No matter how smart you think you are, the chances are that you sometimes fail to make the most of your memory. A series of surveys have shown most students fail to use proven methods of learning effectively, instead wasting their time on ineffective methods.
One of the problems is that we often receive a lot of conflicting information from parents, teachers, and scientists, so that we are unsure what works and what doesn’t.
Fortunately, a new paper, published in one of the top psychology journals, has examined the biggest misconceptions, with a list of the five most popular study strategies, the potential pitfalls, and the ways that they can use them more effectively.
Strategy 1: Rereading
Learning new vocabulary? The most common strategy is to read the words and their meanings until they stick. Unfortunately, psychologists believe that it is too passive, meaning that most of the information fails to leave an impression.
Strategy 2: Underlining and highlighting
Like rereading, this study technique is nearly ubiquitous. The idea makes sense: the process of underlining key words and phrases should help you to engage more with the information, and it makes it easier to identify the most important passages later on. But although it can be more effective than passive rereading, underlining and highlighting often fails to work, with most students mindlessly marking up almost every paragraph without much discernment.
Strategy 3: Note-taking
Visit any lecture theatre or library and you will find students judiciously copying the most important facts into their notebooks. Like underlining and highlighting, the problems come when you fail to be judicious about the material you are including. Your overenthusiasm – and propensity to include everything that is mentioned – can easily become a vice.
Strategy 4: Outlining
Many teachers encourage their students to take a ‘bird’s eye’ view of the course they are studying, presenting an overview of the key points to be learned in a structured, logical manner. Sometimes these outlines are created by the instructor themselves, but they may also encourage the student to do it for themselves.
Strategy 5: Flash cards
Self-testing (or “retrieval practice”, as psychologists call it) is now considered to be most reliable learning strategy, particularly for specific, detailed facts, with considerable evidence that it can boost memory. Even so, there are still more and less effective ways of doing it.