First it is important to look at how learning actually takes place.
All the time you are taking in sensory information about the world around you and this occupies space in your short term memory, this is then processed in the working memory as you make connections to that which is stored in your long term memory. How effectively you learn is determined by how easily you can recall things from these long term memories.
Your long term memory is like a big dark storage room. How well you learn is determined by how easily you can find things in this room. So how well you store things in this room is really important. The more the care you give the room to maintain organization the quicker and more easily you can find things. This means the better you can make connections between current information and your existing knowledge then the more information is more categorised and will be easier to recall. This is why some concepts you learn in class or in life seem easy, as you linked the concepts well to existing knowledge or experiences. It’s also why some things are difficult as you have little pre existing knowledge to link it to.
The more often you go into this storage room to look for things the more you tidy it up meaning you can find things quicker and easier. This is why the more often you recall information from memory the easier it is to recall.
Going into the storage room to search for things is what you are doing when you are studying. Making this time spent studying as effective as possible is what i would like to talk about today. I want to talk about 4 tips to assist you in your study. These apply both inside the classroom and when you are at home.
- Environment- As we said all the time you are taking in sensory information from your environment. Your working memory is limited in space and so too much sensory information leads to a situation known as cognitive overload meaning that the working memory cannot process and form connections with your existing knowledge. We recognise this as a loss of focus or distraction.
- Technology-This is why we don't allow cell phones in class and why you should avoid extra internet connections when trying to study. Set limits on when you will check Kakao or facebook and turn it off while you study. Perhaps use them as a reward. Put the phone in another room and when you study for a 40 minute chunk of time you can reward yourself with 5-7 minutes of phone time.
- Music-If you forget that music is on while you study then its okay, but if you can remember the playlist or are singing along then its occupying your working memory and so is causing you to come closer to cognitive overload and thus diminish your learning.
- Free or cued recall- The act of learning is evaluated by your ability to recall information/processes/procedures. How you practice this can have big impacts on the quality of learning you achieve. Cued recall is being able to recall information due to being given a stimulus. It could be a question, a picture, a place or a smell. This is an effective form of practice as long as you know you will be exposed to that stimulus. So if you know what will be on an exam and how questions will be asked it will be fine to study just using practice questions or flashcards.
However, most of the time we don’t know when we will require some information and so the practice of free recall is more useful. In free recall you would try to remember all the information about a topic. You can practice this by closing your books or notes and trying to write or draw out the concepts. This is obviously more difficult as you have to think up your own cues but this act of struggling to do so actually solidifies concepts. You will spend longer doing this and identify more gaps but you will also process it much more deeply.
Once you have established what you don’t recall from either free or cued recall you can go back to your notes or textbook and fill in the gaps, this is re-reading, this practice is not really studying so after you have re-read you must again try to recall the information. At this time only concentrate on the gaps you identified. Ie only read that section of the book or notes and then only practice that
- Spaced practice vs Massed practice - Everyone knows that cramming leads to short lasting memories, if you cram for a test and then retake the same test a few weeks later you will almost certainly score lower the second time. This is because when you are cramming you are sorting material once and forming only basic connections with your existing memories. Yes it's better than not ever practicing but there are some classes where you don't need to cram at all, why is that? Its because you thought carefully about some concepts when you encountered them. You thought about multiple situations where they apply this means they are really well organized and thus easy to recall. So for long term retention we want to think about concepts multiple times ideally in multiple situations so spreading 4 hours of study into 4* 1 hour blocks will be much more effective In addition cramming generally is responsible for sleep deprivation which has also been shown to impact the ability to think the next day.
- Interleaving- Research has shown that interleaving, that is mixing subjects up is more effective than studying only one subject only. This is great news as it means combined with spacing you can set out a comfortable study schedule for your AP exams or finals. The key here is that because you leave the subject and then revisit it you will make more connections to existing knowledge. We have a tendency to remember what we studied first and last... not the middle.Creating many 30 minute sessions (thus more beginnings and ends) will greatly improve the retention rate. Put the challenging material at the beginning or the end of a block. You have a higher probability to remember it for later. It is important to keep study sessions to a minimum of 30 minutes or you never really get into the deep processes required. Too short and too mixed means multi tasking which always results in poorer performance.
Don’t just read or take notes. Use free recall In order to learn you need to think!
Start soon! Study often for shorter periods and mix it up every hour.
The more you struggle to understand a concept the deeper it will remain in your memory!