Whether at school or on the job, life today is overflowing with information that we need to assimilate. With technology bringing on rapid changes in nearly every field of endeavor, success in life often hinges upon the ability to learn and retain new information.
Sadly, though we were all taught a lot of facts and figures, very few of us were actually taught how to learn. Of the learning techniques many of us were taught, few are of any real value.
Scientific studies evaluating learning techniques have been carried out for decades and fill thousands of peer-reviewed and highly technical articles. Slogging through them is not a job for the busy layman. Fortunately, we don’t have to try to read and understand them ourselves. A team from the Association for Psychological Science, led by professor John Dunlosky of Kent State, reviewed the available research on 10 key learning methods and rated how measurably useful they are in promoting learning and retention.
Highlighting – a method so popular that it spawned an entire industry of highlighter manufacturers – contributes no more to the learning process than simply reading the text without highlighting or underlining at all. Some studies suggest that highlighting or underlining can actually prompt the learner to focus too much on the highlighted details without gaining an understanding of how they interrelate. Thus, one of the most popular study methods can actually hinder rather than facilitate learning.
Re-reading, that old stand-by, is time-consuming and not very effective. Writing summaries of the key points can be helpful to students who are skilled at summarizing, but it puts others through a great deal of effort for very little gain.
Some methods are helpful but not particularly effective, especially given the large investment of time they can require. These include mental imagery (creating a picture in your mind related to the material), elaborative interrogation (asking yourself “why” as you read), self-explanation (explaining to yourself what you have just read before proceeding to the next passage), interleaved practice (mixing different kinds of problems rather than focusing on one kind), and keyword mnemonics (associating a new vocabulary word with a similar-sounding word). It is interesting to note that while these methods are more helpful than highlighting, underlining, and re-reading, they are less familiar and less frequently used.
Two typically less-familiar and seldom-used approaches to learning turned out, upon scientific examination, to be the best.
The first of these techniques is distributed practice. This involves studying the material in smaller, more spaced-out sessions rather than working through an intense cramming session. The longer the intervals between sessions, the longer the material tends to be retained.
The second high-quality strategy is practice testing. The idea of testing likely sets the reader’s teeth on edge because schools typically use testing for grading purposes rather than for learning purposes, paradoxically teaching students to dislike the very learning strategy most likely to result in long-term retention of the material. Practice testing, done properly, taps into the brain’s natural tendency to return to familiar material. The simple act of making yourself retrieve the information strengthens your ability to retrieve it again later.
The simplest and most familiar method of practice testing is the use of flash cards. These can be hand-created with ordinary index cards or digitally presented via aps like Quizlet, StudyBlue, ad FlashCardMachine.
The Final Analysis
With scientific research to guide us, we can abandon ineffective learning habits and instead use our valuable time using proven approaches to learning.