Study better, not harder.

By N. H. Zelt

By N. H. Zelt

Finally, a graduate student. Bet that means I don’t have to study anymore, right? Bet that means I don’t have to know huge amounts of information by specific deadlines, right?. . .Right? Damn.

Fine, but if I still have to know things then I should at least learn things the right way. I read a lot of journal articles, there must be a literature on the best ways to learn things. Luckily, people study studying! So, let’s learn a little educational psychology.

The most common study strategies are typically found to be rereading, highlighting and summarizing. I would be willing to venture a guess that this is so because they’re the most easily implemented and they can be done in a hurry. Unfortunately, these methods have been shown time and time again to give low quality results. No matter how well you’re accustomed to performing on tests, if these or similar methods are your methods of choice then you might be interested in entertaining the idea that you could be studying smarter.

Plenty of time in schools is invested into telling students they need to know things, but little thought is ever put into teaching students how to retain information. Of course, it’s always expected of student to remember and regurgitate information at will, so don’t we coach them on the best way to do that?

Now, what does the research say about the best way to study? You might not like it, but practice tests are currently acclaimed to be the best way to retain information. Low or no stakes recall practice harbours stronger memory retention. It need not be a literal practice test though, so those people carrying around mountains of flash cards might not be as crazy as they seem. The act of recalling a memory forges stronger memories than those typically made by being presented with it again through restudying. These stronger memories show through better test scores, and higher resistance to loss of memories caused by stress. If you suffer from test anxiety, or get really nervous leading up to a big presentation (thesis defense?) it may be worth it to try switching up your study techniques. Stronger memories are less frequently forgotten.

The other study technique proven to improve how well you learn something and how long you remember it is the time-old tradition of starting early and spreading out your studying. Without changing the amount of time you spend studying, this is has been proven to improve retention. Studies compared studying everything last minute, to spaced out in intervals one day apart, to spaced 30 days apart and the best results come from studying 30 days apart. Believe it or not, forgetting almost everything you learned before each time you review might be the best way to learn.

Until next time, study hard and study smart.

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