We all have our own techniques that we like to use when studying. Some students like to read, read, and read again, some prefer making flashcards, and others prefer methods such as outlining or writing summaries. Some students like to space out their studying over several days or even weeks before an exam, while others wait until the night before and cram for hours. Every student is different and you should stick with whichever method works best for you, but if you’re looking to make the absolute most of your study time, there are certain methods that are scientifically proven to be more effective than others.
There are some widely used study strategies such as highlighting text and rereading text that traditionally have been thought to work quite well. Despite this, a review of the research surrounding study strategies published by the Association for Psychological Science suggests that techniques such as practice testing and distributing study sessions over time may work much better . In this review, the authors look at hundreds upon hundreds of psychological studies and compile the results from those into a rating system, with which they rate different commonly used study techniques. Each technique included in the review is given a rating of either Low, Moderate, or High utility. Both highlighting text and rereading text surprisingly received a Low Utility rating.
Highlighting text is a seemingly ubiquitous study strategy. Nearly every used textbook I’ve ever bought has been highlighted throughout, and I often see other students in class who have heavily highlighted that day’s reading. Even I have used the highlighting technique many times, certain that it would help me remember key ideas. As it turns out, research shows that students who highlight potentially important parts of readings don’t actually outperform students who only read6. In one study, the researchers separated participants into three groups: the first group was the “active highlighting” group, meaning they were free to highlight whatever information they felt was important, the second group was a “passive highlighting” group, meaning they read a text that was pre-highlighted, and the third group was a control group, who simply read the piece with no highlighting at all. Each group came back one week later, reviewed their copy of the reading for 10 minutes, and then took a multiple choice exam. The results showed no significant advantage overall for either of the highlighting groups. Interestingly, the active highlighting group did score better on exam items that probed information which they happened to highlight, but this benefit was accompanied by a cost on test questions probing information that they had not highlighted. This seems intuitive: the information that the student deemed important enough to highlight jumped out at them when they reviewed the reading, and this is the information that stuck in their brain for the exam. This sounds promising, but the problem arises when you highlight too much or highlight the wrong things.
The takeaway from this is that highlighting can be somewhat effective but it depends greatly on the quality of the highlighting and what the student deemed as important. Studies have shown great variability in what students actually highlight. Some mark hardly anything, and some highlight whole paragraphs. In the study described above, the more text that was marked, the lower the test score received. This is theorized to be because it takes less mental processing and thought to just mark everything, instead of teasing out the important details and putting thought into why they are important. A 1975 study found that highlighting is most effective when a limit is set on how much you are allowed to highlight, like a single sentence per paragraph, for example. This forces you to think critically about the reading and decide what the most important point is per paragraph. So if you are set on using highlighting as a study strategy, set yourself a per-paragraph or per-page limit to avoid lazy highlighting and maximize your reading time!
Rereading is also one of the techniques that students most frequently report using 85% of students surveyed at one elite university reported that they use rereading, and rereading was the top ranked technique among these students (55% reported rereading as their most frequently used study technique). Though rereading appears to have some benefit for recalling information and rote memorization, the benefit for comprehension of the material is much less clear. Overall, the review gave rereading a Low Utility rating because of its relative disadvantage compared to other study strategies. Rereading is time consuming, and there is a lack of evidence saying that it has significant beneficial effects for test scores or comprehension of material. Instead of risking your time on a strategy that may not be very effective, we turn to a method that is clearly supported by a robust body of research: practice testing.
Since the first studies in the early 1900’s, hundreds of studies have supported the claim that practice testing enhances learning and retention. It is important to note that “practice testing” is defined as separate from high stakes, in-class testing. Instead, it entails low-stakes or no-stakes practice or learning activities outside of class. These are activities that have very little no bearing on your grade in the class, but are performed to help you evaluate how well you know the material and aid in memorization. It encompasses any type of practice testing activity that students would be able to engage with outside of class like flashcards, practice problems, questions at the end of textbooks, or the electronic supplemental materials often included with textbooks nowadays.
One compelling example that illustrates the effect of practice testing was a 2008 study in which researchers presented undergrads with swahili-english translation flashcards for cycles of study and flashcard practice until each card was recalled correctly one time by each participant. After that first correct recall, half the participants were assigned to just study the translations with no further flashcard testing, and the other half were presented the translations only in a flashcard testing format with no further study. Performance on a final test 1 week later showed that the group which continued to be tested with the flashcards did significantly better (receiving an average score of 80%) than the group who continued to study with no more practice testing (this group receiving an average score of 36%) . This is just one experiment but the same results have been replicated in many others.
Practice testing is perhaps the best way you could use your study time because it is not overly time consuming, and is extremely effective. Because of this it has been given a High Utility rating. Most studies have shown positive effects of practice testing even when the time spent doing it is modest and is equated with the allotted time that would be spent re-studying instead of self testing. Basically, if you spend the exact same amount of time that you would rereading or making an outline but instead do practice testing, you’ll get much better results.
A second study technique that has been given a High Utility rating is distributed practice. Distributed practice is a method of studying where you allow time in between study sessions. There is a large body of research that supports the notion that we learn better when our study sessions are spaced out, and with longer space in between them. A 2006 meta-study reviewed 254 studies involving more than 14,000 participant and overall students were able to recall more information after distributed practice (47%) than after studying all at once (37%) 3 . This seems to make sense and is part of the reason we’ve always been told not to procrastinate studying, but why does distributed practice actually work better than cramming?
One reason why you ought to choose distributed practice over back-to-back practice is because if students complete the same study activity twice back to back, they won’t have to work as hard to reread notes or retrieve something from memory the second time. This alone makes it harder to remember these things in the long run, because you haven’t had practice recalling the information days or weeks later. In addition, doing the same practice activity or studying the same material back to back may cause students to be misled by the ease of the second task, making them think they know the material better than they actually do. (This is another place where practice testing could come in handy.)
A few practical issues arise when we consider using distributed practice. The main one is that none of us really choose to pull an all-nighter cramming a whole term’s worth of information into a sleepless 12 hour period prior to the exam. It’s our choices throughout the term and our time management skills (or lack-thereof) that lead us to do this. But perhaps if you understand the real benefits to distributed practice you will consider making it a more important part of your study routine.
If you do choose to make distributed practice a more central part of your studying, you should consider how long you want to remember the information for. Studies have shown that results are best achieved when the space between study sessions was approximately 10-20% of the length of time that you want to remember the information. For example, to remember something for 1 week, study sessions should be spaced 12 to 24 hours apart; to remember something for 5 years, the study sessions should be spaced 6 to 12 months apart.
Your time is precious, especially as a busy college student, and none of us like to study for any longer than we have to. As we’ve seen here, the most conventional ways of studying aren’t always supported by the science. So, in summary, if you want to make the absolute most of your study session, here are the top three ways:
- Ditch the highlighter and pick up those flashcards.
- Read the book just once and then test yourself on key terms or ideas until you know them front and back.
- Stop procrastinating and study for a couple hours every 2 days until the test.
If you stick with these three strategies, you should be on your way to exam success.
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- Three Easy Strategies to Remember What You Read
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