Why are some study-techniques effective while others are not?

When students return after the Easter break there will be a little over 30 school-days left.

You will have the distraction of the orals, plus possibly some project deadlines.

30 days is not a lot.

A quick re-cap on Study Skills is in order.

Rather than focusing on what does and does not constitute effective study, let’s look at why some techniques are effective, because once you know this you can use it to analyse your own study habits.

Your brain takes in way more information every day than it can possibly retain (what you had for lunch yesterday, what the the weather was like , who you sat beside, who walked by as you were eating, what you talked about etc.

Consequently the brain has developed (evolved) a pretty reliable rule-of-thumb for establishing what is worth keeping. If the information has never been retrieved within a suitable period of time then the brain figures it’s obviously not all that important and allows it to be ‘forgotten’.

The following is a useful analogy

Imagine that your brain and your memory are two separate departments in your head.
Every time you retrieve some information your brain automatically sends a memo to the your memory letting it know that this particular nugget of information seems to be useful and may be worth keeping, if only for a little while. Your memory department duly files this away in the bottom shelf of its long-term storage unit.

The next time it gets retrieved the brain sends another signal to the memory department, but also includes a reminder that this is now the second time that the information has been retrieved so this is definitely not some random piece of information (like what you had for lunch yesterday) and consequently it needs to be stored even more securely this time around.

So every time the information gets retrieved it results in it gets stored more securely in long term memory.

Conversely if you’re studying but using a technique that doesn‘t invoke retrieval of information from your memory, then it’s probably not effective.

And that, in a nutshell, is all you need to know in order to determine whether or not a specific study technique is likely to be effective..

So now can you see why highlighting is not particularly effective?

And reading?

And transcribing notes?

And copying mindmaps?

And making flashcards?

Can you see why testing yourself and teaching others are, by some distance, the two most effective techniques?

Can you see why reading can actually be counter-productive? Not only does it not lead to long-term retention of information, it also unfortunately creates the ‘illusion of knowledge’; you think you’re learning, and if you’re re-reading the information then you probably have a sense of having read it before, so you think you’re reinforcing the learning. But unfortunately this is not the case.

Now of course you do need to read the material to begin with, and you may want to highlight or take notes as you go along. But this is merely laying the groundwork; DO NOT confuse this with the act of storing the information in long-term memory. Ask your thespian colleagues how they learn lines for their plays. You think they go around reading, highlighting and then re-reading the information and then hope for the best, or is it more likely they read the information and then rehearse their lines every chance they get?
There’s a good reason for this. Busy actors can’t afford to spend their time on ineffective learning techniques, no matter how therapeutic they may be.
So whether you call it testing yourself, rehearsing or retrieving information, it all amounts to the same thing – effective learning.

Why are we reluctant to engage with this process?

I guess the whole concept of ‘testing’ has such negative connotations that we avoid it at all costs if we can. Confirmation bias also plays a role here; we tend to engage more with advice which we already agree with, and tend to disregard information which we don’t want to hear in the first place.

There’s also something therapeutic about highlighting; it’s akin to the pleasure you got from colouring in pictures as a kid. Re-reading can also be almost pleasurable (if it wasn’t for the knowledge that there is an impending exam at the end of term), and even writing out notes needn’t be too much of chore, particularly if you can do it while watching tv or listening to music.

But testing yourself? No two ways about it; that’s going to be a pain in the sweet derriere every single time.

Which is why it remains the only effective study-skills technique you should be practicing (unless you’re teaching others).

For more information on effective and ineffective study techniques click on my learningishard website