Effective study habits are critical throughout our life. We are particularly aware of the need to learn efficiently when we are in school, but it is just as important in our professions and in life in general.
Recently, researchers have done a meta-analysis, a statistical analysis of many studies, in order to use a data driven approach to figuring out the best methods for learning effectively.
Techniques found to be effective
- Active reading
For lack of a better name, I would call the first technique “active reading”. The writers of the article highly recommended doing practice tests, or to answer questions at the end of the chapter, immediately after reading a chapter. There is some evidence that trying to answer questions about the material even before reading is also beneficial. However, most of us do not read text books once we graduate; but we do read non-fiction, for pleasure or for professional reasons.
The researchers suggest a couple of practical techniques that utilize the principle of testing oneself at the end of a chapter. As you read the text you can write down key terms and concepts that you can ask yourself about at the end of the chapter, effectively generating a self-test.
Another approach is to persistently ask “why” in the manner of a curios toddler until you dig down to a deeper understanding of what you read, which will lead to better retention. A variation on this, if you do not want to revert to the toddler mode, is called “self-explanation”. In self-explanation you ask yourself what did you learn from the text, and how does it relate to what you already know, or how you can use it.
- Slow study
The second technique that works is to spread study over time. This, of course, requires organization, planning ahead, and getting over the tendency to procrastinate. It has been shown in many studies that knowledge acquired over long period of time – as opposed to a crash course – is retained better.
Techniques that do not work, even though they are very popular
1. Repeatedly reading the same thing. There is some modest benefit after second reading. After the second reading no further benefit has been found.
2. Highlighting profusely. This may be beneficial only if it serves as a first step for active reading – by generating questions and key concepts you will use later.
3. Visual aids such as diagrams, colors, etc. , except in very specific contexts when the material itself is highly visual, or the diagram forces you to rethink and integrate what you learned.
There is another technique that was not mentioned in this article, and I believe to be highly effective. When you teach others, you are bound to learn and understand better. At least from my experience as a tutor (in my college years) this was the case. This may account for the fact that sometimes study in a small group can be highly effective.
Some people say that this is exactly what therapists do – teach others what they need to learn.
J. Dulosky, K. A. Rawson, E. J. Marsh, M. J. Nathan & D. T. Willingham: What Works, What Doesn’t. In: Scientific American Mind, 2013 (5) 47-53.