Studying? You may be doing it wrong.

Studying? You may be doing it wrong. - Omnipemf 3

How do you learn? Are you a simple reader? Or do you always start a study session armed with a fluorescent highlighter? Maybe you are a learning cyborg who abandoned the old-fashioned handwritten notes for the sake of the advanced software of online memo cards?
Even if your student years are long gone, you may be forced to learn new things many times in your life. With the constantly changing job market, most professions require adjusting to the latest demands and acquiring new skills. Lifelong education seems to be the only way to stay on top of things in the dynamic reality of the information age.
Let’s have a look at what science says about the way we study.

Popular mistakes

When faced with a chunk of material to memorize, most students go for two simple methods: repeatedly rereading the material and highlighting. These techniques appeal to students because they are easy to use. They don’t require any training nor investing any extra effort beyond reading the material.

But at the same time, these popular techniques are not effective in making the studied material stick.

The problem is that both methods are passive. Reading the chapter requires little mental effort other than staying focused. Even when students are highlighting some portions of the text, they rarely give any consideration to their marking choices. The highlighted parts stand out and draw focus during re-reading the content, but oftentimes necessary information is missing from it.

A team of scientists led by Dunlowsky analyzed a large portion of research on learning techniques. According to their observations, rereading and highlighting turn out to be just a waste of time when compared with other methods. There is a clear pattern in terms of which techniques yield the best benefits: the key to knowledge retention is actively using the information you’re learning.

Practice testing

Most students avoid tests at all cost, treating them as the necessary evil of the education system. However, looking at scientific data they may need to rethink their attitude. Testing turns out to be a perfect tool not only for assessing knowledge, but for remembering.

Putting it simply, we learn better by retrieving stuff from our brains rather than putting it in. The very act of fetching information from your brain makes the memories stronger.

The first study that had shown the superiority of testing dates back to 1909. Since then, more than a hundred years of research has repeatedly confirmed the same thing: testing works. A lot. Just having a practice test at the end of the study session improves the results by 10-15%. Moreover, repeated testing produces superior results to repeated studying, with some studies showing an increase of 30%.

How does it work? The attempt to retrieve target information involves searching long term memory. Activating the target memory strengthens the neural pathways leading to this information, forming a trace which facilitates the later access to this information.

Now you may take a guess: what works better: reading a chapter four times, or reading it once and doing a test?

In one study by Karpicke and Blunt, 2011, four groups of students were compared on a studying task. Each group was asked to approach learning the same chapter in a different way. One group was supposed to read the chapter once, the second read it four times. The third group read the text once and then drew a “mind map” of concepts. The fourth one read it once and then tested themselves on how much they can recall from it.

The study results confirmed the power of practice testing: those students who actively tried to retrieve information from their minds after reading scored the highest. Students were then asked to rate the techniques they used. To the researchers’ surprise, they rated testing as the least effective.

Studying? You may be doing it wrong. - Omnipemf 4

Distributed learning

Another common student strategy that fails is beginning to learn heavily a short time before an exam.

Research on cramming found it counterproductive. Surely, it’s better than not studying at all, but distributing studying sessions over a longer time has proved to be the best strategy. Sometimes the lag between sessions could be really long: in one study students who did their learning in 30 day intervals performed better than those whose sessions were only one day apart.

What’s the secret? One of the theories explaining this phenomenon pertains to the difficulty level of the studying session. When students refresh the material after a day, rereading their notes or retrieving key facts from memory comes with ease. After all, they’ve just read the chapter. And this low difficulty level makes them misjudge their knowledge. They can be misled by the ease of the task and think they memorized the material better than they really did.

No one teaches learning

Research about learning strategies leaves us with an interesting conclusion: students are highly committed to the most ineffective strategies. Here we get to the core of the problem: the techniques most often used by students are also the ones which are least useful. The survey from the Karpicke study we’ve mentioned before shows that students are not able to discern what techniques are effective. On top of that, they share a strong disdain towards testing, which over the last 100 years has been repeatedly proven to be the most effective technique.

One reason may be that formal schooling fails to prepare students for the very act of learning. There seems to be an underlying assumption in the education system that the most important thing is to deliver content to students. The responsibility for processing that content is placed solely on them.

Students are expected to rely on their own resources to memorize the material and perform well on exams.

The second reason is that the teachers themselves also have no clue what learning techniques are effective. Dunlosky’s team analyzed a range of educational psychology textbooks, only to find that the coverage of efficient learning techniques is minimal.

Testing over reading

Alright, we’ve identified the problems, now let’s get down to some solutions you can implement in your study sessions. Research about active recall clearly shows that retrieving information from memory is the key to learning.

If you want your study sessions to be effective, then instead of passively rereading or highlighting the information, you have to engage cognitive effort. Making your brain actively work, search for information and solve problems during a study session strengthens the neural connections between memorized information. Actively retrieving facts that you’ve learned makes them more permanently engraved in your memory. Putting it shortly, the more brain power you use to recall a fact, the stronger the connection gets.

How to do it? First of all, test yourself. Look for past exams or online tests. Ask your friends or relatives to take a look at the chapter you’ve been studying and ask you random questions about it. Use memo cards, writing down short bits of information on one side and questions on the other. If you don’t want to waste paper, there are many online memo card apps that can save you time.

Studying? You may be doing it wrong. - Omnipemf 5

An efficient testing-based way to study is the Cornell Note-taking system. The steps are simple. After you compile your notes from the lecture or book chapter, formulate questions based on the notes. Then ask yourself these questions and try to answer, reciting the material without looking at it. The next step involves reflecting on the learned material. What’s the significance of these facts? How can you apply them? How do they fit in what you already know? The goal is to use the knowledge you’ve just learned.

Stimulating the brain

No matter which techniques you’re going to implement in your study sessions, you may consider using brainwave stimulation to get the most of your time. Research shows that theta waves are actively involved in memory processes.

When the scientists observed the brains of people who were actively trying to memorize things they learned, they noticed that the level of theta wave activity increased. Same thing happened when the study subjects were trying to retrieve information from their memory, for instance while doing a test.

It seems that theta wave activity is linked with access to that vast repository of information that you have in your brain. What’s more interesting, memory processes can be boosted by making the brain produce more theta waves by means of external stimulation. It basically means that you can increase remembering using a brain stimulation device.

In a study made in California, a group of participants had their waves entrained with the use of rhythmic stimulation with sound and light. Those who had their theta rhythm entrained scored significantly higher than those who listened to white noise or other brainwave patterns.

If you want to induce theta after your learning session, you can use a Neorhythm device. Set a custom frequency between 4 and 7 Hz, or pick a predefined program such as Theta meditation, Mindfulness Meditation or Open-Heart Meditation.

References

Dunlosky, Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266

Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping.

Science, 331, 772–775.

Roberts, Clarke, A., Addante, R. J., & Ranganath, C. (2018). Entrainment enhances theta oscillations and improves episodic memory. Cognitive Neuroscience, 9(3-4), 181–193. https://doi.org/10.1080/17588928.2018.1521386

https://lsc.cornell.edu/notes.html

About the author

Mateusz Konopacki specializes in Psychology and Cognitive Science. He is an author of multiple courses and articles, as well as research on meditation and shamanic drumming. At the time when he is not explaining science to people,
he is a screenwriter and a Yoga teacher.

Disclaimer

NeoRhythm has not been evaluated by the FDA. These products do not claim to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical conditions. Always consult your medical doctor regarding any health concerns.

 
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