Habitual approaches to learning only create the illusion of memorizing material.
1993. I’m 16 years old, I’m finishing my secondary education program and I’m taking my geography exam. I have prepared hard, done everything to edit my paper on PayToWritePaper, and turned it in for the test, so I am totally confident. Now I take a deep breath, open the assignment form, and look at the first page of questions. My stomach instantly cramps with excitement, and my condition is perfectly conveyed by the old writing on my desk, “Oh shit, cried my way to college, 1992.”
Of course, I wasn’t the only student who overestimated my readiness for the exam. However, it wasn’t until 12 years later, when I began teaching psychology, that I realized why this was the case.
Why the usual methods of studying don’t work
Let’s start with the most popular way to memorize academic material: rote memorization. You’ve probably resorted to this uncomplicated strategy: the night before an exam, chaotically scattered lectures on your desk and a few cans of energy drinks or one cup of coffee after another to get through the night.
The second most popular student tiphook is to constantly reread the theory in hopes of finally memorizing it. Of course, this makes sense: the more often you repeat the text, the more familiar and comprehensible it begins to seem. But this is just an illusion. Research has shown that this technique does not take into account the change of scenery during the exam. Answer much easier when you are sitting in a comfortable room, and the correct information is right in front of you. The situation will be very different on the exam.
These familiar approaches to learning show how misguided we all are about how our memory works. We used to think it was like Grandma’s old camera. Sure, it takes half an hour, but basically you just point it at an object, make sure it doesn’t move, make sure the shot is just right, click, and it’s done. It’s the same with memory. In order to fix something in it, you need to spend a certain amount of time on it and try not to dig around in the source, but just “photograph” it in its original form in your mind.
How to study more effectively
To prepare for any, even the most difficult exam, it is important to understand how memory works. It doesn’t actually passively reproduce a source of information, but recreates it based on our knowledge, experience, and expectations.
If we continue the analogy with the camera, memory is more about the filters we choose to take pictures of. We don’t have to spend hours of meaningless rote learning to assimilate information. Rather, we need to understand how we can use our internal “filters” (knowledge, experience, and expectations) to relate the learning material to what we already know.
You might disagree with me and say, “Cramming has helped me a lot in my studies, so it can’t be totally ineffective. To some extent you are right: it is not completely ineffective. However, there are much more effective methods of acquiring knowledge, especially if you want it to stay in your head rather than fly out of it right after the exam.
We’ve dealt with useless study techniques. But which ones are worth using? The approaches I’m going to tell you about can be used to prepare for any subject. As a result, you can not only improve the learning process, but also turn it from a boring duty into an interesting pastime.
1. Take breaks between classes
A few short lessons are always better than one endless learning marathon, after which you can barely remember your name. Think about how many classes a day is optimal for you and what interval between classes would be ideal.
More often than not, the simplest approach to learning is the most effective. For example, the more classes you have, the better. Let’s say you have 12 hours to prepare. It’s better to break them up into six 2-hour intervals than two 6-hour intervals.
It’s much easier with the choice of interval. A study by American experts has shown that long pauses in learning activities help retain attention. However, given that during exam preparation it counts in minutes, it is better to give preference to more classes than to lengthen the breaks.
2. Switch between topics
Usually we try to make a clear distinction between topics in preparation: first allocate time for one and go through it completely, and then proceed to the other. A study by American scientists proves the opposite: switching between blocks of information leads to better results, especially if the subjects are similar.
Let’s imagine that you are a psychologist and you need to understand psychotherapy. First you will study its various types: psychoanalysis, family therapy and others. And here you face a choice: divide them into blocks and examine them one by one, or alternate.
If you choose the second option, you break down each type into simple categories: who the founder is, what kind of therapy it is, and what its methods are. First you explore the origins of psychoanalysis, then you deal with the beginnings of family counseling, then, as you continue to alternate between them, you move on to the next category, and so on.
According to one study, changing topics draws your attention to the differences between them. So the method is especially useful when you’re studying similar subjects, such as the types of psychotherapy we’ve covered above-so you can easily navigate through them.
