Do you know what the most effective strategies to use are when you want to learn something? It turns out that most people don’t. In fact, many of the popular strategies that people use are not that effective.

This is quite worrying, as according to the numerous studies and surveys done on the future of work, knowing how to learn and the skills associated around this meta-skill, are always ranked at the top of the skills needed in the new types of jobs.

The expert-generalists are gaining in importance and the future will require you to be able to grasp many different subjects quite quickly. You won’t be able to do that if you don’t have the basic learning techniques down.

A recent study led by John Dunlosky of Kent State University looked at the effectiveness of 10 study techniques. The results showed that techniques like distributed practice are the most effective, while popular techniques like highlighting and underlining have only a limited effectiveness.

Here are the 10 methods:

1) Practice testing: taking practice tests on the material
2) Distributed practice: spreading out learning over time
3) Interleaved practice: mixing different problems and materials within a single study session
4) Elaborative interrogation: generating an explanation for why a fact or concept is true
5) Self-explanation: explaining how new information is related to known explanation or explaining steps taken during problem solving
6) Rereading: restudying text material again after an initial reading
7) Highlighting and underlining: marking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while reading
8) Summarization: writing summaries of what you learned
9) Keyword mnemonic: using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials
10) Imagery for text: attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening

I will give a short summary of the findings on each of these methods from the study, as well as some tips on how to implement these strategies and techniques into your own study plans.

John Dunlosky, the chief researcher behind the meta-study, says that all of these techniques can be used successfully by a motivated student:

“All of the strategies that we reviewed can be used successfully by a motivated student who (at most) has access to a pen or pencil, some index cards, and perhaps to a calendar.”

However some strategies are better than others. let’s find out which.

Study method:
What is it?
How effective is it?
What does this mean for your studying?

1) Study method: Practice testing

What is it?

This method involves you taking practice tests in order to learn the material. The idea is for you to set up situations (tests), where you actively force yourself to use your memory to recall the information that you are trying to learn. This doesn’t mean the act of taking a graded test itself, but can instead include a wide variety of techniques that use active recall.

To quote the study:

“For example, practice testing could involve practicing recall of target information via the use of actual or virtual flashcards, completing practice problems or questions included at the end of textbook chapters, or completing practice tests included in the electronic supplemental materials that increasingly accompany textbooks.”

How effective is it?

According to many experiments, practice testing is a good way to enhance retention of things that you learned.

To quote the study:

“Testing improves learning. Since the seminal study by Abbott (1909), more than 100 years of research has yielded several hundred experiments showing that practice testing enhances learning and retention.”

Different studies show that students who engaged in practice tests were able to later recall information much more easily and scored much higher on the final test.

For example, in one study meant to test students learning of the Swahili language, practice testing yielded higher scores for a much larger percentage of the students, than just simple restudying.

To quote the study:

“Performance on a final test 1 week later was substantially greater after continued testing (80%) than after continued study (36%).”

Practice testing has different forms, but the form where you put yourself in situations where you simulate the testing environment, can also help with things like learning how to manage stress better.

A meta-analysis study of different scientific studies on practice testing came up with the conclusion that this method is more effective than the vast majority of other study methods:

“The testing effect is a well-known concept referring to gains in learning and retention that can occur when students take a practice test on studied material before taking a final test on the same material. Research demonstrates that students who take practice tests often outperform students in non-testing learning conditions such as restudying, practice, filler activities, or no presentation of the material.”

The good results of these studies are so systematic that the researchers have even coined the term “testing effect” in order to describe this phenomenon.

The testing effect can be described as the finding that long-term memory is often increased when you do retrieval practice as part of your study sessions.

What does this mean for your studying?

Throughout your studying sessions, you should set some time to doing practice tests. These can be anything ranging from hiding the definitions of words with your right hand and trying to recall them from memory, to doing the practice tests at the end of each chapter, all the way to simulating a testing session itself.

Another thing that you can do is to create your own practice tests. At the end of each study session you write down some questions that you think best reflect the material that you studied and a few days or weeks later, you sit down and try to answer these questions yourself.

Flash cards are an example of practice testing. You can create your own flash cards and then periodically test yourself with them.

Sometimes you can find practice tests for the subject that you are studying online. This can be a good way to test whether you are getting the material.

