Going back to your college or high-school days how would you describe your study methods? Ineffective, stressful, and accompanied by a severe lack of sleep?
For me they certainly were.
You see, I was a huge fan of the highlighter. I believed that going through every reading assignment armed with a full pack of Sharpies was the best plan of attack. Red, blue, yellow, orange, purple, pink – my textbooks always looked like something out of Art Attack.
My class notes also received the same, colorful treatment.
Once they were colored in, it was simply a case of re-reading them over and over again until the information “stuck”. This process continued right up until the early hours before my exams.
However, time and time again I’d find myself in the exam hall staring down at a blank piece of paper, pen in hand, struggling to piece my thoughts together. I just couldn’t understand it.
Why was this happening to me? I must have gone over my notes 1000 times leading up to this exam yet I couldn’t put together a structured answer. When studying I’d never bothered to try and actually recall the information from hand (as I was being asked to do now) because well, the information “stuck”, right?
Well, in my case not so much…
This always got me wondering, where did we learn these tried and tested “best study methods” anyway?
Typically, students are never taught how to incorporate scientifically-based study techniques into their learning routine. Instead, they spend endless hours (as you probably did too) bunkered in a library persevering with a highlighter.
What’s more, as students progress from high school to college, to post-secondary education, they are increasingly responsible for regulating their own study routines. This continues into the workplace, with new hobbies, or any recreational activities we decide to pursue – along with the bad study habits we picked up as undergraduates.
The good news is there are a few proven best study methods (backed by science) we can immediately incorporate into our learning routines.
The bad news? Our trusted sharpie is not among them.
Table of Content
3 Scientifically-Backed Study Techniques
There’s been a lot of high-quality research done by cognitive and educational psychologists over the years to uncover the absolute best study methods. And, after years of analysis, experts widely agree upon 3 study techniques which are easy to implement and are proven to induce long-term learning
- Spaced Repetition
- Retrieval Method
Imagine you recently moved house, and your partner has been nagging you for weeks to finally clear out all the boxes and clutter in the garage.
But the thought of it absolutely terrifies you. To say the garage is a complete mess would be putting it kindly. You’ve got a real job on your hands if you’re ever going to get it done.
However, bit by bit (or box by box) you slowly but surely start to make headway. There’s finally a bit of space to move around in and before long, a tidy and organized garage stands before you.
Microlearning is this “box-by-box” approach to studying/learning.
At first glance, the concept might seem far too complex to fully understand, let alone recall from memory. But, after breaking it down into bite-size pieces learned at regular intervals, what once seemed a complex idea suddenly becomes clear.
These short, bite-sized pieces can be studied in almost any format, from infographics, short videos, audio snippets, tests, quizzes, etc. The important underlying component is their brevity – they should be delivered in activities somewhere between 10-15 minutes in duration.
Why is it so effective?
A Journal of Educational Psychology study found that students learn and retain more information when they have access to short, bite-sized content that can be consumed at their own pace, compared to traditional classroom study sessions.
This is because Microlearning reduces the effects of mental fatigue associated with long study sessions – especially those that creep into the early hours of the morning.
By studying in shorter bursts, students can better grasp important concepts, take a break, and refresh their memory before moving on to the next point.
Combined with spaced learning and the retrieval method (we’ll get to those shortly) microlearning can be a great study technique for passing information from your short-term memory to long-term memory bank and truly getting it to stick!
This is one of the reasons why ThePowerMBA is taught using the microlearning method.
In today’s fast-paced world most students don’t have time to sit down in one spot and dedicate a day (or even half-day) to studying.
With the advent of mobile technology and the internet, they can now access material in different formats through the mobile device of their choice (smartphone, tablet, laptop, etc.) and importantly, at their own pace.
Seeing as many post-secondary education students are taking supplementary online courses alongside a full-time job, this really is one of the best study methods currently available to them.
As you can probably guess by its name, spaced repetition is a study method based on “spacing” out short sessions over a set period of time before “repeating” them again. This helps keep your on-going study sessions engaging and ensures what’s learned is committed to your long-term memory.
Why is it so effective?
Have you ever come across or heard of the term forgetting curve?
