What’s the most effective way to learn new things?
Believe it or not, this isn’t just a matter of speculation. In 2013, a comprehensive meta-analysis in the Journal of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, looked at the efficacy of dozens of different studying techniques and evaluated the scientific evidence.
In particular two techniques stood out as having the best evidence for effectiveness.
1. Distributed practice 2. Practice testing
Distributed practice is simply spreading out your practice sessions over time. So instead of studying five hours straight on the same subject, you study one hour per day, for five days.
Practice testing is simply trying to answer a question without looking at the solution. So that could mean doing a math problem to learn math or answering a flashcard to remember a fact.
Why do these techniques work, and how can you apply this to your own learning?
Why Does Distributed Practice Work?
Distributed practice is so effective because of the spacing effect. This says that spreading exposure to something over multiple sessions, separated in time, will have a better long-term impact on memory. Why might this be the case?
One possible explanation is that, in order to turn into long-term memories, your short-term exposures to information need to be consolidated. Spending more time with the material, but not allowing space between for consolidating the information may mean some of the extra exposure is wasted.
Another possible explanation may be that, as you start using information, your brain needs to activate the context of memories which it is a part of. This is difficult, and each time you activate this context, you strengthen your ability to do it in the future. Studying in one batch only needs to load the context once, so it doesn’t strengthen as much as having to recall from scratch multiple times.
Whatever the exact explanation turns out to be, however, the reality of the spacing effect in learning science is clear.
How to Apply Distributed Practice
I don’t recommend fragmenting your studying sessions into tiny slivers to maximize the spacing effect. This has the unrelated downside of making focus very difficult to accomplish.
A better way to implement distributed practice is simply to review older units, chapters, tests and classes on a schedule. Don’t make learning the current class your only goal. If you devote a little extra time to doing review, those accumulated reviews will make far more impact than a cram session at the end.
Why Does Practice Testing Work?
The explanations for the benefits of practice testing are also numerous. But here I’d like to focus on just one: the difference between recall and recognition.
See, to most people, learning is just learning. If you know something, you should be able to recognize that it’s the right answer as well as be able to recall the answer on your own if someone asks you a question.
However, clever experiments in memory research give evidence that recognition and recall may, in fact, involve different psychological processes. And even if the two processes do share a common mechanism, it’s simply not the case that being able to recognize a piece of knowledge is equivalent to being able to recall it.
Being able to remember something has two parts: first you need to have the knowledge represented in your brain somewhere. But then, crucially, you also need to be able to find it at the right moment.
This second ability is what makes it possible to feel like you know everything on a test but still do dismally. It doesn’t matter if the knowledge is in there “somewhere” if you can’t locate it when you need it.
Practice testing gets around this since it forces you not just to store information, but also to develop strategies to search for it at the correct time.
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