2) Study method: Distributed practice

What is it?

This means that instead of cramming your studying into one day, you spread it out over a certain period. Usually this involves regular study sessions.

How effective is it?

To quote:

“The term distributed practice effect refers to the finding that distributing learning over time (either within a single study session or across sessions) typically benefits long-term retention more than does massing learning opportunities back-to-back or in relatively close succession.”

Many studies were done in order to test distributive practice and all of them proved that distributed practice has better overall results than massed practice. In order to illustrate this, here are the results of one of the tests:

“Spaced practice (1 day or 30 days) was superior to massed practice (0 days), and the benefit was greater following a longer lag (30 days) than a shorter lag (1 day).”

The result was that this technique is of high utility for the learners.

What does this mean for your studying?

The idea is quite simple. Instead of cramming everything the night before the test, you set up regular slots for studying throughout the week.

You can set up regular study sessions per subject. For example, for subject A, you say that you will study it for one hour every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

This way you spread out your study sessions over some time.

You need to do this systematically. This method is highly effectively and will help you learn material much better than most other methods.

You can combine distributed (spaced) practice with other types of methods, but this should be the skeleton around which you wrap all the other methods, and not something that you do just from time to time.

3) Study method: Interleaved practice

What is it?

Interleaved practice involves spreading out your study sessions over a certain period (just like distributed practice), but in addition also using different materials and studying different (but related) topics over that period.

There are two types of techniques:

“An intuitive approach, and one we suspect is adopted by most students, involves blocking study or practice, such that all content from one subtopic is studied or all problems of one type are practiced before the student moves on to the next set of material. In contrast, recent research has begun to explore interleaved practice, in which students alternate their practice of different kinds of items or problems.”

How effective is it?

Studies show that if you want to understand and retain information over a longer period of time, interleaved practice is better than practice in blocks.

The results were:

“During practice, performance was better with blocked practice than interleaved practice, but this advantage dramatically reversed on the criterion test, such that interleaved practice boosted accuracy by 43%.”

An explanation for this is that this type of practice engages the brain much more:

“Interleaved practice helps students to discriminate between the different kinds of problems so that they will be more likely to use the correct solution method for each one.”

Judged as having moderate utility, great for some types of problems (like math), but not for others.

What does this mean for your studying?

Interleaved practice has as its basis distributive practice. Where it differs is that instead of studying one topic within one block, you study several related topics within that block (mix them up).

How can you use this method? For me, the best way would be to use it as part of your overall studying strategy, where over the course of your semester (or study sprint), you set up a study schedule.

Within the first several sessions, you use distributed practice and focus on only studying one topic within each block. Here the focus would be on mastering this topic.

Once you have a good grasp of the different topics, you should start with interleaved practice. Now within each study block, instead of focusing on one topic, you incorporate several topics and jump around through them.

For example, let’s say you are studying basic math. You set up that every week you will spend one hour every Monday, Wednesday and Friday on learning math.

The first few months, for that one hour block you will focus on mastering one topic. You could start with addition, once you have mastered that, move onto subtraction…etc.

However once you have a good grasp of these different topics, you would change up your study blocks. Now every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, instead of focusing on one topic every block, you would mix them up. So within the block you would look at addition problems, then go into subtraction, then come back to addition, then division, then multiplication, then subtraction again…etc.

4) Study method: Elaborative interrogation

What is it?

This method is about generating explanations for yourself of why certain facts are the way they are.

To quote:

“The key to elaborative interrogation involves prompting learners to generate an explanation for an explicitly stated fact.”

This method can be triggered simply by asking “why”.

How effective is it?

The technique is very effective in helping people remember facts, and also improves their capacity to see links between different things. One study done to test this, divided students into three groups. Each group was given the same series of statements, what differed is that the first group was asked to seek an explanation for that statement, the second group was given an explanation, and the third group just had the series of statements.

For example, all three groups were given the following statement: “The hungry man got into the car.”

The first group was asked to seek an explanation of why he did that: “Why did he do that?”

The second group got an explanation already pre-written for them: “He got into the car to go to the restaurant.”

The third group got nothing else besides the statement.

At the end, all three groups were given a test to recall what happened in the statements. For example: “Who got into the car?”

