Even when we’re not studying, we’re constantly exposed to new information. Much of it is trivial or extraneous, some of it is important and a little bit is absolutely essential. Even when we’re not being bombarded with (often highly entertaining) nonsense daily – which is never – only those of us with the very best natural memories find it easy to hold on to vital dates, details and data.
To make things worse, there’s a lot of blatantly false information about how to make things ‘stick’. One you might have read about already if you’re really interested in how memory or learning works is the Pyramid of Learning, often attributed to the National Training Laboratories in Bethel, Maine.
At best it’s unreliable. At worst, it’s barely worth considering. Yes, some of the learning methods contained within it (reading, practising, teaching others) are perfectly valid but the retention percentages associated with them are widely regarded as unscientific.
The good news is, only a few years ago a team of psychologists from leading universities in the United States did a comprehensive study into the effectiveness of learning techniques. Unlike the pyramid and numerous other specious ‘studies’, their findings were backed by a rigorous scientific methodology and published in a well-regarded journal.
What they discovered might surprise you:
Cramming be damned
The researchers found that cramming was better than doing no study at all, but overall not a great way to learn or memorise information. Spacing study out – what the paper called “distributed practice” – was by far the better option and, in fact, one of only two methods rated by the authors of the report as having “high utility”.
The report essentially says “the longer the better” but acknowledges that for most students, studying over an extended period of time with a looming exam is impossible. It summarises in this way: “To remember something for 1 week, learning episodes should be spaced 12 to 24 hours apart; to remember something for 5 years, the learning episodes should be spaced 6 to 12 months apart.”
Use your discretion and your time wisely.
Practice does make perfect
The other learning method to receive a “high” rating from the authors was practice testing, which they defined as “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.”
You might be thinking, “That all sounds a bit 2005” but as a Time article on the study mentioned, regularly updated apps like Quizlet, StudyBlue and FlashCardMachine bring this approach to your phone tablet or laptop. Cram, another app not mentioned in the article, is also worth a look.
Throw away your highlighter
We know. We know. We named our blog Highlight and now we’re about to debunk the use of the highlighter entirely. But it’s too important not to.
The science says highlighting (or underlining) notes is not a good use of your time if you’re trying to commit information to memory. The psychologists gave it a “low” rating and said that “with most participants, [it] does little to boost performance”.
Although there was some evidence to suggest the technique might work if the student in question was a skilled highlighter (we didn’t realise there was such a thing), there was also evidence to say that “it may actually hurt performance on higher-level tasks that require inference making”. In other words, it’s distracting.
It might be time to throw your fluoro wand in the bin.
Summarising? In a word: maybe
Writing a brief summary of the main points from a long article, piece of research or other work is a tried and tested method for learning. But is it effective? The researchers say “Hmm” on this one.
They give it a “low” rating, which might make you think it’s a complete waste of time, however it comes with a couple of buts. As with “highlighting” it may be a useful technique if you’re an accomplished summariser. Also, there were, in some cases, holes in the research they were able to draw from. The problem is, that patchiness doesn’t really build the case for summarising – it just adds more questions marks.
Self-explanation (it’s not really self-explanatory)
One of the techniques that got a “moderate utility” rating, but which seems close to a “high” was what the researchers called “self-explanation”.
It’s a process by which you clarify the meaning of something you’re reading (or a problem you’re solving) as you go, either in words or in writing. You make a conscious effort not to pass over a challenging concept or to ignore how you answered a problem or equation.
The major problem the authors had with this method was that it was potentially time-consuming. They also once again brought up the problem of the learner needing to be adept at the skill of self-explanation for it to be a truly useful practice.
Of course, as with most pieces of thorough research, there were caveats and qualifications. The researchers looked at 10 methods for learning; we’ve only mentioned five in this post. You can read the full paper here.