Stop highlighting! Psychologists identify the worse ways to study

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Want to pick up knowledge faster and more efficientyly?

how to study

Remember highlighting material in textbooks and notes when you were preparing for that history test? Well as it turns out, highlighting is inefficient. Sure, it’s simple and quick, but based on controlled studies, highlighting does little to improve performance. In fact, according to psychologists, it may actually hurt performance. One study found that underlining can reduce the ability to draw references since highlighting draws attention to individual items rather than to connections across items.

Hmm… well what about Rereading? Does that work?

84% of undergraduates say they reread textbooks or notes during study. Although there are some benefits on recall and fill-in-the-blank-style tests, there is little evidence that rereading strengthens comprehension, and whether its effects depend on knowledge level or ability is underexplored.

So what are the best ways to study?


Test yourself. That’s right. Give yourself practice tests outside of class. Hundreds of experiments show that self-testing improves learning and retention. In one study, undergraduates were presented with Swahili-English word pairs, followed by either practice testing or review. Recall for items they had been repeatedly tested on was 80 percent, compared with only 36 percent for items they had restudied. One theory as to why self-testing works so well is that practice testing triggers a mental search of long-term memory that activates related information, forming multiple memory pathways that make the information easier to access.

Anyone can self-test with flash cards, answering the sample questions at the end of a textbook chapter, or during in-class note taking, make a column on one edge of the page where you enter key terms or questions. You can test yourself later by covering the notes and answering the questions (or explaining the keywords) on the other side.

Another great way to study is to spread your study over time. As opposed to cramming the night before, studying over time is much more effective. In one classic experiment, students learned the English equivalents of Spanish words, then reviewed the material in six sessions. One group did the review sessions back to back, another had them one day apart. The students in the 30-day group remembered the translations the best. In an analysis of 254 studies involving thousands of participants, students recalled more after spaced study than after massed study.

So to score better on tests and gain knowledge more efficiently, stop highlighting and start quizzing yourself and spreading your study out over time!

Original article “What Works, What Doesn’t”, appeared in Scientific American Mind, September-October 2013.

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