If you have ever been staring down the barrel of a chemistry final you have probably found yourself very interested in how you can remember all the stuff you acted like you were remembering in class.
You also found that you have to do more than just lay your book on the table and stare at it. So, you tried different methods. From highlighting to performing ritualistic dances around your room while reciting definitions, the methods for studying are a plenty.
But what really works? Well, throw away the headdress and your highlighter because according to recent research there are better bang for your buck study methods.
According to the recent research, ten techniques for studying were evaluated. What were they?
- Elaborative Interrogation. Explaining why something is a fact.
- Self-Explanation. Explaining how something relates to some other fact or idea.
- Summarization. Writing out summarized paragraphs of information in text.
- Highlighting/Underlining. Marking key ideas or passages in text.
- Mnemonics. Associating facts, definitions, etc, with easy to remember keywords or imagery.
- Imagery of text. Forming mental images while reading.
- Rereading. (self-explanatory)
- Practice testing. Completing practice tests over subject.
- Distributed Practice. Spreading out study sessions over time.
- Interleaved Practice. Mixing different problems or material in a single study session.
These all happen to be studying techniques that you may have used or still rely on today.
How exactly did they evaluate these different techniques? Well, it happened to be based upon four of what was called “Categories of Variables for Generalizability.” This is professor-speak for variables that have a strong effect on how well a studying technique works for the most amount of students in the most amount of settings.
These four categories are
- Materials Involved
- Learning Conditions
- Student Characteristics
- Criterion Tasks
Having these different areas of evaluation is important in describing how much use you are getting out of a certain studying strategy.
The researchers use this idea of “use” or “utility” and apply it to their conclusions, rating certain study techniques as either having low, moderate, or high utility. For this article I will focus on the low (losers) and the high (winners) utility methods.
So, which were low utility?
- Imagery in text
How could summarization be of low utility? Mostly because “many learners (including children, high school students, and even some undergraduates) will require extensive training.” (3.5)
To be able to summarize correctly involves focusing on the most significant points of a text or video. If a student is unable to do this properly the summarization will reflect that and it is unlikely this will aid in the study efforts.
The trouble with highlighting is similar to the summarization problem. Students just don’t know what the highlight. This makes highlighting low utility because it takes time away from more effective strategies.
It is important to note, however, that when a teacher does the highlighting for the student it tends to benefit them greatly.
What stinks about Mnemonics? It only seems to be useful for keyword friendly materials making it hard to generalize the strategy and doesn’t really produce “durable learning.” (5.5) Finally, it can take time to come up with those rhymes.
Imagery in text
Just like Mnemonics, attempting to use imagery while reading a text is only useful for a limited number of materials, which makes it less valuable as a study technique.
The researchers rated rereading as having low utility because it is not clear that through rereading comprehension is improved. This low effectiveness makes it disadvantaged when comparing it to other ways of studying.
And now we have our high utility methods.
On the basis of the evidence described above, we rate practice testing as having high utility. Testing effects have been demonstrated across an impressive range of practice-test formats, kinds of material, learner ages, outcome measures, and retention intervals. Thus, practice testing has broad applicability. Practice testing is not particularly time intensive relative to other techniques, and it can be implemented with minimal training. Finally, several studies have provided evidence for the efficacy of practice testing in representative educational contexts.
Practice testing is high utility because it not only works, it tends to work even when you encounter different variables.
It works across students of different ages, with a wide variety of materials, on the majority of standard laboratory measures, and over long delays. It is easy to implement (although it may require some training) and has been used successfully in a number of classroom studies.
What is distributed practice?
Put simply, it is gradually increasing the distance between your study sessions. You start by keeping study sessions over certain material relatively close together, then as time goes on, spread them out more and more.
What can we take away from this research?
First, the best bang for your buck study methods are practice testing and distributed practice. If you have a study problem these two methods are more than likely able to help. That is because they work even when the variables involved are plenty.
Therefore, they should be your first choice when deciding study strategies for any class or subject.
Secondly, while the other study strategies were listed as either having low or moderate utility, that does not make them useless. Having general methods to rely on for studying is a good thing but these other study methods may have a time and place where they are extremely useful.
Think of it like a toolbox. Practice testing and distributed practice are your pliers which can be used in a wide variety of instances.
The other methods are your saw, or your hammer, or your level, or any other tool which may have a specific use.
A good carpenter keeps a toolbox, just like a good student should know the various ways of studying that may be useful to him.