Alternating is also useful if the information is difficult to categorize. For example, when you need to make sense of paintings, sculptures, or other art objects.
Splitting into blocks, on the other hand, draws your attention to similar elements. This method is best used when you’re trying to make sense of subjects that are easily distinguishable from one another, or topics that have clear categories. For example, if you need to study the Mendeleev table, it would be more effective to look at one chemical element first, and then move on to the other.
3. Understand the topic, not just memorize it.
Constantly rereading a text puts the author’s interpretation in your brain, not your understanding.
Making up your own opinion of what you’ve learned is easy: ask questions about the material you want to absorb. By answering them, you will explain the past in your own words, using the same “filters” that we talked about, that is, your own knowledge and experience.
You can try the method of clarification: After each piece of information you read, make a small survey and give detailed answers. First rely on the sources, and then try to explain the material yourself, without the help of the source text.
The information you’ve learned should become as meaningful to you as possible. The “Why?” or “How?” questions will help, as well as concrete examples to explain abstract concepts.
Let’s try the clarification method right now. Based on what you already know, tell how answering questions about what you read helps you remember information. Practice, and you’ll see the results.
4. Memorize and recite the material from memory
It’s ironic that in preparation for exams we are used to rereading the same information a hundred times instead of checking to see if we can recall it from memory. Testing is not only an effective way to find out how well you’re learning, but it’s also a learning mechanism in its own right.
It sounds strange, but any attempt to reproduce information from your head, even if unsuccessful, helps memory. It allows you to determine if you are ready for the exam. Knowing your gaps will help you learn information more effectively, and your answers will be clearer and more articulate.
- Try the three P’s method: read, retell, check.
- Read a passage of text.
- Put the book aside and retell in your own words what you learned.
- Check to see if you answered it correctly.
- Repeat these three steps until your knowledge is perfect.
You can not just say the material out loud, but write it down on paper or print it in a file on your computer – that way you will create quick notes with your understanding of the material, which will help you in further preparation.
5. Don’t underline the text, but work with it
Many students and pupils like to underline text with colored markers. Indeed, it seems like a very convenient way to mark the main point and focus on it instead of wading through a bunch of unnecessary details.
However, studies show that this method doesn’t work. Researchers have found that people who frequently mark certain places in a text get minimal benefit from it.
I know, it’s nice to think that by underlining what’s important, we automatically remember what’s underlined. But, unfortunately, this method is no substitute for really working with the text. Only studying the material and thinking about it will help you prepare for the exam.
Does technology help you study?
As you prepare, you may want to use special apps on your phone to make studying easier. I advise you to do this very carefully.
Yes, technology can help, but your gadget is also a portal to the world of socializing with friends, shopping, and the main evil dragging your attention – funny cat videos on YouTube and TikTok. That doesn’t mean you have to give up your phone or laptop completely. Just turn off reminders from your most frequently used apps – it will help you focus.
Why you shouldn’t go back to your old ways of studying
When an important test or session is quite close, it’s only natural to choose the simplest method of study that will provide quick results. This is why ineffective approaches to learning are so popular – they give the illusion of memorizing information.
The methods I have suggested will require much more effort and time. Moreover, when you use them, it may seem as if you are not learning the information at all. Be prepared for the fact that the first retellings of the material from memory will clearly demonstrate that you do not know the subject as well as you thought. But that doesn’t mean that all your efforts are in vain. In fact, you’re studying more efficiently, and the chances of you remembering the material for a long time are much higher.
In terms of cognitive psychology, studying is a lot like going to the gym: you have to sweat to get good results. The methods you and I talked about above create “wishful thinking difficulties”-they change your short-term effort into a long-term effect.
Research supports my theory. Researchers have found that students become excellent students not because they spend more time in class. The real reason is simple: they know how to structure information, think it through, and reproduce it in their own words. Which means that the effectiveness of studying depends not on how much time we spend, but on how we spend it.