How to Study – Pitfalls and Success Secrets: Part 2

By Lance King

The key things that teachers rarely teach and students often get wrong that can make a huge difference to the effectiveness and efficiency of your study

Now you are sitting down to do the actual study. How are you going to do that?

Step 5:
How do you choose ‘what’ to study? Research shows that the pressure you are under will influence your choice of what to study, often to your detriment. Under low pressure students will tend to choose to study the things they find difficult to understand but under high time pressure students tend to give high priority to relatively easy items, those items that are most readily learnable.
Which means that assessment pressure tends to push students towards memorisation of simple information rather than understanding of deeper concepts which can be catastrophic if the test or exam is testing real understanding rather than recall.
Be aware of that trap! Make sure you deliberately choose to study those items, concepts, subject matter that are most significant for achieving your academic goal, not the easiest ones to learn.
Be aware that when you start studying anything new you are always at the thin end of the wedge for understanding and the thick end of the wedge for difficulty. So learning this thing will never be harder than it is at the very beginning. It will always get better.

So now, how are you going to study? You will all have your own strategies for information processing and summarising like mindmaps, colourful notes, recording and replaying audio-notes, writing and rewriting, multiple sources, using videos, favourite subject websites etc. but there are some key technologies that can greatly influence your understanding and retention that you may not be aware of. [If you need help with making study notes go to LALATAT Language Skills – Create Summary Notes from Text, and Create Summary Notes from Presentations]

The first is block vs spaced study – which works best? In one study-time period is it best to study all the same material or to study different topics mixed together? In one classic experiment subjects were required to accurately identify (previously unseen) paintings by different artists after training in the characteristics of each artist. The training for some subjects involved being shown collected paintings of each artist in blocks and the others were shown interleaved paintings by different artists.
The results showed that 78% of participants learned the characteristics of artists more accurately if shown paintings randomised than if shown paintings in artist blocks. This clearly demonstrates that spaced repetition or mixing up subject matter produces greater effectiveness of learning but most interestingly only 22% of the participants thought they had done better in the randomised condition.
This is very important because it suggests that when learning new material we think that studying in blocks (eg. studying all the different macro-economic models together, or all of the procaryotic bacteria together etc.) is going to result in better understanding and retention whereas interleaving this material with other related but not similar material will actually produce better results.
It appears that we think that studying interleaved material will require more concentration, will be more difficult and will take longer and so will be less effective when in fact it is both more effective and more efficient.
So Step 4 is to select mixed items to study in any one study period. They can be different items within the same subject for study or from different subjects altogether.

The second technology is spaced review.
Neuroscience has now confirmed what Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered in 1885. That memory for information can be improved enormously, up to 100% recall, simply by putting in place staged reviews of information. The trick is to make the timings of review suit the connection making system of the human brain. [See Spaced Repetition – A guide to the technique if you are interested]
In practical terms for your study you need to make sure that:

  1. Each day when you are studying you are making summaries of main points in each subject with your own note making technique.
  2. As soon as you have finished making a good summary of a topic you need to do your first review. You do this by reading through your summary and out loud turn all your summary points back into sentences, in your own words.
  3. For any parts you don’t yet understand, go back to the source and pull out a few more words to add to your summary then explain that part to yourself again.
  4. Within 24 hours of making the summary look at it again and explain it to yourself again, in your own words.
  5. One week after you made the summary the first time, look at it again and explain it to yourself again, in your own words.

[To learn how to review classroom notes and study notes effectively see LALATAT Study Skills – Memory Techniques]

Then you can start testing yourself.

Self-testing is the last technology that most students don’t realise the benefits of.

Self-testing can be a very effective study strategy, especially in the interest of long-term retention (see Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). Which of these three groups would you expect to remember better? Students who studied material 4 times (SSSS), students who studied it three times and were tested once (SSST), and students who studied it once and were tested 3 times (STTT)?
The results of this study were that compared with the SSSS students, the SSST students recalled 38% better and forgot 100% less and the STTT students recalled 50% better and forgot 270% less!!
Self-testing is vital and will increase the effectiveness of your study enormously (see Learning Better, Learning More).

So make sure as part of every day of studying new material that you always also test yourself on what you have covered previously. Proper testing – no cheating!

Those are the basics of effective, efficient study that many students don’t realise. Implementing what is suggested here will definitely improve your academic results.
I guarantee it.

The rest of the job of effective studying involves concentration, perseverance, determination, resilience and failing well. These topics are equally important in learning how to learn and will be covered in the next blogs.

As Bjork (2001) and others have argued, the key to surviving in an ever more rapidly changing and complex world is learning how to learn. However, the task of becoming a metacognitively sophisticated learner is far from simple; it requires going against certain practices you might have previously have thought were effective and installing new strategies that might seem very structured and ‘in-organic’ at first. Just remember that everything in this blog is backed up with evidence and is congruent with modern neuroscience but the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
Just try what has been suggested here and see if it improves your academic performance.

I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

And also remember that very few students – one in five school students and 20% of UCLA students – report ever having been taught how to learn.

This means that if you put in place good studying strategies as outlined you will have an enormous advantage over students who don’t.

However difficult optimizing one’s learning activities may be, doing so has never been more important, given the changing world of education. For the foreseeable future, there will be an increased emphasis on Web-based learning, remote learning, blended courses, and lifelong learning, all of which place an increased emphasis on the ability to manage your own learning effectively.