Last Updated: Oct 18, 2013
Get ready to be brilliant. Really. You are about to discover a secret that will help you learn more effectively.
In a study published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, John Dunlosky and his colleagues examined the effectiveness of various learning techniques. They included a variety of methods (see below) everyone has used at one time or another. What they found will be surprising to most people, but will make sense once you think about it.
The two most effective techniques were practice testing (asking yourself questions about what you studied) and distributed practice (studying in relatively small segments over a period of time). The other techniques varied in effectiveness from moderate to low. Curiously, recent surveys cited by the authors indicate that students seem to favor rereading and highlighting, two strategies that have relatively low utility.
The effectiveness of distributed practice has been known for quite some time. William James, a pioneer in modern psychology, made the case for it in 1901. And in the hierarchy of demonstrating learning, recall (the ability to remember information) is superior to recognition (knowing the correct answer when you see it) or relearning (how quickly you can learn something you once knew but kind of forgot).
If you have something to learn or remember, distributed practice and self-quizzing will be helpful. Any method that helps us learn better is worthwhile.
Here are the 10 techniques examined in the study:
- Elaborative interrogation (generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true).
- Self-explanation (explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving).
- Summarization (writing summaries [of various lengths] of to-be-learned texts).
- Highlighting/underlining (marking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while reading).
- Keyword mnemonic (using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials).
- Imagery for text (attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening).
- Rereading (restudying text material again after an initial reading).
- Practice testing (self-testing or taking practice tests over to-be-learned material)
- Distributed practice (implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time).
- Interleaved practice (implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session).
Have you ever tried practice testing or distributed practice? Have any of the other above techniques worked best for you?