant.
Once again, summarising information seems like a good idea, which is why a lot of us do it. It can be a good idea too, but only if you know how to do so effectively, which it turns out a lot of us actually don’t. If you’ve been taught how to summarise, go for it, it’s a good way of further processing information you want to learn, but otherwise, it’s not going to be much help to you, so you’re better off skipping it. If you want to keep using this method but you’ve never learned how to summarize, it’d be a good idea to look into how it’s done for it to be of use to you.
Need I say more? If you use this type of study, you likely know it’s not the best. Leaving it to the last-minute doesn’t allow you to learn properly, you will likely forget the material quickly afterward, miss some crucial information, and you will not perform as well as if you had adequately prepared over time. However, if you really have to, cramming is the only option, and it does improve your performance above if you’d done nothing, so better to give it a shot if you’ve left it too late.
Practice testing can be done in many different ways and is a highly effective method of studying, time and time again shown to outperform other common methods. Practicing retrieving information from your memory makes it easier to do so in the future. The benefits of testing withstand time, as it improves how long you retain the learned material. To use practice testing to your advantage, repeat testing until your responses are correct, from there, any further testing will further boost your performance higher still.
Some ideas for this method could be, testing yourself with flashcards, answering textbook questions, using past test papers if you can get your hands on some, or using Cornell note-taking (leave a column blank next to where you’re taking notes and later create questions based on the material in the column for yourself to answer when you go to study). My personal favourite technique is to test my memory by covering my notes, writing out what I remember and elaborating on it as much as I can, checking my notes, and repeat this until I can recollect more, and more accurately. Whatever practice test style you wish to use, you will see benefits from it, although more in-depth, elaborative methods show better performance in tests than do more basic ones.
We tend to leave our study for later, closer to a test or exam. While that seems logical, evidence actually shows that spreading your study out is a much more successful strategy. Distributed learning is the act of breaking up your study into separated sessions, with longer breaks proving more successful than shorter breaks. More forgetting between study sessions facilitates learning and improves performance, who’d’ve thunk it?
Obviously, the amount of time you have before a test needs to be taken into consideration, because clearly, you cannot space your study sessions so far apart that you sacrifice the number of study sessions you are able to fit in. To use this method to your advantage, you’d ideally not wait until a test or exam is coming up, but study periodically throughout the whole term or semester. Maybe set aside a day each week, right from the start, to go over what you’ve learned, you’ll be happy you did.
One research paper found that a group assigned to six study sessions, each separated by 30 days, performed better in a test than a group assigned to the six study sessions performed only one day apart. The one day apart study group was found to outperform the group who did the six study sessions back-to-back on a single day (cramming). In addition to this, as would be expected, distributed practice testing performs better still than distributed study.
Join a study group to discuss and help one another understand the content of your class, or bug your family and friends by teaching them about what you’re learning. Teaching other people is a performance boosting study tactic. Explaining to others can help you understand what you’re learning better, and also help you identify holes in your knowledge.
A study showed this to be effective, by comparing the test results of three different groups. One group studied as they normally would, another prepared a lesson on the topic, and the third taught the information as a study method. The group that prepared a lesson out-performed the normal study group and the group who taught a lesson outperformed them both.
Location, location, location! Its been found helpful for your ability to recall information to study it in an environment similar to that in which you will be required to recall it. So basically, if you will be in a silent classroom test condition, then you should study in an environment as close to this as you can get. If your tests are held in the same place as your lectures, attending your lectures will help in your tests because being in the environment in which you learned material can help to trigger memories of it.
Studying in the same space, and not using that space for any other activities, helps you build an association with that location and studying, making it easier to concentrate. It can be tricky to concentrate in a spot you’re used to doing something else in.
I’ve said I before, but I will say it again. Sleep is so important! Make sure you get some good sleep after your study sessions and before your test. While sleep is not a study method in its own right, it’s included here because it will help all your hard work pay off.
Consolidation occurs during Short Wave Sleep, transferring memories from temporary storage in your hippocampus, to long-term storage in your neocortex, stabilising them. During sleep, your brain processes information which is useful for your future plans, and transfers the information you learned but weren’t conscious of, into consciously known information.
If you’re gonna do it, you may as well do it right. Ditch your old study methods and give your performance a boost with these well researched and evidence-based study hacks. You have the resources you need right here to help you smash your goals.
For more advice for students, see my post: 7 Tips From a Bad Uni Student to New Uni Students
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