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What are the Most Effective Ways to Study & Learn?

February 7, 2019

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With the new school year having just started, and TAFE and university looming for many people, it is a good time to talk about effective learning techniques.  What are the most effective ways to study and learn?  Some study techniques accelerate learning, whereas others are just a waste of time.

Learning Styles

Before discussing what study techniques are the most effective, it is necessary to address the concept of “learning styles” and whether they play any role in learning.  The notion of “learning styles”– that teaching to students’ preferred learning style will increase learning outcomes – appears to have widespread acceptance.  However, just because an idea is popular, doesn’t make it true.

These titles from three Scientific American articles perhaps sum up the scientific evidence for the idea that matching learning styles to teaching methods enhances learning:

 A review of these, and other articles, on learning styles indicates there is no scientific  evidence for the idea that matching teaching techniques to a person’s learning style improves learning outcomes.  In fact, there are several studies that contradict this belief.  People do have a sense of their own learning preferences (e.g., visual, kinesthetic, intuitive), but it is less clear that these preferences matter.

This “neuromyth” persists despite our knowledge about the complexity and interconnectedness of the brain, and that common brain functions (particularly in the prefrontal cortex) cut across virtually any act of deliberate learning.  Studies have consistently shown that catering to differences in students’ preferred learning style does not result in improved learning outcomes.  On the contrary, there is good reason to believe that optimal learning for everyone involves the opportunity to engage in as many sensory modalities as possible.

Rereading, Highlighting & Cramming

Aside from the myth of learning styles, what other more commonly used study techniques are ineffective?  The answer is, rereading, highlighting and cramming.  Rereading is a waste of time, and worse, gives the student the feeling that they have studied and are getting to know the material better and better.  Rereading is like someone explaining the same thing repeatedly.  It all makes sense so you say, ‘yes, yes, got it’, but recalling the information later is an entirely different thing.

Students commonly highlight what they read, but research shows that it does not help memory.  Most students highlight as they are reading the text for the first time, however, they do not know what is important enough to highlight.

Finally, cramming does not work and the supposed learnt material does not stay in the student’s memory for long; a day or two at best and then it’s as if they never learned it in the first place.  Cramming can have some short-term benefits, say for an exam the next day and you have left everything to the last minute, however, there are no benefits beyond that.

What Does Work?

Fortunately, cognitive science has identified a number of methods to enhance learning and knowledge acquisition:

Self-Testing

  1. Self-Testing: this is the most effective study technique to accelerate and consolidate learning; whether it’s flash cards, practise tests or making your own test. There are two main benefits to self-testing.  First, in contrast to rereading, self-testing offers an accurate assessment of what has been learned and whether one needs to keep studying.  Second, the process of recalling material strengthens neural connections and this in turn enhances learning and consolidates the material to memory.

Distributed Practice

  1. Distributed Practice: spacing out exposures to the material to be learned at intervals over time; spread out study sessions instead of cramming. Memory is more enduring when material is reviewed days or even weeks apart. This is a practise that teachers and trainers  can promote by giving more frequent assignments and quizzes that require a review of material covered earlier in the course.  Even brief memory refreshers can result in big returns in learning.

One study had students learn the English equivalent of Spanish words and then reviewed the material in six sessions. One group did the review sessions back to back, another had them one day apart and third did them 30 days apart.  The students in the 30-day group remembered the translations best.  Longer intervals are generally more effective.  Peak performance came when sessions were spaced at about 10 to 20 percent of the retention interval, thus, to remember something for a week learning episodes should be 12 to 24 hours apart, for five years they should be 6 to 12 months apart.

A secondary strategy, called interleaving, or mixing up different types of problems during practice sessions, also helps with learning and consolidation.  Instead of just working on one discrete topic, try and include material from other unrelated areas.

Memory Strategies

  1. Memory strategies: mnemonics and method of loci. These can be useful for memorising facts or lists.  A mnemonic is a memory technique whereby you make associations and links between what you are trying to remember and things that are unique for you.  For example, I have always been able to remember Piaget’s stages of cognitive development by using “SPC”, which was a fruit canning company that was well known in Australia.  Piaget’s stages were sensory-motor, preoperational and concrete (the first letter of each stage starts with s,p & c).  I can always remember that even though my exposure to Piaget’s theory was at university 20 years ago.  Similarly, and for some unknown reason, I can remember the birth order of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle by just remembering the word “spa”.  This information isn’t particularly useful, except once during an episode of jeopardy, however, I can recall it anytime I want.

The Method of Loci is excellent for remembering lists, although it does require some work upfront, however, once you have created the location of your list and recalled it a few times, it is very effective.  My son and I recently did this for his English HSC exam.  We typed out 33 quotes from plays, poems and novels and then stuck them on the wall, in categories, around the house.  My son was then, with a bit of practise, able to sit at his desk and visualise where the quotes were and able to write down all 33 quotes.  It took him about 5 attempts to get 100% accuracy, but it worked and during the exam he could recall, and use, all the quotes.  English ended up being his highest exam mark.

Other Quick Tips for Learning

1. Put crucial information in a hard-to-read font: in a 2011 study people who had to read unfamiliar or less legible fonts displayed better memory for the information than those who had easily readable fonts (font size made no difference).

2. Exercise: people who had a workout shortly after or before learning did better on tests of recall in the hours, days or weeks that followed.

3. Sleep: research has demonstrated that memories are consolidated during sleep.

4. Context dependent learning: information is recalled better in the same context, or state, in which it was learnt.  One study got people scuba diving to learn a list of words while diving and recall was better when they were underwater than on dry land.

You don’t have to be a student to apply and use these learning techniques as they can applied to most roles and situations.