The result was that the first group, the one that was the elaborative-interrogation group, got this right 72% of the time, while the other groups were only 37% accurate. This is a pretty big difference.

One important thing to note with this method is that it gets more powerful as prior knowledge on the topic increases. This means the more you know about the subject you are studying, the more effective this method becomes.

To quote:

“Prior knowledge is an important moderator of elaborative-interrogation effects, such that effects generally increase as prior knowledge increases.”

For example, one study tested a group of Canadian students and a group of German students on their knowledge of Canadian provinces and German states.

The Canadian students of course started off with a higher knowledge of Canada than the German students, while the Germans had more knowledge about Germany.

The results of this study demonstrated that:

“Students showed larger effects of elaborative interrogation in their high-knowledge domain (a 24% increase) than in their low-knowledge domain (a 12% increase).”

The authors of the meta-study rate the elaborative interrogation method as of moderate utility.

What does this mean for your studying?

The key to this technique is asking questions, especially the question “why” throughout the course of your studying.

Another thing that you should do is be able to explain how you came up with the answer that you did. Often, it is more important to be able to explain the steps that you took to arrive at the answer and why you chose them, than the answer itself.

5) Study method: Self-explanation

What is it?

This is about explaining how the new information being studied is related to the old information that you already know.

How effective is it?

There was a study done that divided students into three groups. The first group was solving a problem, and while doing that they had explain their reasoning. The second group solved the problems and explained their reasoning only at the end of the process. The third group just solved the problems and did not need to provide any reasoning.

While all three groups performed about the same on the first test, on the second test (one that required a transfer of knowledge) the two first groups outperformed the third group by a wide margin.

The overall assessment of the researchers of this study is that it is of moderate utility. It does improve learning. However, training on how to generate self-explanations is needed in order for it to be effective:

“Although most research has shown effects of self-explanation with minimal training, some results have suggested that effects may be enhanced if students are taught how to effectively implement the self-explanation strategy.”

What does this mean for your studying?

There are different ways that you can implement this method into your studying. One way is to write down short essays where you discuss the material that you learned and relate it to other material that you know.

Another way is to create concept maps, where you draw relationships between different concepts. This can be mind-maps or similar types of diagrams.

A good way to use this method is to come up with analogies. How is this material similar to other subjects that I already know?

Here is a good explanation on how to use analogies in learning from a course on Coursera by a scientist from the University of Zurich. Analogies and learning through analogies is something that I will try to cover in more depth in one of my later articles.

6) Study method: Rereading

What is it?

This technique involves you rereading your notes and study materials again.

How effective is it?

In order to test the effectiveness of the rereading technique, researchers designed a practical experiment. They divided a group of students into four groups, with one group not reading the text at all, the second group reading it once, third group twice, and the fourth group four times.

The students were then asked to wait 10 minutes and were given the text again, but with certain words deleted. They then needed to fill in the missing words. The ones who got to read the test four times did the best, followed by the group that read it twice and so on.

Why does rereading work? There are two hypotheses:

“According to the quantitative hypothesis, rereading simply increases the total amount of information encoded, regardless of the kind or level of information within the text. In contrast, the qualitative hypothesis assumes that rereading differentially affects the processing of higher-level and lower-level information within a text, with particular emphasis placed on the conceptual organization and processing of main ideas during rereading.”

Spaced rereading is better than massed rereading:

“Although advantages of rereading over reading only once have been shown with massed rereading and with spaced rereading (in which some amount of time passes or intervening material is presented between initial study and restudy), spaced rereading usually outperforms massed rereading.”

The researchers ranked rereading with low utility:

“However, most effects have been shown with recall-based memory measures, whereas the benefit for comprehension is less clear. Finally, although rereading is relatively economical with respect to time demands and training requirements when compared with some other learning techniques, rereading is also typically much less effective.”

What does this mean for your studying?

Rereading is best incorporated with other strategies. For example, while rereading, you can highlight the key parts of the text, and then after your rereading session is over, you can create a summary of the text that you just read.

Rereading can also be done after you have already done several intensive sessions of studying and you just want to have a quick refresh on what you learned (and don’t have too much time).

I find that rereading is quite useful in that every time you read, you do get a better understanding of the material, maybe by noticing some parts that you didn’t see before or because of the fact that you have learned the material better, making new connections.

