John Dunlosky, a professor at the Kent State University, and his colleagues studied over 700 scientific articles on 10 of the most common study techniques and identified those that are the most effective for learning and retention. Their findings were published in a special issue on learning in the Scientific American. These findings are also part of the much longer book Make it stick. In this article, we summarize the most effective strategies.
Self-testing is the most-effective study technique. Students do not appear for tests, but rather test themselves via flash-cards or other mechanisms such as the Cornell note-taking system. Forgeting is easy, and self-testing, if repeated at the right intervals can facilitate the right connections in the brain to enable recall. Short frequent exams, with immediate feedback are most effective. This is also the key to long-term retention, many years into the future. As long as you integrate self-testing as part of your daily routine and ritual, you will keep your memory fresh.
Cramming a lot of content in a single sitting does not work. Instead, breaking it down into smaller tasks and learning them over a longer span of time works better. This facilitates review of the same concepts over and over again. If you a learning a new concept, try solving a back-of-the-chapter exercise every time you sit down to study, many days or even weeks apart. Do not try to solve all the exercises in one study session. Distributed practice, or spreading your study over time has been demonstrated to be a very effective strategy for learning and retention for a long time.
Less effective than self-testing and distributed practice, elaborative interrogation involves quizzing oneself about the why of the things you learn. This technique is reported to be moderately effective, likely limited to learning factual information.
Self-explanation builds upon your existing knowledge. When you learn something new, you try to associate and logically derive it from something you already know. In terms of effectiveness, although this helps absorbs new concepts fast, and possibly pleasurable, it does nothing to cement them in your brain. It is less effective than self-testing and distributed practice. Moreover, this method has been reported to be 30 to 100 percent more time-consuming that other methods.
Instead of finishing the study of one subject and then moving on to other, the learner can interleave the study of related subjects to maximal benefit. This works well in situations where there could be ambiguous or confusing approaches to a given problem, but its utility elsewhere is limited. It is particularly recommended for mathematical knowledge and cognitive skills.
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