Published on March 24, 2021

10 Best Methods of Learning Smarter and Faster

10 Best Methods of Learning Smarter and Faster

I remember my first all-nighter in college. I made a few pots of coffee with my tiny coffee maker and read and reread my class notes. Unfortunately, this resulted in me being delusionally tired and yet somehow still woefully unprepared for my final exam. I didn’t know it at the time, but the methods of learning are more important than time spent learning – quality over quantity.

Reading and rereading my class notes was not a great strategy to learn the exam material. So what are the best methods of learning? How can we work smarter and learn more efficiently?

Research on Methods of Learning

Lucky for us, there’s research that points us in the right direction. John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan, Daniel T. Willingham published their findings on the efficacy of ten methods of learning in their paper “Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology.”[1]

The study breaks down how effective 10 different learning techniques are depending on who’s doing the learning, what materials are required, and the specificity of the learning task. In short, the researchers create a comprehensive picture of which learning techniques are most effective when, why, and for whom.

Prior research findings are another important factor in ranking each of the ten methods of learning from low to high utility (usefulness). If there wasn’t any research indicating a method of learning was effective, the researchers categorize it as having low utility.

Let’s take a look at what this comprehensive analysis of learning methods found. What should I have been doing instead of reading and rereading my notes all night?

Highly Useful Methods of Learning

We’re going to start with the most effective and useful learning methods. Only two of the ten methods of learning were found to have high utility.

1. Practice Testing

Practice testing is low or no-stakes testing by an instructor to check for mastery. Practice testing in this sense is not high stakes summative assessment such as final exams or state tests. It’s a formative assessment to see what students know and don’t know.


Practice testing plays a vital role in teaching because it’s a quick way for teachers to figure out who knows what. The other benefit of practice testing is that it demonstrates to the student what she does and doesn’t know. This makes adjusting the learning plan simple and effective, so the student can spend more time studying what she doesn’t know instead of dwelling on what she already does know.

In the study, participants remembered information 80% with practice testing as compared to 36% with reviewing the material. That’s a significant improvement in efficacy and is what puts practice testing at the top of the methods of learning heap.

There are two reasons practice testing seems to be an especially effective learning technique: direct effect and mediated effect. Direct effect means the act of taking a test or quiz changes how the brain pays attention and stores information. Most people try a lot harder to retrieve information during a test, even a formative test designed to check for understanding.

Mediators are what connect cues and targets. In the case of a practice test, the cue might be the practice test question and the target the answer. Practice testing seems to improve these mediators by helping the brain organize information better. So if you have to choose only one method of learning, give practice testing a try. You can cover up the answer key and try it solo or you can ask a friend to quiz you on the material, so you know what you do and don’t know. This way you can focus on what you don’t know as you continue to practice test your way to true mastery of the material.

2. Distributed Practice

How you schedule your study sessions matters. In the study, some people participated in six study sessions back to back. Others had a day between each session, and the final group had a month between each session. The group who binged the six sessions retained more information earlier (after sessions two and three). However, the groups who took some time off ultimately retained more information (after the sixth session).

So if you want to truly learn something and store it in long-term memory, give yourself some time to digest the information between each study session. Another study showed that participants recalled 47% of information with spaced study versus 37% with mass study (cramming).

Schedule your study sessions accordingly. Give yourself at least 24 hours between study sessions. Your immediate recall might suffer, but know that eventually, you’ll end up remembering much more than if you take a one-and-done approach.

Moderately Useful Methods of Learning

The next group of learning techniques falls into the moderately useful category. Some because not enough research has been done. Others because research has shown that these methods of learning aren’t quite as effective or as broadly applicable as practice testing or distributed practice.


3. Elaborative Interrogation

I have a toddler in the house, so I’m no stranger to the question, “Why?” It turns out, this is also the first of our moderately useful methods of learning—elaborative interrogation. The key to elaborative interrogation is “prompting learners to generate an explanation for an explicitly stated fact.”

In other words, getting them to answer “why?”

