Boning up for a work course or a school test? Trying to learn a new skill? Cramming late, devoting a whole day to nothing but bio, reading that training manual 20 times?
You’re doing it wrong. So very, very wrong.
Nailing the art of studying right can be a scientific task. Two professors — Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel at the Washington University in St. Louis — and author Peter Brown condensed the best study knowledge, based on scientific papers published over the past few years, in a new book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Roediger distilled his 6 top tips for successful learning. We’re talking the best ways to retrain new knowledge for the long haul.
Pull up a seat, and start taking notes.
1. Take those notes by hand. That’s right: Go Luddite. In a board meeting or a freshman survey hall, think pen and paper. ”When typing, students tend to record information as though they were taking dictation,” Roediger says. Handwriting is slower, ”so they have to think harder about the material to distill it,” he says, discussing a study just published this April. So yes, it might seem painful to put pen to paper in class, but you’ll save study time in the end.
2. Don’t study — practice. Stop re-reading the same passage 20 times. Searching your brain for what you’re trying to remember keeps things fresher. In one of Roediger’s own studies, subjects who took a test were more likely to do better on a subsequent test then those who studied. It’s not just about remembering the information, but using the brain muscles to practice retrieving the information too. That’s what a test — and real life — requires of us.
3. Pace yourself. Cramming puts a lot of info your head, fast, but it also leads to fast forgetting. “Spacing helps embed learning in long-term memory,” Roediger says.
4. Sleep on it. If you never want to think about conjugating French verbs again, pull an all-nighter before a test. But if you’ve got info you want to keep for the long haul, plan some zzz’s. Your brain needs time to catch up and process all you’ve stuffed in there. Sleep is when it happens.
5. Multi-task subjects. Maybe you’ve got finals this week in history, bio and psych. Yuck. If you’ve only got three days to study, don’t tackle just one subject a day, Roediger says. Devote a bit of time every day to each of the subjects, and you’re more likely to ace those tests. Roediger cites a 2012 study that says we’re more likely to confuse similar things when studied together — like if you’re trying to cram on the differences between four kinds of biological processes that all kind of sound the same — than if we break the biology up a bit with something else.
6. Test yourself. These are the professor’s words, not ours. ”Make up practice tests and take them repeatedly as you study,” he says. This goes back to tip No. 2 — finding ways to pull things from your mind. Plus, this way, you’ll learn what you need to work on.