How to Learn

by Site Author

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I was always a dedicated student, studying for hours each day. But no one ever told me how to study. And so, before an exam, I would do whatever seemed like it would help: reading and re-reading my notes, taking a highlighter to the textbook.

For decades now, cognitive psychologists have known that that kind of studying is relatively ineffective. What I used to do for hours is a waste of time.

Instead, researchers have uncovered concrete principles that can make studying much more effective. On this blog, I’ve already summarized a few of those principles: the spacing effect, the testing effect, and the art of memory.

A new book summarizes the research on the topic. Two of the book’s three authors—Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel—are active researchers in the field. They teamed up with Peter Brown, a writer, to summarize their work for a lay audience.

I summarize three of the book’s key points below.

1. Studying is most effective when it is difficult.

As I did, many people study by reading and re-reading. They color their textbooks yellow, pink, and blue. That strategy is used not just by students, but also by professionals. An executive might read and re-read their notes before an important meeting.

But just reading and re-reading is not effortful. And so it is ineffective. As the authors put it, “learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.” In that sense, good studying has to be deliberate practice: challenging, targeted, and paired with constant feedback.

2. Tests don’t just assess learning, they produce it.

For years, lab experiments in cognitive psychologists have shown that testing—in and of itself—actually helps students learn. So one of the most effective ways to study is to test yourself. A college student should read the textbook once, and then spend the rest of their time testing themselves on the material.

This is where flashcards and practice quizzes come in. The authors suggest that students go further by taking free-recall tests. The student takes a blank sheet of paper, and tries to map out all of the material to be learned. That mapping comes entirely from memory. Then, the student “grades” the test by going back to her notes, and finding the points that she missed.

As the authors put it, “one of the best habits a learner can instill in herself is regular self-quizzing to recalibrate her understanding of what she does and does not know.”

The testing effect is useful not just for students, but also for professionals. The executive preparing their sales pitch should not just read and re-read their notes. Instead, they should take a free-recall test or practice their sales pitch without the aid of their notes.

3. Studying should be spaced and varied.

The spacing effect has been validated over and over again. If you have an exam on Friday, don’t study for four hours on Thursday night. Instead, study for one hour a night, for four nights. In other words, space out your practice, don’t do it all at once.

In addition, practice should be “varied” and “interleaved.” Mix in different types of problems rather than study each type of problem on its own. The example that the authors use is a baseball player practicing hitting. It’s tempting for the baseball player to ask for ten fastballs and then ten curveballs. But the player will learn more effectively if they face fastballs and curveballs at random.

The effectiveness of varied practice seems counter-intuitive. It seems like the baseball player would be more effective mastering the fastball and only then mastering the curveball. But the research is conclusive on this point: varied practice is more effective in the long run.