It’s a theory first put forward by a German psychologist named Herman Ebbinghaus at the tail end of the 19th century. He suggested that humans have both a “learning curve” and a “forgetting curve”.
The learning curve plots the time taken for someone to first understand and then master a given concept or activity (you’ve probably come across the common expression “a steep learning curve”) whereas the forgetting curve plots the time taken for learned information to pass from memory.
The spaced repetition method uses Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve and results from several of his self-studies to identify the perfect time between study sessions and exactly when old material should be reviewed.
Do it too early, and you’re not really making the best use of your time. Do it too late, and the information will be forgotten and you’ll have to restart the learning process all over again. It turns out the best time to review previous material is just as you’re about to forget it.
But how do you know when you’re about to forget something?
Well, after years of further research Polish researcher Dr. Piotr Wozniak finally created a computer algorithm that identified the sweet spots.
Of course, not everyone has the same ability to recall information from memory (as it comes a lot easier to some than others) so try starting out with the recommended intervals:
1st repetition – 1 day
2nd repetition – 10 days
3rd repetition – 30 days
4th repetition – 60 days
Another benefit of the spaced repetition method is that each time the material is reviewed, it requires less study time before it’s committed to memory.
These findings hopefully provide enough evidence to get last-minute cramming removed permanently from your study method repertoire! Especially in post-secondary education where students often pay for their own courses.
To defeat the forgetting curve and ensure the material learned sticks, try applying a combination of both spaced repetition and microlearning. While spaced repetition provides a timeframe for your ongoing study routine, microlearning offers a great delivery method of short, bite-sized nuggets of content.
Another one of the best study methods students should consider is the retrieval method.
This technique requires students to dig deep into the memory bank to “retrieve” previously learned information, without additional cues. This could be something watched in an online class, read in a textbook, or notes taken from a lecture.
The key to the retrieval method is allowing a little time for forgetting the information before trying to retrieve it.
Immediately reciting whatever you’ve read/heard defeats the purpose of the exercise as the whole idea is to dive deep into the memory bank and go down and get it!
The more times you dive down, the stronger your memory of that information will be.
Why is it so effective?
Cognitive Psychologists Henry Roediger and Jeofrrey Karpicke conducted a study whereby undergraduate students were given a short descriptive passage to study followed either by:
- A second study session
- Or a memory retrieval test 5 minutes, 2 days, and 1 week.
After revisiting the passage after both 2 days and a week later, the retrieval method group was considerably more effective at recalling the information accurately than the group that undertook a secondary study session.
Scientists concluded that practice testing using the retrieval method enhances how well students mentally organize information and their processing of idiosyncratic aspects of individual information, which when used in term greatly increases accuracy in memory recall.
Putting it into practice
Before you start, put all your notes and sketchbooks away. Remember this exercise is all about forced retrieval of information, not forced recital.
Now go ahead and do a brain dump. Grab a piece of paper, a pen (perhaps even Sharpies if you’ve got some on hand!), and write everything down (that you can think of) related to the topic you’ve studied.
This can be done in the form of a mind map, brainstorm, or even just free-writing onto the page.
When you’ve finished, cross-check what you’ve written against your notes. You’ll then be able to identify which areas you’re perhaps less familiar with, which can then be targeted in later study sessions.
If you’re studying for an upcoming exam, then by far and away the best study method is complete practice exams. Take as many of them as you can bear. If you have access to previous papers from the examination board, great, get ahold of them. If not, try brainstorming potential questions that could arise (or ask someone to do so for you) and attempt to answer them.
Improvement comes with practice. If you want to get better at recalling information in exams then you should be practicing it beforehand! Not waiting until you’re in the exam hall to find out whether you’ve learned it or not.
Remember at the end of the day it comes down to what works best for you. There’s no one size fits all. In today’s fast-paced business world, it’s essential we remain up-to-date and abreast of the latest industry changes. However, it is just as important to retain what we’ve learned, especially if we are footing the bill ourselves!
So combine the 3 best study methods we’ve discussed above to create your own blend of spaced repetition, microlearning, and retrieval and see your studies have a long-term impact on your performance.