WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT STUDYING
Let’s get this out of the way quickly — it’s likely you’re not studying as effectively as you could be, according to science. If you happen to use strategies like rereading, highlighting, and summarizing or writing notes, that’s probably why.
Rereading was recorded as one of the most frequently used techniques, followed closely by highlighting and rewriting notes/summarizing. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I used those strategies in high school and even into my first year at university. However, what I didn’t know then was that all three were ranked as having a relatively low utility, according to a 2013 review.
Although some research has shown positive effects of rereading on answering problem-solving essay questions and short-answer application or inference questions, other studies using application or inference-based questions have reported effects only for higher-ability students, or no effects at all.
In my opinion, I’ve found rewriting notes to be largely a waste of time, especially the ones I put an emphasis on making “look pretty.” However, I won’t tell you what to do, only what the research has found — which is that active recall is the most effective revision strategy.
What is active recall and why does it work?
Active recall is a strategy that the involves retrieval of information from your brain rather than previous strategies that seem to be focused on putting information into your brain. As it turns out, through decades of research, we learn far better by actively trying to recall material.
The same review study found that active recall or practice testing has a high utility. The effects have been demonstrated across an impressive range of practice-test formats, kinds of material, learner ages, outcome measures, and retention intervals. In addition, researchers recommend that every student should be trying to implement practice testing into their routines if they haven’t already.
If you aren’t convinced though, here are some studies done over the last 50 years.
In a 1939 study, which had two groups of students learn a specific topic and, after, tested them on the material either a week or day later. Half of the students studied the material as they normally would, and the other half also studied the material as normal and were given practice tests at the end of their session. The study found that the students who took the practice showed improved performance in grades by 10 to 15 per cent.
Another study from 2010 similarly took two groups of students and had them study material either by using practice tests at the end of their session or by using methods they preferred, like rereading and highlighting. The groups were then tested based on facts in addition to concepts. The group who didn’t use a practice test to reinforce their learning scored, on average, between 30 and 40 per cent. The group who did use a practice test performed significantly better on the final — some saw an increase of as much as 30 per cent.
One last point to be made comes from a 2011 study, which split students into four groups and asked them to learn material and tested them a week later. The first group was asked to study the chapter once, the second studied the chapter four times, the third group read the text once and then made a mind map, and the last group read the text once and tried to recall as much of the chapter as they possibly could.
They found that the first group performed the worst, and most interestingly, the active recall group performed far better than the group that read the text four times — what this tells students is that practice testing ourselves once is likely more effective than rereading the chapter four times ever will be.
This study had another component where they asked students to predict which group would perform the best, or to predict the results of the study. 80 per cent of students thought the group which repeatedly reread the material (group two) would score the highest, and rated the active recall group as being the least effective/scoring the lowest on the test. This sheds some light onto our own assumptions about study techniques, and whether they match up with what’s been shown in research.
How to incorporate it into your study routine?
I would recommend using flashcards to practice retrieving information from your brain, and to ultimately quiz yourself on the material. Some popular digital flashcard apps include Quizlet and Anki. As you progress through the semester, you might have questions come up in lectures or you might find a key concepts slide that’s listed at the beginning of lectures, which can help guide your flashcard questions. If your course uses a textbook, there are likely questions at the back of the textbook you could use to quiz yourself, as well.
If you can’t shake the habit of making notes, try doing so with the book closed rather than directly copying from your textbook or lecture slides. After you’ve reviewed the topic, close your book and try to recall or remember and write as much information as you can on a blank page. Afterwards, reopen your book or slides and check which parts you may have missed. Repeat this process until there aren’t any gaps left.
Another option would be to consider the Feynman technique, named after Nobel Prize in physics winner, Richard Feynman. In addition to furthering science, he was also an incredibly effective teacher, according to former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates. This technique was named after him because of his unique ability to explain complex ideas in a simple and digestible manner. The crux of this technique relies on the idea that the only way to understand all the details of a concept is to explain it to someone else.
For the precise steps, you can find more information here.
It should go without saying that a great active recall method is practice testing. If you find yourself in a math, physics, or chemistry course, your best option is to stop making summary sheets or rereading slides, and instead work through as many practice problems as you possibly can. Use the textbook questions or questions posted by your professor. Closer to exams, try to find practice midterms to work through as a bonus — you can set a timer for an hour and 20 minutes to practice working under time constraints.
For more information on effective study strategies, I would watch a lecture given by Marty Lobdell titled, “Study Less Study Smart.” To name a few tips, Lobdell advises students to study in groups, avoid cramming, and also stressed the importance of sleep for long-term learning and retention.