How Effective Are Your Study Techniques?

Not all study techniques are created equal and many traditional techniques are not as effective as we believe.  At least, that’s the result of a new scholarly article recently published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. The study takes a scientific, measured, and psychological approach to how students study and determines for most students which techniques are the most, and the least, effective ways to study in order to learn material, or pass that exam.

The study examines specific, and commonly used study techniques, and their subsequent effectiveness.   Surprisingly, highlighting, and its “relative,” annotation, were both shown to be highly ineffective studying tools for learning and retaining information.  Re-reading material also placed low on the effectiveness scale.  Less surprising was that cramming the night before a test was found to be of little use for information retention. 

What DOES work?  The study found something called “distributed practice”, the spreading out of studying over a longer period of time, to be most effective.  Along with distributed practice, “interleaved strategy” – defined as mixing different types of material or problems within a single study session – was identified as quite a valuable technique. 

The traditional approach to learning new material, for example, learning three formulas for algebra, would have a student read the tutorial/material and its use for the first formula, then practice solving problems using this formula.  Following the same strategy, the student would sequentially learn and practice for the remaining material.

By contrast, with the interleaved strategy the student would read all three tutorials/sets of material at once, and then try solving various problems that require the use of any one of the three formulas.  At first this approach may feel ineffective and somewhat confusing, however, the study found that students performed much better (almost 50%) after two interleaved sessions.

Sam Sommers, a professor and author at Tufts University, gives an illuminating overview of the article over on the Huffington Post. The study itself is a bit more of a read, but definitely worth the time.

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