In the study, participants were separated into three groups. The first learned facts directly. The second read an explanation for each fact, and the third was the elaborative interrogation group. They were prompted to explain why each fact was so. The elaborative interrogation group was 72% accurate, while the other two groups were 37% accurate, which means the elaborative interrogation group outperformed the others.

Elaborative interrogation appears to be effective because it activates people’s schemata, which simply means it helps people situate new information within what they already know. That could be the reason that elaborative interrogation is more effective for people who know more about a topic. They can better explain why something is so and add new information to their wealth of knowledge.

So if you already know a thing or two about the topic at hand, start asking why to boost your learning.

4. Self-Explanation

Self-explanation is when the learner is promoted to explain the principle behind something as they’re learning. The idea is that explaining how something works helps them transfer that principle to future problems.

In the study, participants were divided into three groups. One group received a brief explanation of difficult problems before trying to solve practice questions. Another group was prompted to explain their problem solving as they answered the questions, and the final group answered all the questions and then explained their work after the fact. The two groups that were prompted to explain their work outperformed the group that didn’t when asked to take a transfer test that required knowledge of a similar principle.

The problem with self-explanation is that it’s not always a relevant technique. Its usefulness depends on what you’re trying to learn. However, when explaining your work makes sense, research shows that it helps you transfer those skills to future related problems.


5. Interleaved Practice

Interleaved practice is when you loop an old skill into a new lesson. For example, if you’re learning how to find the volume of a triangle, you could incorporate a question from the previous lesson on the volume of squares. It’s incorporating older material into the new material. This creates a cumulative effect on learning and helps you find connections between different lessons.

In the study, interleaved practice didn’t help people perform better than blocked practice (when lessons are separate from each other). However, when students were asked to take a criterion test one week later that asked them to solve novel yet related problems, the interleaved learners performed 43% better than the block learners.

Similar to self-explanation, interleaved learning doesn’t always make sense. Again, it depends on what you’re trying to learn, but if you can incorporate older material into new lessons, interleaved learning can help you gain a higher level of understanding about the complexities and connections between ideas. This can help you become a better problem solver going forward and help you transfer what you’re learning to other areas.

Methods of Learning with Low Usefulness

Researchers also categorized five methods of learning as having low efficacy. Unfortunately, these are often the ways people try to learn new material.

6. Summarizing

Summarizing material—pulling out the main points—is only as effective as your summaries are accurate and salient. Some studies show that summarizing information helps students retain information, but it’s not great for applying or transferring that information.

7. Highlighting

Highlighting information does not help you learn it. Research shows that highlighting, while easy to do, does not help you learn the material.

8. Keyword Mnemonic

Mnemonics are when you create some kind of shortcut (like abbreviations or an acronym) to remember a set of ideas. The most famous might be ROYGBIV to remember the colors of the rainbow.

The problem with mnemonics is that they’re not efficient. It takes a lot of time and energy to create and memorize them. They’re also particular. You can only learn certain things with mnemonics.


But most troubling is that some research shows that rote memorization is sometimes better for learning material long-term. Therefore, you shouldn’t rely too heavily on mnemonics.

9. Imagery Use for Text Learning

Imagery use for text learning is when you mentally picture or visualize or draw pictures as you read. The good news is that mentally picturing as you read does help with short-term comprehension (drawing doesn’t). The bad news is that it’s a great reading technique that doesn’t help in many other learning contexts.

10. Rereading

Finally, there’s rereading, the study technique I resorted to far too often in college. It’s the most common study technique. Unfortunately, it’s also among the least effective.

Retention and learning improve dramatically after rereading once. But then there’s a plateau. Reading something more than twice does not impact the level of understanding and comprehension much. So by all means, reread once or twice, but then spend some time with the moderately and highly effective methods of learning.

Final Thoughts

Sometimes things really are too good to be true. Rereading and highlighting are extremely easy, but they just don’t share the study benefits with the moderate and highly useful methods of learning.

If you need to learn something and be able to integrate that new knowledge into your schema and apply it in other contexts, you’ll have to do better than rereading. Try quizzing yourself and spacing out your study sessions for better retention. Ask why, explain your answers, and weave old material into the new to help yourself understand more deeply.

