We must learn together as brothers or perish together as fools.
-Martin Luther King Jr.
The most common way of studying today is mass practice. This includes re-reading material, and highlighting material. These are actually the worst ways to practice. What these actually do is trick your brain into thinking you know it. Then when the exam comes along you realize you forgot everything you just ‘studied’. Has this ever happened to you? You re-read your textbook over and over again until you memorize every word on the page. Then you go into the exam thinking you know everything and then you fail.
There are many reasons for this which we will go over but the main reason is because you were simply taught ineffective learning strategies. One of such strategy is re-reading your textbook. You need multiple contexts to truly learn something. Another reason why this re-reading strategy doesn’t work is this concept of repetition and recall.
Repetition vs. Recall
Let me elaborate when I said that you trick your brain into thinking you know something. What this re-reading strategy does is that it makes you think you know it because you are force feeding your brain the information. Once you take it out of context you have no idea what’s going on.
Part of this is understanding. While reading, you have to make sure you understand the text. But that’s obvious and that’s not what I want to talk about here. In order to store information for the long term, you have to make your brain work for it. You can’t just re-read you have to use recall. You have to actually get your brain to find the information in your brain to build those neurons.
To do this you have to recall the information through different contexts – or different mediums if you will. Instead of taking the information straight from the textbook – Take different practice tests – Not the same one over and over again. Use notecards – Not in the same order, mix them up. Do you see the difference here? It’s the unpredictability and the fact that you force your brain to come up with the solution on its own – That’s how you learn.
They say the best way to learn is to teach someone. This IS true. Why? Because a live human being is the ultimate medium. You don’t have to mix any flash cards or come up with any questions. You have to not only recall the information but you also have to do it in a way another human can understand. In order for you to do this, you have to understand it yourself.
This tip may come as a surprise to many people because it will feel less productive. When in actuality it is the most productive. Interleaving of information is when you switch between two different subjects while studying. So if you have a test of Biology and Chemistry. It is much better to dedicated one day for Biology and the next day for Chemistry. Then go back to Biology.
This is because of the idea of spacing. Spaced practice allows for long-term memory retention. Cramming for a test may lead to fast learning but also fast forgetting. The human brain cannot retain that much information in such a short period of time.
The reason why this strategy feels less productive is because you feel like you forget most of the material you just learn in two days. The truth is you don’t. You never actually forget information. The information is still there. What you do lose are the neuron pathways connecting the information together. The longer you wait the weaker these neurons become. If you want to build them you have to wait for them to weaken first to allow your brain to find them again.
Studying Should be Hard
The reason why repetition is so popular is because it gives you the feeling that you know it. As I mentioned before you don’t know the material. What you are only doing is using the same neuron pathways as before. The best way to study is recall and interleaving. This opens up new pathways to that same information so it is easier to recall during the exam.
Note that these strategies are HARD. It should feel hard. Studying and learning shouldn’t be easy. You should be working hard, thinking hard in order to open up those new neuron pathways. Most people don’t like flashcards because they feel it’s unproductive because half the time they don’t know the answer. Half the time they are thinking about the answer and they feel like they are wasting time when the opposite is true. Give yourself time to find the answer before you look it up. Constantly test and quiz yourself. Use flashcards and if you can. Teach the material to someone else. These are scientifically proven strategies to study. I hope you put them to good use.
If you want to learn more check out “Make it Stick” by Robert Brown. It is an amazing book about learning strategies and I would highly recommend it to anyone trying to learn something new – So basically everyone. I would even more highly recommend this book to those in a position of teaching. Whether it be a school, a tutor, a coach or just a parent. This book is a MUST read for you!
Have you been studying wrong? Did any of this information surprise you? What have you learned? Let me know in the comments below!
Have a great day!