Have you ever done hours of studying, but couldn’t remember information or understand how to respond to a question on the test? Sure, you may need to study more, but more is not always better. How you study is also important. The truth is, some methods of studying are simply more effective than others.
The best methods all involve active learning. Active learning builds stronger memories and understanding through specific mental activity — like analyzing, explaining, organizing, and problem solving.
Explore the links below to learn more about active learning. Then scroll down to learn more about specific study strategies that experts consider the best for college studying (as well as two very common strategies that you should mostly avoid).
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People often see note making as simply recording information to re-read later. It’s true, of course, that we take notes for that reason. But note making is a core component in all active study strategies. Develop your note making skills, and learning will become easier. Note making gets your brain to do things like put concepts into your own words, decide what information is important, and organize ideas as you memorize them. And good notes are great for studying later — they are easier to read, and they enable you to quiz yourself and practice recalling what they are about.
Explore these links to learn about several methods for taking notes in class and making notes when you study.
Exams challenge you to successfully recall information and use it to do things like answer questions, explain concepts, or solve problems. Retrieval practice (considered by many experts to be the best study strategy) helps you to learn new things while strengthening your ability to recall and think with them. Anything that gets your brain to retrieve and think with what you learn (like explaining a concept from memory, solving a new problem, or recalling what your notes mean without looking it up) is a form of retrieval practice. Retrieval practice can include well-known methods like using flashcards and Quizlets, but there are lots of other methods that can work even better, depending on what you are trying to learn.
Explore these links to learn why retrieval practice works so well, and how to do it when you study.
Explaining What You’re Learning
Explaining what you are learning (sometimes called the Feynman Technique) is a powerful way to learn anything. When you try to explain something (to yourself, to a classmate, to your mom, to your dog) your brain focuses better and works harder to do things like recall details, remember problem solving steps or formulas, or organize, analyze, and simplify ideas. Explaining helps you put things into your own words, which makes it easier to understand and memorize. Even trying to explain things that you don’t understand yet helps you to figure it out faster. As long as you are focusing, organizing, and expressing your thoughts, you are learning.
Explore these links to learn why explaining works so well, and how to do it when you study.
Elaboration (sometimes called elaborative interrogation) is a memory-building strategy in which you think about or ask and answers questions about a concept, rather than memorizing its definition. By exploring how or why something works, thinking about real-life examples, or comparing it to other things, you connect the target concept to more of what you already know. When you think about a concept more often and more deeply, your ability to recall it and apply it grows stronger.
Explore these links to learn why elaboration works so well, and how to do it when you study.
Summarization is a note-making strategy that helps your brain to evaluate and organize information in a way that makes it easier to recall later. When you summarize, you find ways to link details together into statements that capture the most important parts. This helps your brain to think more clearly about what concepts mean and how they relate, and it also creates schema – networks of related concepts that are linked together in your memory. When you recall the big ideas, the detailed ideas are also easier to remember. Summaries are also great for practice testing later — you can read a summary you’ve written, and rehearse recalling the details.
Explore these links to learn why summarizing works so well, and how to do it when you study.
You know that practicing recalling something makes it easier to recall later. As it turns out, spacing your practices strategically can make it even easier. The basic idea with spaced repetition (sometimes called distributed practice) is this: most of what you make memories of today gets forgotten within 24 hours. But if you review it within that time, the new memory lasts longer. If you review it again a few days later, it will then last even longer. Then if you practice a final time when you are studying for the test a week or two later, you’ll have memories that are stronger, more familiar, much easier to recall than you would have if you waited to study all at once.
Explore these links to learn why Spaced Repetition works so well, and how to do it when you study.
- How to Remember More of What You Learn with Spaced Repetition
- Spaced Repetition: A Hack to Make Your Brain Store More Information
- The Most Powerful Way to Remember what You Study
Two to avoid: Re-reading and Highlighting
Yes, that’s right: The two most common study techniques students use are also two of the least productive! Highlighting is not a good memory-building activity. Note-making is better – it gets you to elaborate, organize, and check your understanding. Highlighting can be useful to organize things visually, or if you need to go back to the information later. Re-reading may be the most common study strategy of all, but remember: while reading is necessary to studying, it’s possible to read something without really thinking much about it. Reading puts information into short term memory so that you can think about it. It’s the thinking that causes the learning to happen.
Explore these links to learn why re-reading and highlighting don’t work well, and what you can do instead.