What is the best technique for studying? What is the best way to get the best grades and the least amount of work?
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. The best learning techniques are often individual and their use is situation-specific. For example, you should study mathematics in a completely different way to history.
But don't despair. Learning research has given us a wealth of useful information about how we learn most effectively, and how our brains work when we learn something new. This means we can build our own personalized learning strategy using the best techniques for a given situation.
Comparing the most effective techniques
When it comes to learning techniques, you can't help but mention psychology professor John Dunlosky, who conducted a comprehensive study with his colleagues in 2013 on the effectiveness of different learning techniques.
The reliability and usefulness of the work is enhanced by the fact that the study is a meta-study, i.e. its results build on a large number of other studies. In addition, the learning techniques examined have been selected from among those that are most commonly used, easiest to adopt and most promising.
Dunlosky stresses that all the study methods studied have their own merits and that for several of them, considerable further research is needed before they can be declared winners or losers. However, the research reveals clear differences between the best and worst performing learning techniques. In particular, there was strong evidence that active techniques, which emphasise the application of knowledge, perform better than passive methods in almost all circumstances.
Building on Dunlosky's research, we compare here the effectiveness of five commonly used techniques. We start with the techniques that were most successful based on Dunlosky's research.
1. Self-testing and active recall
Testing what you have learned through experiments, tests and active recall as part of learning.
Highly effective in learning almost any subject.
Go through the material you want to learn. Then write a question or keyword from the material on a flashcard. On the other side, write the answer or definition. Depending on how challenging the topic is, you can ask a number of questions or just the most important ones. As you review what you have learned, go straight to the flashcards and instead of rereading, read the question or definition and try to give an answer without looking it up beforehand.
If you knew the answer, move the card to the mastered stack. If your answer is incomplete, place the card at the bottom of the deck. This way it will come up again after you have gone through the other cards.
Alternatively, you can create your notes by writing the actual notes on one side of the page and the keyword on the other. As you review what you've learned, cover the actual notes and try to remember as much as you can from just the keyword.
Read more about using active learning methdos when studying for an exam.
2. Spaced repetition
Splitting learning into several separate sessions over time.
Highly effective for learning almost any subject.
Spread the studying for a test or exam over several days in short sessions instead of long individual marathons. For example, instead of reading for six hours on the last night and evening, read for 2 hours each of the previous three days. The last day is dedicated to revision.
You can compare spreading out your studying to a sporting performance as training. No one would practice for six hours in a panic on the last night before an important match.
Read more about spaced repetition and its benefits.
3. Explaining the topic to yourself (or someone else) and simplifying:
Explaining the subject being studied as simply and clearly as possible.
Promising, but relatively few research results so far.
When reading a new fact, try to reason why it is exactly as it is. For example, when studying administrative law, try to explain not only the legal provisions, but also the purpose they serve and what they were created for. Try to do the explanation before you go through the material. Don't worry if you seem to be guessing. Explain and justify the topic in a simple enough way that anyone who knows nothing about it would understand what you are talking about.
Re-reading the material for a refresher.
Rereading can be beneficial in the same way as spaced repetition, but the effectiveness may be short-lived. In addition, time could be spent on more effective methods.
After reading through the material you are studying, you return to it by reading it again (and again) as long as you think you know the material well enough. This is a very commonly used method, although it is not particularly effective. The main problem is that the information you learn is never actively recalled to your working memory.
5. Underlining and highlighting text
Underlining or highlighting the most important points about the materials to be studied.
Not very useful, but can be helpful when first getting to know the material.
When reading a new study material, underline the points you find most important. Be selective and underline only the really important points.
6. Learning by creating and applying knowledge
Modifying, applying and using what you have learned as part of other learning
Useful if there is a sufficient level of basic knowledge and understanding.
When studying a larger topic, write a summary in your own words, covering only the key points and possibly including any questions on the topic. Alternatively, you can write a learning diary in which you reflect on what you have learned and how it relates to the other units you have studied.
Good to keep in mind about learning techniques
- Active methods are more effective than passive ones. You can recognise an active method by the fact that you are processing what you have learned or trying to recall it from long-term memory.
- Self-testing and spaced repetition are time and again at the top of the list of the most effective techniques.
- Passive methods such as simply reading or underlining are not very effective, but they are more common. Their popularity is based on their ease and familiarity.
- Any technique requires practice and correct application. But with practice, you can learn significantly more effectively and remember more of what you learn.
Here we just scratched the surface of the different learning techniques. If you are interested in the topic, welcome to learn more about the different techniques and how to use them in our Most effective learning techniques course!