Post No.: 0128
Few students ever learn how to best learn – as in how to employ optimal learning techniques. So what study techniques can help us to learn more effectively and efficiently so that more furry stuff sticks in one’s memory than gets forgotten, and not just for exam day but ideally for far beyond that?
The principle of ‘desirable difficulties’ is the idea that our experience of the difficulty or ease when trying to learn something does not give us a good indicator of whether we’ll actually remember a piece of information in the future i.e. we’re quite poor at predicting how well we’ll remember something after a delay. During the moment of learning, we might think some new information feels so obvious, clear and therefore easy that we don’t need to take any notes on it because we think we’ll never forget it. But come just the next few days or so, that idea or piece of information is often forgotten without a trace – and of course if we forget what we’ve forgotten then we’ll likely not realise that we’re missing anything at all! Which is kind of like those scenarios when people say you never told them something when you did but they’ve forgotten the conversation altogether. They’ve forgotten that the conversation even happened – never mind the content of that conversation. Of course, this applies to us when we forget things too! It’s therefore wiser to understand that argument is futile, and move on. Woof!
The problem is that we must understand the difference between recognition memory and recall memory – it’s very easy to recognise text we’ve already faced or a detail in a movie we’ve already seen (recognition) but it’s often very difficult to spontaneously describe these same details when asked to (recall). For example, if asked which actors appeared in a particular movie, one will find it easier to peruse pictures of various actors and judge whether they appeared in that movie than try to list all of the characters just from pure unassisted memory, or it’s easier to answer questions if given multiple choice options – but real life isn’t always that accommodating. It’s partly why it’s a thousand times easier to recognise a face when we’re currently staring at it than to draw that exact same face purely from recall memory, even when our artistic skills aren’t a problem. Memory doesn’t work like a camera or video recorder.
So information that feels familiar as we consume it may be very hard to recall when we later do a test – leading to moments when, for instance, watching a quiz show and not being able to answer a question off the top of one’s head but feeling that one should know it, and only when the multiple choice options come up can one say, “Yep, that’s the answer!” (It’s related to the hindsight bias where many things seem obvious… but only after one’s been told the answer, result or idea!)
Hence one shouldn’t think that merely reading one’s notes before a test is effective – we must close our eyes or turn away (preferably after much time has passed) and try to recall from pure memory the information, as one would essentially do during a test. This doesn’t just better emulate a real test situation but recalling memories will make them stronger, even if we recall something incorrectly and then subsequently correct it. Hence flashcards are a good example of memory retrieval practice – as long as one makes an honest effort to remember the correct answers before peaking at the back of the cards.
To elaborate more on the pacing and spacing principles in Post No.: 0051 – spaced repetition/distributive practice learning is also better than having massive cram sessions i.e. it’s better to divide study time into chunks and leaving time between each chunk than just continuously studying in one large block of time for the same total amount of time. So add breaks or spaces between repeatedly studying the same or similar material to improve your long-term memory for that material. You could study other subjects during the intervals thus making for a really efficient study schedule.
You can forget something, but as long as you continually revise it after a while each time, it’ll eventually stick into your long-term memory. The longer you wait before you repeat revising something, the better you’ll remember it in the long-term. Ideally wait until you’ve almost, but not quite, forgotten what you’ve learnt because the extra effort that you’ll have to put in to restudy it when it’s not too familiar appears to be helpful for long-term retention – over time, the duration you’ll remember something will get longer and longer as more and more of the material sticks in your long-term memory.
Naturally, one must also account for the dates of tests or events one really wants to have something remembered for, which will place an upper boundary on the spacing interval(s). It’s also beneficial to always do a refresher the day or morning before a test (but try to get enough sleep before the day of a test too). So maybe, for instance, if you have a mid-term exam in 2 weeks time and you want to budget 6 hours in total to study for it – study today for 3 hours, in a week’s time for 2 hours, and just before the day of the test for 1 hour; and if you have a final exam that may cover some of the same material in 2 months time then schedule another study session with that material at a date right between the mid-term and final exams, and again fit in a refresher just before the day of that final test.
You can also apply spacing within a study session too – if you leave some time (even a few minutes) before reviewing material you’ve already covered then it’ll improve your long-term retention for that material. There’s even some evidence that suggests that continuously alternating or interleaving different lessons or study items in this way, rather than just leaving empty breaks between lessons on a subject, will provide an extra benefit (e.g. learning oral French phrases for 15 minutes, then learning to write other French phrases for 15 minutes, then coming back to those first oral French phrases, and so forth). This interleaving benefit can apply to whole study sessions too (e.g. when you’re in a space or break between maths revision sessions, you could move onto the spaced study of other subjects, so your calendar of e.g. Wednesday afternoons could read as maths, Mandarin, science, maths, Mandarin, science, and so forth). And of course, memory retrieval practice and spaced repetition learning can be combined for the most benefit!
Now cramming for a test might be better than nothing at all if all you’ve got is a few hours to learn something and there’s no time to go through the material more than once with a space, but it’s not effective if you really want to store that information for more than a couple of days or so. So if one crams for a mid-term exam then one might need to set extra time aside to essentially relearn all of the same information again for a final exam. And if a child wants a better chance of retaining the lessons he/she learns from school as an adult (which I think is kind of the point, for core subjects and personal interest subjects at least) then cramming likely isn’t the best strategy. Any spacing is better than none at all if there’s time, even if you cannot optimise a schedule. Just remembering to revisit and retest the retrieval of past material now and again will help enormously in making it stick for the long-term.
This is all if your aim is long-term retention rather than just knowing something for an exam and then it doesn’t matter to you after that! Well long-term information retention is what real-life and employment cares about; albeit what grades you get apparently stick for life(!)
Woof! If you’ve left High or Secondary school a while ago now, please share with us, by replying to the tweet linked in the Twitter comment button below, whether you think you could pass the exact same exams you took back then right now?