Learn from my mistakes. Use moderately and highly useful methods of learning and avoid having to pull an all-nighter filled with coffee and pointless rereading.

More Learning Tips

Featured photo credit: Ben White via


[1] John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan, Daniel T. Willingham: Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology

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Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of PLAY YOUR WAY SANE (January 2021 Simon & Schuster)

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Published on April 15, 2021

9 Steps to Make Self-Regulated Learning More Effective

9 Steps to Make Self-Regulated Learning More Effective

You have probably heard of the saying, “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”

That old cliché gets thrown around quite a bit in educational circles, but what really goes into inspiring people to become independent, lifelong learners? Read on to learn more about self-regulated learning and how to make it more effective.

Self-Regulated Learning

One theory about teaching people how to learn is through self-regulated learning. In the broadest sense, it’s the idea that individuals should set their own learning goals and work independently and with a sense of agency and autonomy to achieve those goals. It’s the opposite of a teacher handing out a worksheet and students completing it just because the teacher told them to.

Self-regulated learning is constructive and self-directed.[1] Instead of the worksheet example, self-regulated learning involves the students setting their own learning goals, deciding how to best achieve those goals, and then systematically and strategically working toward them. Teaching strategies like the Workshop Model and Portfolios are more aligned with self-regulated learning than a one-size-fits-all worksheet or lecture.

Workshop Model

The workshop model consists of three parts. Class begins with a mini-lesson, then students spend time working independently while the teacher circulates conferencing with students. Finally, the class ends with some kind of summary derived from what students learned through their independent work.

Heavy hitters in the workshop model are Lucy Calkins and Nancie Atwell.[2][3] Their work has been instrumental in spreading best practices so that teachers know how to create truly student-led learning experiences.[4]


Another example of an instruction that’s moving toward self-regulated learning is student portfolios. Students set learning goals and periodically reflect on whether or not they’re achieving those goals. They keep all their reflections and student work in folders and have periodic conferences with their teacher on how they’re pressing toward their goals.[5]


The problem though is that the workshop model and portfolios require a different mindset and skillset from teachers. That’s where the theory of self-regulated learning comes in.

3 Elements of Self-Regulated Learning

One approach to self-regulated learning is to break it down into three components: regulation of processing modes, regulation of the learning process, and regulation of self. Dividing self-regulated learning in this way helps teachers know how to best help students work toward their individual goals, and it also gives us a glimpse into how we all can become more self-regulated learners.

1. Regulation of Processing Modes

The first step in self-regulated learning is to give learners a choice in how and why they’re learning in the first place.

In our worksheet example, students are completing the task because the teacher said so, but when we reset why we’re learning in the first place, we’re starting to create a foundation for self-regulated learning.

One educational researcher, Noel Entwistle makes a distinction between three different reasons for learning, and his work makes what we’re all working toward a lot clearer. Students can try to reproduce or memorize information, they can try to get good grades, or they can seek personal understanding or meaning.[6]

The goal of self-regulated learning is to encourage students to move away from the first two learning orientations (following orders and trying to get good grades) and move toward the third, learning for some kind of intrinsic gain—learning to learn.

2. Regulation of Learning Process

The next level of self-regulated learning is when students are in charge of their own learning process. This is also known as metacognition. Studies have shown that when teachers do most of the heavy lifting—deciding what’s working and not working for each student—there’s a reduction in students’ metacognitive skills.[7]


When I was teaching middle and high school, we had a saying that if we left the building at the end of the school day more tired than the students, we hadn’t done our job. What that means is that teachers have to find a way to get students to do the heavy lifting of metacognition—thinking about thinking. And students need to accept the challenge and become curious about what’s working and not working about their individualized and (at least, partially) self-generated learning plans.

Boosting metacognition might include learning about how the brain works, what metacognition is all about, and all the different learning styles. Becoming curious about your individual strengths and learning preferences is crucial in beefing up your metacognitive skills.

