Studying and Learning: What Works, What Doesn’t

Self-testing and spaced repetition are the “two clear winners” in how to study and learn better. That’s from an informal meta study conducted by six professors (from fields such as psychology, educational psychology, and neuroscience) when they reviewed over 700 scientific articles to identify the ten most common learning techniques and which are the most effective (pdf, web).

The requirements of their literature review:

[A learning] technique must be useful in a range of learning conditions, such as whether a student works alone or in a group. It must assist learners of various ages, abilities and levels of prior knowledge — and it must have been tested in a classroom or other real-world situation. Learners should be able to use the method to master a variety of subjects, and their performance should benefit no matter what kind of test is used to measure it. The best approaches also result in long-lasting improvements in knowledge and comprehension.

The authors of the article go into great detail on how and when to use the different methods effectively, so check out the article from Scientific American. but to summarise:

  • Self-testing and distributed practice (spaced repetition) are the two stand-out methods, shown to be “robust, durable and relevant in many situations”.
  • Elaborative interrogation (asking ‘Why?’), self-explanation (‘How do I know this?’) and interleaved practice (mixing up the learning topics) are also recommended methods, but come with reservations.
  • However, the ever-popular methods of highlighting, re-reading, imagery for text learning (making mental pictures), summarisation, and keyword mnemonics are simply: “not advised”. Some do work, but are time consuming and effective only in limited circumstances, while others lack any evidence of effectiveness

via Nicky Case