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Think about your top five approaches to studying. Now, think about how they would appear in a list if organised in order of how frequently you use them. Does repeatedly rereading source materials feature in this list (possibly in the number one slot)? If the answer is yes, then you are one of the majority of individuals who habitually use ineffective approaches to studying. Upon hearing this, you might feel a bit incredulous that so many intelligent and motivated people could be making such a basic error. The question is, why?
The common use of ineffective study practices is due to flaws in our ability to evaluate the way we approach learning that we’re often simply unaware of. This leads to the habitual adoption of practices that don’t work nearly as well as we think they do. For example, when you use the ineffective study strategy of repeatedly rereading a piece of text, that text will start to feel familiar and you’ll probably judge this as a sign that you’ve committed it to memory. However, in reaching this judgement you’ll likely have failed to take into account a key discrepancy between conditions of studying and recall. If the penny hasn’t already dropped, the difference is that the source material is available to you when you’re studying, but probably won’t be accessible when you need to recall information from it in other contexts, like an exam. This oversight gives you an inflated judgement of your learning, which reinforces the use of rereading as an approach to studying, thus undermining your subsequent learning.
Using ineffective approaches to studying turns the process of learning from a privilege to be enjoyed into a chore that must be endured. Psychology has much wisdom to offer you about how to study more effectively. Unfortunately, much of the research on topics relevant to studying isn’t formulated as advice for students. This is where I come in; I teach people how they can use psychology to learn, communicate and collaborate more effectively. I authored The Psychology Of Effective Studying: How to Succeed in Your Degree to make evidence-based advice on studying accessible to anyone in further or higher education. In the next few passages, I will provide three key pieces of advice that will help you make the process of studying much more effective and rewarding.
Self-testing is your greatest ally when it comes to learning
Given that your ability to intuitively evaluate the effectiveness of your approaches to studying is faulty, it won’t surprise you to learn that your intuition about how much you know can be equally flawed. A good example of this is the widely publicised Dunning-Kruger effect, which refers to the fact that you are vulnerable to having the most inflated impression of how much you know precisely when you are the least knowledgeable. This is because ignorance is a double-edged sword: you lack knowledge and it’s this lack of knowledge that also robs you of insight into just how much you don’t yet know. That’s what the saying ‘Ignorance is bliss’ is referring to.
Happily, you can avoid getting erroneous ideas about your level of knowledge and learn much more effectively using self-testing (retrieval practice) to evidence your learning. Self-testing gives you an objective measure of your knowledge, which you can use to calibrate your perception of how much you know. You can test yourself organically as part of your reading and note-taking by using the 3R approach. This involves reading a short passage of text, putting the source to one side and trying to recall the information in your own words then checking your recall against the text for factual accuracy. Practising retrieving information from memory is far more beneficial for learning than restudying that information for the same length of time. This is referred to as the testing effect, it’s one of the most well-established and robust findings in psychology. When studying, remember: it’s not what you think you know that matters, it’s what you can prove you know.
Read and take notes with a view to generating your own understanding of a topic
Contrary to popular belief, your memory doesn’t reproduce information, it reconstructs it in a way that reflects your prior knowledge and expectations. Therefore, the key to improving your recall of information is not to increase the exposure you have to your sources. Instead, you need to make a deliberate effort to think more about the material as you’re studying it.
An excellent catalyst for thinking about the material is to ask questions of your sources during the process of reading, such as: ‘How does the evidence support the assertion being made?’ Psychologists call this process elaborative interrogation; this has robust effects on your ability to recall information, establish connections between different concepts and make inferences based on what you read. Avoid reading aimlessly. If you don’t have any questions, your sources can’t give you any answers!
Space out your study sessions
Research in psychology reveals that cramming remains a perennial ‘go-to’ approach to studying for students. The issue is not that cramming doesn’t work per se, but rather that there is a more effective approach to studying that generates better long-term learning. Psychology has a long history of examining the distribution of time available for studying memory performance. Studies have consistently found that it is better to break up the time available to study over a series of shorter sessions than studying intensively in a single extended session. This is known as the spacing effect.
In taking advantage of the spacing effect, you shouldn’t get too caught up with how long each study session should be, or the length of the intervals between sessions. The spacing effect is very robust, so just adhering to the rule of thumb that it’s better to have a larger number of shorter sessions than fewer longer sessions is sufficient. Where you find yourself studying topics/concepts that are similar, it’s also a good idea to try alternating between these topics within each of your study sessions. This is known as interleaving and it helps you identify what makes each topic or concept different, which reduces the risk of new learning interfering with existing learning.
Full disclosure: effective study practices such as self-testing, elaborative interrogation and spacing out your studying are going to take a bit more effort to implement than just rereading or highlighting sources. However, this extra investment of effort will be well worth it. When it comes to studying, difficulty is often desirable. Think of effective learning as being like going to the gym; you’ve got to sweat a bit to get the best results.
If you’d like to learn more about how psychology can help you study more effectively, please visit and subscribe to my YouTube channel.
The Psychology of Effective Studying: How to Succeed in Your Degree is available from Amazon and many other online book retailers.
Dr Paul Penn is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of East London. You can also follow Paul on Twitter @DrPaulPenn.
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