7) Study method: Highlighting and underlining

What is it?

This is when you actively highlight or underline parts of the text that you think is important.

How effective is it?

This technique is quite simple and doesn’t require much training to use.

To quote:

“The techniques typically appeal to students because they are simple to use, do not entail training, and do not require students to invest much time beyond what is already required for reading the material.”

There were few benefits.

To quote:

“First, within the active-highlighting group, performance was better on test items for which the relevant text had been highlighted. Second, this benefit to highlighted information was greater for the active highlighters (who selected what to highlight) than for passive highlighters (who saw the same information highlighted, but did not select it). Third, this benefit to highlighted information was accompanied by a small cost on test questions probing information that had not been highlighted.”

This is due to the isolation effect. In this effect, you remember much more easily an item that is unique among other items. So highlighting helps you remember the text you highlighted a bit better.

However, a lot depends on how you highlight. There can be great variations among people when it comes to highlighting text, ranging from people highlighting just a few things to other people highlighting almost everything.

Research found that people remember more if they limit their highlighting, for example just to one key sentence per paragraph.

To quote overall assessment:

“On the basis of the available evidence, we rate highlighting and underlining as having low utility. In most situations that have been examined and with most participants, highlighting does little to boost performance. It may help when students have the knowledge needed to highlight more effectively, or when texts are difficult, but it may actually hurt performance on higher level tasks that require inference making.”

What does this mean for your studying?

This should not be your primary study method, but can help you if you incorporate it as part of a wider study strategy.

For example, highlighting and underlining can help you with creating better summaries.

8) Study method: Summarizing

What is it?

This is about writing summaries of the material that you need to learn.

How effective is it?

A test was conducted which divided students into five groups. All of the students were asked to read the same text.

The first group wrote a 3-line summary of each of the pages of the text, while the second group was asked to write 3 lines of notes.

Students in the third group were asked to locate and copy the three most important lines from each text, and the students in the fourth group were asked just to write all the words that were capitalized in the text.

The fifth group was asked to read and do nothing else.
All the groups then took tests, right after the exercise and also one week later. The groups that did the best were the summarization and note-taking groups.

To quote:

“The results fit nicely with the claim that summarization boosts learning and retention because it involves attending to and extracting the higher-level meaning and gist of the material. The conditions in the experiment were specifically designed to manipulate how much students processed the texts for meaning.”

Also to quote:

“Students in the verbatim-copying group still had to locate the most important information in the text, but they did not synthesize it into a summary or rephrase it in their notes. Thus, writing about the important points in one’s own words produced a benefit over and above that of selecting important information; students benefited from the more active processing involved in summarization and notetaking.”

However, this strategy has to be practiced, as its effects are greater among more advanced learners:

“It can be an effective learning strategy for learners who are already skilled at summarizing; however, many learners (including children, high school students, and even some undergraduates) will require extensive training, which makes this strategy less feasible.”

What does this mean for your studying?

The most important part of this strategy is to learn how to do it correctly (efficiently and effectively). This means the first step is to practice summarizing.

While your first summaries might not be the best, after a while of practicing, they will become much better.

You can incorporate summarization in many different ways. At the end of every study session, you can spend some time writing a summary of what you learned.

Or you can spread your summarizations out throughout your study session, for example writing a summary of every block that you did.

9) Study method: Keyword mnemonic

What is it?

This technique is about creating keywords and mental images in order to associate verbal materials.

How effective is it?

It is effective, but the effectivity varies.

To quote:

“The overwhelming evidence that the keyword mnemonic can boost memory for many kinds of material and learners has made it a relatively popular technique. Despite the impressive outcomes, however, some aspects of these demonstrations imply limits to the utility of the keyword mnemonic.

First, consider the use of this technique for its originally intended domain—the learning of foreign-language vocabulary. In the example above, la dent easily supports the development of a concrete keyword (“dentist”) that can be easily imagined, whereas many vocabulary terms are much less amenable to the development and use of keywords.

In the case of revenir (to come back), a student could perhaps use the keyword “revenge” (e.g., one might need “to come back” to taste its sweetness), but imaging this abstract term would be difficult and might even limit retention.”

