How to Study and Why
Retrieval practice is the process of recalling concepts, facts, or events from memory. Memory retrieval strengthens the memory and decreases forgetfulness. The neural pathways in the brain that make up a body of learning get strong every time the memory is successfully retrieved and practiced. Flash cards and a simple quiz after reading or hearing a lecture are prime examples of retrieval practice. Retrieval practice works because every time you successfully recall information, you are strengthening those retrieval routes. Quizzing yourself provides you the ability to assess what you learned, and areas that you are still weak in. This avoids fake illusions of mastering the material by finding errors and correcting them. Restudying something if you fail to retrieve it from memory helps you learn it better as opposed to not trying to recall it in the first place.
Spaced Out Practice
Spaced practice is repeated practice, but leaving significant time in between practice sessions. There should be about a day or so after coming back to study new material after the initial session. Spaced practice works better than massed practice (cramming). When you are trying to drill new learning into your long-term memory, it utilizes a process called consolidation. This is when memory traces are being connected to prior knowledge, given meaning, and made stronger. The consolidation process can take hours to several days to commit new information to long-term memory. Spaced practice requires effort, and the increased effort that is needed to retrieve what was learned after some time has passed and material has been forgotten helps to retrigger consolidation. The memory of the new knowledge is then stronger, and forgetfulness happens less.
Interleaving practice means mixing up different types of problems, examples, subjects, or skills to ultimately maximize retention and long-term performance. Mixing your study practice with various problem types tests your ability to recognize the problem type and decipher the correct solution. Interleaving is better than massed practice and rereading because it improves the ability to discern between types, recognize similar characteristics in a type, and enhance success in future tests and/or real life settings. Interleaving does impede performance during training, feels counterintuitive, and like learning is going slower. However, numerous studies have proven time and time again that the more effort you put into learning, the more it sticks.
Misconceptions of Learning
Assumption that Everybody Learns Differently
Most of us have been taught that we are specific types of learners. For example, people have been labeled as visual, audio, kinesthetic, or reading learners. This is a very common misconception about learning. It’s not supported by science, and it embeds into students a negative, misguided sense of limited potential. The reality is when the instructional style coincides with the nature of the material all students/learners learn better. The different preferences for how the material is presented becomes irrelevant. Instead of a learning styles technique that isn’t proven to work, dynamic testing is a more suitable approach to learning. Dynamic testing helps to identify weaknesses, and improve them.
Easy Learning Isn’t Better Learning
Another misconceived notion about learning is that the learning should feel easy, intuitive, and fun. If it is difficult or stressful then you’re not learning correctly. This is wrong. Psychologists have discovered that the easier the knowledge is for you to recall, the less your retrieval practice will encode it into long-term memory . Methods that require more effort, like retrieval practice as opposed to rereading, will feel counterintuitive, less productive, and maybe even pointless. But, it makes learning stronger, specific, and longer lasting in the long run.
Rereading and Massed Practice
Rereading material over and over and massed practice (commonly known as cramming), are by far the most popular study methods, but actually the least productive. These methods just give the false illusion of mastery of material, but may be only good for immediate testing/quizzing, and short-term memory.
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