The most effective ways to study (according to science)

Discover two of the best (and most under-utilised) learning techniques to maximise your exam performance.

most effective way to study
Lucy Macken BA, BPsych, MTeach (Hons I) Friday, 13 September 2019

When you think about studying, which images come to mind? Are you highlighting key parts of a text? Doing a practice exam? Explaining what you know to a friend? Rereading your textbook?

The possibilities are endless, but not all study techniques are created equal and many students use systems that have limited effectiveness. The methods students most frequently report using are highlighting and rereading. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t maximise your ability to learn (and retain) information.

So, which ways of learning work best?

According to psychological science, there are two techniques that stand out as being particularly effective across age groups, ability levels, learning environments, learning materials, and types of exams.

  1. Practice testing and self-testing

The word “test” conjures images of large exam halls, anxious prep, and hurried writing as students try to demonstrate everything they’ve learned. But these images overshadow the research finding that tests are not just useful for measuring what you know (as in high-stakes exams), but that testing actually improves learning.

Put another way, you can test to learn.

To distinguish, we’ll call these sorts of tests ‘learning tests’. What’s more, these learning tests are nothing like the anxiety-inducing experiences usually associated with exams. Instead, we’re talking about tests for which the results have no consequences.

One of the great benefits of this technique is that it can be carried out in a range of ways. There is, however, one important condition for this method to work: you need to have access to the correct answer via feedback (whether from your teacher or the answers in the back of your textbook), after you’ve completed the test.

Testing yourself by completing relevant practice exams doesn’t just tell you what you do or don’t know, it can help you learn. This is true even if the practice test uses a different format. If there’s no practice exam available, using your classwork to write your own test questions and then completing that without referring to your notes is still more effective than simply reading and highlighting.

Another popular way to test yourself is by using flashcards with topics on one side and detailed explanations on the other. There are several free apps and websites that let you create virtual flashcards too. The key with this technique is to make sure you’re genuinely testing yourself. If you just look at the topic and then flip it over and read the explanation, you won’t reap the benefits of this practice. Even if you don’t know the answer, try your best to remember it, or anything related to it, before you flip the card over.

Short on time? Get out your textbook or classwork, cover up the content under the headings and see if you can explain the topic or equation you’ve hidden. Or you might use this technique to test a friend, followed by teaching your friend anything they didn’t know, and then switch roles. The way you take notes in the first place can also help you save time later – if you get into the habit of taking effective notes, such as using the Cornell note-taking system, this can help you test yourself more quickly down the track.

For teachers, this research suggests that creating short but frequent testing opportunities in the classroom, where there are little or no consequences, and where feedback is provided, is an effective way to support student learning. For parents, quizzing your child about their work, and then getting them to look up what they don’t remember, is a powerful way to improve their learning.

The key is not to prove that you never make a mistake. Attempting to remember something in detail helps your learning, even if you can’t remember at first. When you look at the right answer you’re going to remember better for next time. If you persist, doing badly in your self-testing doesn’t mean you’ll do badly in the real thing, it means you’re learning!

Research shows that the sorts of practice questions that require more work (e.g. short answer vs fill in the blanks) will help you learn better. So, if it feels like hard work, you’re on the right track!

  1. Distributed practice

Distributed practice means spacing your study in shorter, but more frequent learning sessions. It’s the opposite of cramming and far more effective. And while cramming is better than nothing, studying a topic an hour every day for four days is more effective than four hours on one day.

This technique can be applied both within a study session, as well as over time. Within a session, this line of research would suggest that it pays to take breaks or mix up the topics you’re studying and then return to each one. Leaving a short time before reviewing work that you’ve been learning boosts the strength of your memory.

How you distribute your study depends on when you want your learning of the material to peak. If it’s next week, then studying something once a day is most effective. If it’s something you need to retain in the long term, spacing out study to once a month will best maintain your learning.

One of the reasons pacing your study is so important is that intuition can be tricky. Easily remembering something you’ve just learned might give you a false sense of security, letting you believe that you understand it better than you do.

Teachers may be able to help by building reviews of previously learned material into class time. For parents, perhaps the most important thing you can do is remind your child that spacing out their revision is the most effective strategy.

Bringing it all together

Here’s an example of how it might look if you brought these two powerful learning techniques together: as soon as possible after class, get a blank piece of paper and write down everything you can remember. After school, do the same again and then check it against your class notes. Improving your learning can be as simple as that.

You can also adapt these techniques to best suit your unique preferences and situation. So, get creative – but keep the science in mind too!

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