Overall assessment:

“On the basis of the literature reviewed above, we rate the keyword mnemonic as low utility. We cannot recommend that the keyword mnemonic be widely adopted. It does show promise for keyword-friendly materials, but it is not highly efficient (in terms of time needed for training and keyword generation), and it may not produce durable learning.”

What does this mean for your studying?

This is a niche method that you can use to remember certain words or things that are hard to remember.

It’s not something that you should use as your primary studying method, but it can help in many specific instances.

I would recommend reading the book “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” by Joshua Foer, a journalist who used these techniques to become the US Memory Champion, to give you some ideas on how and when to use these techniques.

10) Study method: Imagery for text

What is it?

This technique involves you actively trying to create mental images of the material.

How effective is it?

In one experiment, the group was divided into two groups. Everyone had to read the same text, but while one group had to just read it, the other group was told to create mental images of each paragraph in their head.

At the end, everyone was given a multiple-choice test on the material in the text. The group that was told to create mental imagery in their head for the text performed much better on the multiple-choice test.

To quote:

“A variety of mechanisms may contribute to the benefits of imaging text material on later test performance. Developing images can enhance one’s mental organization or integration of information in the text, and idiosyncratic images of particular referents in the text could enhance learning as well.

Moreover, using one’s prior knowledge to generate a coherent representation of a narrative may enhance a student’s general understanding of the text; if so, the influence of imagery use may be robust across criterion tasks that tap memory and comprehension.”

Overall assessment:

“Imagery can improve students’ learning of text materials, and the promising work by some researchers speaks to the potential utility of imagery use for text learning. Imagery production is also more broadly applicable than the keyword mnemonic. Nevertheless, the benefits of imagery are largely constrained to imagery-friendly materials and to tests of memory.”

What does this mean for your studying?

This is another niche technique, which can help you to globally understand what you are learning. You can incorporate it in various stages of your learning process.

For example, when you are reading a text, always try to visualize what you are reading.

Visualization is something that Nikola Tesla (and others such as Albert Einstein) used in order to come up with his inventions.

How do I apply the techniques for my own studying?

During my university days, I applied some of these techniques without actually knowing that I am applying them. I remember that I seemed to be putting much less effort into studying than most of my peers. However, now that if I look back, the reason why I was able to go home and watch James Bond before a test, while everyone else was pulling all-nighters in the library was that I just was studying more effectively.

The basis of my strategy were distributed practice and interleaved practice. I would usually spread out my studying over several days, sometimes looking at the same materials and subjects and at other times mixing things up. In this way, I was able to stuff things into my brain with much less effort and the fact that I would return to study the subject a few days later would make it stick in my mind.

Another favorite technique of mine, one I which incorporated as part of my distributed practice schedule was rereading. While by this study this technique was later as moderately useful, for me this was very effective. The first time I would read the material without understanding it much, however the magic happens when you read it the second or third time. With all subsequent readings, the material just starts making more and more sense, and ends up sticking in your head.

Self-explanations have also been a staple of my studying. Whenever I am reading something, my mind automatically tries to find patterns and relate this new material to things that I already know. Sometimes I link it to other things that I know, while at other times I try to find analogies to help me to understand the new subjects better. I often use visualization as part of forming self-explanations.

The key to effective and efficient learning in my opinion is to combine distributed and interleaved practice with other techniques that you like. All people are different and different learning techniques work better for some people than others, so you will need to experiment a bit and find what works better for you. Once you have found the sweet spots, you will need to apply it as often as you can. The reason why these techniques work is not because they are some magic pill, but instead they promote a systematic way of doing things.


Read More:

Learning and knowing strategies on how to learn new subjects will be crucial if you want to be able to thrive in the new world of future work:
Get the skills for a robot-proof career in the workplace of the future.

Learning and learning strategies always come out at the top of all studies that predict the most important skills that will be needed in a future work environment.

More articles on learning:
The Art of Learning: one simple mindset change that will lead you on the path to mastery

How to set up your goals in an agile way and implement them

Here are some articles on learning specific subjects:

Language learning:
The Indiana Jones method for learning foreign languages

How to stop being an eternal beginner and learn a foreign language to fluency

How to stop being an eternal beginner and learn a foreign language to fluency

Learn any foreign language in a day

Here is the link to the study itself, as well as a link to a text explaining the study.

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