When it comes to studying, most of us probably think we’ve got it down, but modern research is challenging some of the longest-held beliefs about studying.
In some cases, these researchers report, counterintuitive study methods (i.e. study techniques that don’t seem like they should work) actually do work better than traditional study methods.
In this sketchnote review, I’ll doodle a few of the top study methods. A written summary and links to original research can be found via Cognition Today.
Download the printable PDF handout of study techniques below.
1. Use spacing to boost memory
Once we learn something, our memory of it begins decaying immediately. Research indicates that information is best moved into long-term memory not by constant repetition, but by allowing the decaying process to begin and interrupting the decay with repetition at intervals. 1
Your studying intervals might be, at first 15 minutes or one-half hour. As you improve your memory of the material, your intervals might expand to an hour, then overnight, then 24 hours, then three days, etc.
Over time, the interval studying method teaches your brain that the information will be needed at intervals in the future, and thus should be stored in the long-term memory.
Instead of studying a topic to mastery before you begin studying a second related topic, try studying them together. For example, instead of studying zebras, then lions, then whales, study zebras with lions, then lions with whales, then whales with zebras, etc.
Information, as it is presented in class or in a textbook, may not be organized in a way that makes the most sense to you – especially when multiple topics are being covered. Before you begin committing something to memory, organize it!
If you need to memorize a list, you might want to first rearrange the order of the list in a way that makes more sense to you, or in a way that easily fits a mnemonic device.
Metacognition is, for lack of a better word, thinking about thinking. As an artist and a therapist, I think about metacognition as letting your imagination PLAY with the information you need to study. Many of us who struggle to memorize lists, facts, or equations, have no problem remembering images, stories, or songs. Knowing this, we can begin to let our creative selves interact with the material – the creative process helps us “own” the content and store it in our brain and easy to retrieve ways.
Pairing this with traditional study methods or even bullet journaling practices can help store the information in multiple parts of our brain – effectively creating a “backup” for when recall via one method fails during test-taking.
5. Learn and practice how to remember
Remembering – especially recall and test-taking – is a learned skill. Reminding yourself of this can help you remain call and kind to yourself when you are struggling with a test. You aren’t struggling because you are “a bad test-taker,” you are struggling because you are in the process of learning how to be a better test-taker. Naming yourself “bad at” something limits growth, but identifying as a “learner” helps you grow and improve.
When it comes to studying specific content, practicing recall over and over before a test can help test-taking anxiety. By building your confidence in your ability to recall information on demand, you can help calm your anxiety and focus your mind in the classroom. Thinking of anything, including test-taking, as a learned skill can empower us to relax and practice.
Download this Handout on Study Techniques
Testing these Techniques Out
Both Chunking and Metacognition are at work in the study method I advocate for when I create visual memory maps like the one below. By organizing the material (chunking) into a visual set of icons (metacognition) the data becomes organized in a way that makes sense to me, and available via recall methods appealing to both right and left hemispheres of the brain.
Here’s an example of how I memorized a random list assigned during graduate school. When the professor of one of my final classes decided to require that his students memorize an assortment of lists and chapter outlines (from the book he wrote) and regurgitate them verbatim on a fill in the blank style test (can I get an eye roll for professor egos, please?) I knew that studying a list wouldn’t help me ace the test.
So instead, I used study techniques from this list: organizing the information and creatively working with it to assign icons. When I sat down to take the test, my creative study techniques meant that the list was almost entirely memorized, and having those extra icons (so I could visually understand the order and recognize what was missing) helped me to score a significant number of extra points for my test, dumping my test from what would’ve been a mid-B to a solid A- all thanks to icons, organization, and creative study techniques.
Image description for screen readers:
A hand-drawn page says “how to study: best to study tips from new psychology research.”
- A small handwritten banner contains number one. A hand-drawn space bar illustrates the words “use spacing to boost memory.” Caption: “studying information at intervals prevents decay and improves long-term retention.” Intervals: 15 minutes, one hour, overnight, 24 hours, two days…
At the upper right-hand corner of the page an icon of the book captured learning has an arrow pointing to an icon of a closed book labeled decaying. From decaying to arrows extend out to two different icons: an icon of it? Captioned for getting and an icon of a brain with a book inside captioned long-term memory. This illustrates how when learning most of the decay stage it can either lead to forgetting the information or actually facilitate movement into long-term memory through spacing study techniques.
- A small handwritten number two is next to the words “interleaving: study in parallels, not in series” instead of studying a topic to mastery before starting a second group, study them together. An illustration using color says not orange then yellow then Brown, instead orange and brown and yellow, and then a break, and then yellow and brown and orange, and then a break, and then yellow then orange then brown- illustrating how a study topic of studying multiple topics at once may be more effective than studying one topic and then the other.
- Handwritten number three next to the word “chunking: creatively sort and organize information before studying” an image of yellow and brown marbles spilled next to an image of two clipboards, one containing orange marbles and one containing brown marbles.
- Metacognition: thinking about thinking. Reimagine and make the content yours tell stories, makeup songs, and doodle it!
- 5 is placed inside of a hand-drawn banner next to a cloud that contains the words learn (and practice) how to remember. Remembering is a learned skill, practice memory retrieval to build confidence and beat test taking anxiety.
A hand-drawn banner contains the words “notes by”, underneath that, “adapted for visual learners from an article by Aditya Shukla Cognition Today“
- Kang, S. H. (2016). Spaced repetition promotes efficient and effective learning: Policy implications for instruction. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3(1), 12-19.