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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 unsplash.com
|||^||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|