Post No.: 0214
If you really want to learn something and make it stick then highlighting passages of text is useless unless you look back at those highlights and most of all test retrieving that material from memory. (Also, if you end up highlighting nearly everything, as some people do, then that’ll mean what will actually most stand out is what’s not highlighted(!))
Plainly re-reading text isn’t the best investment of time for the returns as your mind may wander. You need to do things that are more actively engaging. So once you’ve finished reading a piece of text, instead of merely re-reading those highlights, practise retrieval by covering the material up and try to recall the key content or highlights from memory. If you can successfully recall the information from memory then it’s a good sign it was understood and it’s sticking in your head.
Of course you must go back and re-read the material if you cannot recall it from memory – you cannot hope to store or recall something accurately if it never encoded successfully into your brain in the first place! This also indicates that you must pay careful attention to what you’re trying to learn. It’s also why ‘speed reading’ is a fallacy. Now there are ways to improve the speed one can read by moderate amounts but claims about reading over a thousand words per minute on material never seen before seem to be fraudulent under closer scientific scrutiny. Moreover, comprehension is proportionately compromised the faster one tries to read material – it’s no good only comprehending 50% of the words (e.g. if you misunderstand the line ‘don’t drink the tea’ as ‘drink tea’!)
Overall, recalling from memory and still being able to recall something after some time has passed is the key to effective learning – well it is precisely what it means to have learnt something! And this is why tests or exams are frequently about testing one’s memories or retention of information. (This is one criticism of over-relying on electronic devices – we can think that there’s no point in remembering anything in our own heads because these devices remember everything for us or knowledge is just a search away if and when we need it. Our memories don’t get the practice, and if we don’t use it then we’ll risk losing it. Just like if we over-rely on cars and don’t walk enough then our bodies will get weaker. We also won’t search for something unless we realise we need it e.g. we won’t search for the actual truth if we think we already know the truth. So technologies can enhance us as well as make us more intrinsically vulnerable.) If you therefore want to pass such tests or exams then you must train by using tests of memory yourself (e.g. use flashcards with the question on one side and the answer on the other, and test yourself or with a fluffy buddy. This can be done for almost any subject). Testing takes far more effort (although not necessarily more time) than merely re-reading or highlighting text but the returns are many times greater.
Remember that you should practise doing exactly what you want to be good at doing. Don’t just practise jogging for a sprinting competition – sprint. Likewise, don’t just read for a recall testing competition (i.e. exam) – test your recall.
Copying things down and hoping it’ll stick by just doing that is better than just reading things but it’s still not the most optimal way to learn. Experiential learning, or learning that is more involving and interactive, is far more powerful and memorable than passive absorption, especially if you can involve more of your senses and some novelty if possible (and that’s probably why you most likely still remember those science lessons where stuff exploded!) Merely copying from others, particularly word-for-word, provides little learning. Also, when you create things for yourself, including creating your own thoughts, ideas and ways of explaining something – you’ll own them and they’ll therefore become more personally salient, special and memorable. Plagiarism may therefore help your immediate coursework grades if you manage to get away with it but not your actual learning, exam performance, independent thought or therefore life in the long run.
Challenge, test and apply – when you just read, watch or listen to something passively, your judgement of whether you really understand and can recall the material is flawed. It’s easy being passive, and one can be fooled into thinking that one understands the material as well as one thinks due to the ‘fluency’ effect or ‘cognitive ease’. So you must actively quiz yourself, test your memory, do a few problems then explain them to yourself, practise generating more information, describe some examples, elaborate upon it, visualise it, relate it with something you already know or with your daily experience, think of an analogy or metaphor for it, get together with a friend and ask each other questions about it, chat about it, discuss it in a forum, try to teach someone else it, apply what you’ve learnt, perform it… The only way to know if you truly comprehend the material is to test your knowledge from memory, and then apply it in your life if possible.
Since the very act of retrieving something from memory will make it more easily retrievable in the future, it also has the effect of increasing the effectiveness of your subsequent study efforts because truly and deeply understanding one part will help you to understand the next part more easily – it builds and has positive knock-on effects. A test doesn’t have to be formal – you can just pause and think about the material to check if you really understand it, try to summarise it, or ask a question an instructor might ask, for instance. An overall principle is ‘input less and output more’ – spend less time highlighting, copying and re-reading and more time trying to come up with another example, answering a possible question about it, paraphrasing it, speaking or writing a response from memory, trying to reproduce the outline of the chapter, and so forth.
However, testing for understanding by merely parroting or paraphrasing something may be flawed for some kinds of subjects because you may be testing for the literal recall rather than any deep comprehension. Mathematics formulae can be like this – you can possibly remember and know how to use a formula to reach a correct answer yet not truly understand how that formula came to be the way it is. So try to generate some original material based on what you’ve learnt rather than merely changing some words or trying to have it somehow write itself on you. And try to understand the ‘why?’ as well as the ‘what?’ and ‘how?’
In summary, reading and highlighting passages of text do not necessarily indicate remembering or even comprehension (even if one finds something easy to read); whereas retrieval from memory is usually a good indication of understanding. The best techniques for learning are inescapably effortful – but what’s tough now will make it easier in the long term and be worth it.
We might not wish to voluntarily test ourselves because we’re afraid of finding out how little we actually know, but testing is how we best improve and it’s best to start practising this in private or when the stakes are low, and not just leave it to a real test situation (you might be able to request some past exam papers and attempt them?) And if you can pass these voluntary tests then it’ll also give you more confidence in passing the real tests too.
Woof! Please use the Twitter comment button below to share with us what sort of testing or revision techniques you use or have used before to successfully practise for a test, exam or competition? And good luck if you have any exams.
(I remember that I used to condense everything that was likely to be tested on regarding a subject onto as few sheets of paper as possible, by writing as small as I could (whilst still keeping everything clearly legible), in only bullet points or prompts, and in a very graphically/visually organised and logical manner. The process therefore involved understanding the material enough in order to condense it and put it into my own words without losing any meaning, the bullet points meant that I had to expand on them via memory alone when revising from these pages, the organised manner broke the subject down into logical blocks and allowed me to practise recall on parts at a time and to see how they all fitted together, and the visual layout was such that I could almost visually recall those entire sheets of paper like a unique photograph each, because handwriting is not as neat as computer typed/printed text so each organised visual ‘block’ of text had a different and unique pattern or shape to it rather than being homogenously uniform, which made those ‘blocks’ easier to identify and visually recall from memory (computer typed/printed text in any single font can be too neat and uniform – squint your eyes and each paragraph is barely distinct in character from each other). This technique worked well for me to get top grades!)