3. Regulation of Self

Finally, there’s goal setting. If students are going to become truly self-regulated learners, they have to start setting their own goals and then reflecting on their progress toward those goals.

How to Make Self-Regulated Learning More Effective

Now that you’ve learned the important elements of self-regulated learning, here are 9 ways you can make it more effective for you.

1. Change Your Mindset About Learning

The first way to become a self-regulated learner is to change your mindset about why you’re learning in the first place. Instead of doing your schoolwork because the teacher says so or because you want the highest GPA, try to move toward learning to satisfy your curiosity. Learn because you want to learn.

Sometimes, this will be easy, like when you’re learning something on your own that you’ve self-selected. Other times, it’s tougher, like when you have a teacher-selected assignment due.

Before mindlessly completing your assignment, try to find “your in.” Find what’s fascinating about the topic and cling to that as you complete it. Sure, you need to complete it to graduate, but by finding the morsel that’s interesting to you, you’ll be able to start experiencing a more self-regulated kind of learning.


2. Explore Different Learning Styles

There are lots of different ways to learn: auditory, visual, spatial, and kinesthetic. Learn what all those styles mean and which ones feel especially effective for you.

3. Learn How Learning Works

Another great way to become a more self-regulated learner is to learn how learning works. Read up on cognitive science and psychology to figure out how we form memories, how we retain information, and how our emotions affect our learning. You have to understand the tools you’ve been given before you can wield those tools most optimally.

4. Get Introspective

Now it’s time to get introspective. Do a learning inventory and reflect on when you’ve been most and least successful in your learning.

What’s your best subject? Why? When did you lose interest in a subject? Why? Ask yourself tough questions about how you learn, so you can move forward more strategically.

5. Find Someone to Tell You Like It Is

It’s also helpful to find someone who can be honest about your learning strengths and weaknesses. Find someone you trust who will be honest about your learning progress. If you lack self-awareness about your learning style and abilities, it’s difficult to be a self-regulated learner, so work with someone else to start becoming more self-aware.

6. Set Some SMART Goals

Now it’s time to set some learning goals. SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. They’re a great way to become a self-regulated learner.[8]

Instead of just saying, “I want to get better at Spanish,” you might set a SMART goal by saying “I want to memorize 100 new Spanish vocabulary words by next week.” Next week, you can test yourself and measure whether or not you’ve achieved your goal.


It’s difficult to see how we’re progressing and learning when our goal is vague. Setting SMART goals gives you a clear barometer for your learning.

7. Reflect on Your Progress

Goals don’t mean much unless you measure your progress every now and then. Take time to determine whether or not you’ve achieved your SMART learning goals and why or why not you did. Self-reflection is a great way to boost self-awareness, which is a great way to become a self-regulated learner.

8. Find Your Accountability Buddies

Armed with your goals and deadlines, it’s time to find some trustworthy people to help keep you accountable. Now, your learning progress is your responsibility when you’re a self-regulated learner, but it doesn’t hurt to have some friends who know what your goals are. You can turn to this trustworthy group to discuss your learning progress and keep you motivated.

9. Say It Loud and Proud

There’s a phenomenon where we’re more likely to attain our goals when we’ve made them public.[9] Announcing our goals helps hold our feet to the fire. So, figure out a way to make your learning goals known. This might mean telling your accountability buddies, your teacher, or maybe even a social media group.

Just know that you’re more likely to succeed when you’re not the only one who knows what your goals are.

Final Thoughts

Self-regulated learning is learning for learning’s sake. So, change your entire attitude about why you’re learning in the first place. Choose what you want to know more about or start with what interests you most when assigned a topic or project.

Then, set SMART goals and periodically reflect on your progress. Self-awareness is a skill that can be practiced and improved. Make learning your job and your responsibility, and you’ll be well on your way toward becoming a self-regulated learner.

You’ll never need to blame your learning struggles on someone or something else. Instead, you’ll have the self-awareness and abilities to be able to take your learning into your own hands and find a way forward no matter your current situation and limitations.

Featured photo credit: Josefa nDiaz via


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