Many students are missing a lesson in a key area that can help guarantee their success: how to study effectively.
It is a common study technique for students to employ rote learning techniques to prepare for exams (etc. by re-reading class notes and cramming textbook chapters). All of these study techniques rely on the assumption that an individual’s memories can perform exactly like a recording device, playing back all content learned during an exam. “But the storage and retrieval operations of human memory differs from recording devices in almost every way possible,” quoted psychology professor Robert Bjork, PhD, co-director of the Learning and Forgetting Lab at University of California, Los Angeles. It is definitely not reliable and possible for everyone to be able to retrieve information from the back of their memory with exact precision and consistency.
So how exactly do our brains work to retain information? Study strategies that require the brain to work to remember information—rather than passively reviewing the material.
Bjork devised the term “desirable difficulty” to describe this particular concept, and psychologists are putting their focus on exactly how students can effectively develop techniques to further stretch the cognitive benefits of their already limited study time.
Hence below are six research-tested strategies compiled from several renowned psychology educators.
1. Remember and repeat
Study methods that involve remembering information multiple times are ideal because every time an individual recalls/retrieves information, it becomes more accessible in the future, explains Jeffrey Karpicke, Ph.D., a psychology researcher at Purdue University in Indiana who specializes in research pertaining to human learning and memory.
The benefits of this technique were evident when Karpicke conducted a study whereby participants were made to learn a list of words in a language foreign to them. Participants learned the words in one of four following ways:
- Studying the list once.
- Studying until they had successfully recalled each word once.
- Studying until they had successfully recalled each word three times consecutively.
- Studying until they had recalled each word three times spaced throughout the 30-minute learning session.
In the last condition, the participants would move on to other words after correctly recalling a word once, then recall it again after practicing other words.
A week later, the researchers tested the same batch of participants on the words and discovered that the group who had practiced with repeated spaced retrieval—the last condition—far outperformed the other groups. Students in this group remembered 80% of the words, compared to 30% for those who had recalled the information three times in a row or once. The first group, which involved no recall, remembered the words less than 1% of the time (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition (PDF, 288KB), Vol. 37, No. 5, 2011).
Many students assume that recalling something they’ve learned once is proof that they’ve memorized it. But, says Karpicke, just because you can retrieve a fact in a study session doesn’t mean you will remember it later on a test. “Just a few repeated retrievals can produce significant effects, and it’s best to do this in a spaced timeframe.”
2. Adapt your favorite strategies
Other research finds that online flashcard programs, such as Study Stack or Chegg, is effective in helping students practice retrieving information—as long as students continue retesting themselves in the days leading up to the test, says John Dunlosky, Ph.D., who studies self-regulated learning at Kent State University in Ohio. For flashcards with individual words, the evidence suggests that thinking of the answer is effective, but for longer content like definitions, students should type, write down, or say aloud the answers, Dunlosky says. If the answer is incorrect, then study the correct one and practice again later in the study session. “They should continue doing that until they are correct, and then repeat the process in a couple more days,” he says.
Concept mapping — a diagram that depicts relationships between concepts—is another well-known learning technique that has been popularised in recent years, but cognitive psychology researchers warns students to employ this strategy only with the book closed. Karpicke demonstrated this in a study in which students studied topics by creating concept maps or by writing notes in two different conditions: while referring to an open textbook or with the textbook closed. With the closed textbook condition, they were recalling as much as they could remember. One week later, the students took an exam that tested their knowledge of the material, and students who had practiced retrieving the information with the book closed had much better performances (Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 106, No. 3, 2014).
“Concept maps can be useful, as long as students engage in retrieval practice while using this strategy,” Karpicke comments.
3. Quiz yourself
Students should also take advantage of quizzes from teachers, in textbooks, or apps like Quizlet or Kahoot! to further hone their ability to retain and recall information. It works even if the incorrect answer is provided by the students for these quizzes, says Oregon State University psychology professor Regan Gurung, Ph.D. “Even the process of trying and failing is better than not trying at all,” he says. “Just attempting to retrieve something helps you solidify it in your memory.”
Gurung studied different approaches to using quizzes in nine introductory psychology courses throughout the country. In the study, the researchers worked with instructors who agreed to participate in different conditions. Some required students to complete chapter quizzes once while others required them to take each quiz multiple times. Also, some students were told to complete all the chapter quizzes by one deadline before the exam, while others were expected to space their quizzes by meeting deadlines throughout the course. The students who spaced their quizzes and took them multiple times have been shown to perform the best on the class assessments (Applied Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 33, No. 5, 2019).
Most of the students preferred self-testing over restudying, and the results showed that even with hints, the self-testing group performed better on the final test of the words than the restudying group. “It’s a win-win situation because the technique that worked most effectively was also the one that they enjoyed the most,” says Kornell.
Even more important, students think they are learning more effectively when they answer correctly while practicing, which means they’ll be even more motivated to try retrieval practice if hints are available, says Kornell. To apply this strategy, he proposed including hints in self-generated flashcards or quizzes, such as the first letter of the answer or one of the words in a definition.
4. Make the most of study groups
Many students also preferred and enjoy studying with their friends and classmates. But when given a group project/task, it’s critical for students to allow everyone else an opportunity to think of the answers independently, says Henry Roediger, III, Ph.D., a professor in the psychology department at Washington University in St. Louis. One study highlighted the importance of this: Participants tried to learn words in a foreign language by either answering aloud or by listening to their partners’ answers (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (PDF, 426KB), Vol. 24, No. 3, 2018). As expected, those who had answered aloud outperformed the listeners on a test two days later. The researchers also compared participants who answered aloud with partners who silently tried to recall the answers. Everyone received feedback about whether they had gotten the correct answer. Both groups had comparable performances. “Waiting for others to think of answers may slow down the process, but it produces better retention for everyone because it requires individual effort,” Roediger says.
5. Mix it up
Researchers have also investigated the potential benefits of “interleaving,” or studying for different courses in one study session (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Vol. 23, Nov. 4, 2017). For example, rather than dedicating two hours to studying for a single course, students could use that time to study for exams in multiple courses. A few days later, students could study for the same courses again during another block of time. “This strategy, versus blocking one’s study by course, naturally introduces spacing, so students practice retrieving information over time,” Bjork says.
But the research on interleaving has had mixed results, says Aaron Richmond, Ph.D., a professor of educational psychology and human development at Metropolitan State University in Denver. “If the concepts from two subjects overlap too closely, then this could interfere with learning,” says Richmond. “But courses such as mathematics and introduction to psychology are so different that this doesn’t create interference.”
6. Figure out what works for you
Metacognition is one’s ability to use prior knowledge to plan a strategy for approaching a learning task, take necessary steps to problem solve, reflect on and evaluate results, and modify one’s approach as needed. Research has shown that “when people are new to learning about a topic, their subjective impressions of how much they know are the most inflated,” says Paul Penn, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in the psychology department at East London University and author of the 2019 book “The Psychology of Effective Studying.”
“If your impression of your learning is inflated, you have little incentive to look at the way you’re approaching learning,” he says.
To raise awareness about the value of viable study strategies, administrators at Samford University in Alabama invited psychology professor Stephen Chew, Ph.D., to talk to first-year students about this topic during an annual convocation each fall semester. Through an assessment study, he realized that the lecture prompted immediate changes in beliefs and attitudes about studying, but the long-term change was lacking. “Students forgot the specifics of the lecture and fell back into old habits under the stress of the semester,” Chew says.