open notebook taking notes

How to study effectively, according to science

Psychological research uncovers the best strategies to approach learning.

Emma Fazzino, October 2017

 

So with exams quickly approaching, I’m sure you’ve been fretting over how you will be able to remember everything before D-day. But have you ever taken the time to think about the most effective way to study?

Most people never take the time to reflect on their learning techniques.

Too often, we process information on automatic, mindlessly skimming the pre-reading, going along to lectures when we’re overtired, not fully immersing ourselves in the learning experience. We say, “I’ll go over that again before the exam”.

However even when we do study, many of the learning methods we typically favour such as highlighting and rereading text, are very ineffective. These methods don’t help improve understanding or allow us to draw links between concepts.

Fortunately, psychological research has uncovered the best strategies for studying.

This blog post intends to share and explain why you should consider adopting these strategies. By understanding the benefits and research behind them, you will hopefully be inspired to change your habits.

Spaced Practice

girl typing on laptop with notebook and tea
Image via Pixabay

Don’t try to cram and learn everything the night before. This is why a week after the exam, all that content has seemingly “vanished” from our brains.

Learning new things physically changes the brains structure by creating new neural connections and strengthening old ones. This is known as neuroplasticity.

In order to learn concepts effectively and embed them in our memory, it is better to study in small chunks over a longer period of time. “Every time you leave a little space, you forget a bit of the information, and then you kind of relearn it,” explains cognitive psychologist Yana Weinstein. “That forgetting actually helps you to strengthen the memory.”

Seems counterintuitive, but in actual fact, forgetting helps to strengthen the memory by allowing yourself to learn and remember the facts again.

This happens because our brain is much better at encoding information into our synapses in small, repeated intervals as opposed to in one large sitting. Synapses are the biological mechanism that help us to remember things by connecting and strengthening pathways in our brain. If we space out our studying over time rather than cram it all into a single session, then we are engaging multiple sets of synapses, as opposed to just one.

Although cramming can help you get through that exam, the material will quickly disappear from your memory as you exit the exam hall. If you want to remember content for longer periods of time; study in short bursts regularly over a few days, weeks or even months.

Retrieval Practice

notebook and pencil
Image via Pixabay

How often have you spent wasted a two hour study session just rereading notes? This technique has been proven by researchers to be one of the least effective methods of learning.

Having the information that we are trying to master right at our fingertips doesn’t actually force us to retrieve it from memory. We trick ourselves into thinking that we know it, when in fact it is just sitting in our short term memory.

In order to better engage our brain, we should consciously bring information to mind without support materials.

One way to practice this is to simply take out a blank sheet of paper and sketch or draw as much as possible from memory. By doing this, we are also changing the way the information is stored in our brains which makes retrieving it later even easier.

Flash cards are also a great tool for this technique. The mere act of thinking about the information will strengthen that knowledge. And the more often you do this, the better it will engrain in your memory.

So next time, don’t waste your precious study time by rereading notes in order to memorise them. Constantly test yourself and bring the information to mind to bolster your memory.

Intentional Learning

boy writing on whiteboard
Image via Pixabay

How often do you use phrases when learning like “I know the quadratic formula”, “I don’t know all 20 amino acids”. Studying to “know” things is actually a fairly shallow learning experience. We tend to not maintain the information in our brain for very long, which undermines the whole purpose of learning. If instead, we approached studying with the intention to remember that knowledge for years to come, then we will boost our capacity to retain the information in the first place.

A way to achieve this is to try learning content with the intention of having to teach it.

In a recent study, psychology researcher John Nestojko found that by simply informing his students that they’d later have to teach the content, it caused a shift in their mindset. He noticed those students engaged with the material in a more effective way, compared to their peers who were simply expecting a test.

Doing so helps to organise the information in our brain in a more logical, coherent way. It also helps us understand the main points and ignore irrelevant facts.

 

Effective studying? I think so.

Metacognition

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So it’s all well and good to use try out these strategies, but a key difference between average students and successful ones is their ability to exercise metacognition.

Jargon aside, metacognition is simply thinking about our own thinking. More precisely, exercising metacognition is when we intentionally plan, observe, and assess our processes and performance.

Research shows that the ability to critically analyse how we think influences how we approach tasks and what strategies we use to problem solve. It helps us to identify our own strengths and weaknesses, and make amendments to our approach accordingly. Metacognition also affects our ability to apply knowledge beyond the immediate context in which it is learnt, which is the ultimate goal of learning.

So I guess could say it’s pretty important.

We can improve our metacognition by being reflective and self-aware during all stages of learning and studying. Try asking yourself questions such as “What am I trying to achieve?” “Am I on the right track?” “How can I improve my approach?” “What is working for me?”

You will notice that by reflecting on your progress, you will be more motivated to achieve your study goals, more aware of your performance and more confident when doing assessments.

~

Remember that studying effectively is not a matter of chance. It is only through intentional engagement with content, bringing that information to mind regularly over short, interspaced sessions and reflecting on our thinking, that we learn to study effectively. Taking a scientific approach to studying really is a no-brainer.

Further information:

 

Cover image via Pixabay


10 Responses to “How to study effectively, according to science”

  1. daweiw1 says:

    Hoping that I could see this post earlier. But it is still useful for my future study at work. I think practice is more important than strategy for me.

  2. Kai Yee, Chan says:

    Wow, it is great!
    Thanks for the tips~

  3. Emma Fazzino says:

    I agree with you Matt! Traditional forms of assessment must be reevaluated in modern day education, personally, I think we’re lagging behind the times. I believe assessment should be ongoing, so that all the pressure is not put upon one final exam. Considering the number of mental health problems among young people these days, it’s important to think about the impact that it can have on students’ wellbeing. I think however those these skills are useful for ongoing learning too and would still be useful even if you didn’t have a final exam.
    Could write a whole other blog post on this! Thanks for reading

  4. Emma Fazzino says:

    Emma – don’t we all! It’s so important to regroup when studying and remember the purpose, otherwise we get so lost amongst all the assessments and it also helps to engrain the knowledge in our brain in a more positive way. Good luck for your exams!

  5. Emma Fazzino says:

    Aww thank you Nancy! That means a lot! All the best for your exams, I hope you approach them in a slightly more productive way now.

  6. Emma Fazzino says:

    Glad I could help mbrian!

  7. Emma Arrigo says:

    Great tips Emma! I’ll try and use them during SWOTVAC and the rest of my studies. The science / reasoning behind the tips was really helpful as often I wonder why should I do this ? I especially liked the reflection/metacognition advice as I often get caught up in learning/ meeting a deadline, that I forget what I’m learning etc and not get the most out of it.

  8. mdunwoodie says:

    I think the problem is exacerbated by the ‘classic’ method of assessment – an end of semester exam worth a significant majority of your final mark.

    Could alternative ways of education reduce the need for studying? I think so, but I don’t know how!

    Thought provoking article in stressful times.

  9. Nancy Rivers Tran says:

    I am in love with your blog! It summaries all the techniques of successful studying for the coming exam. And the timing is great too, just before the SWOTVAC.
    Thank you so much. I enjoyed the reading greatly.

  10. mbrian says:

    Perfect time to read this post! It is keeping me enthused to study for exams 🙂