You may recall this scenario: You spend hours studying (okay, maybe cramming), memorizing every fact you think you need to breeze through an exam. But when the bell rings and it's time to put those answers to use, your mind goes blank.
That's because you "didn't know what you didn't know," according to a new book, Make it Stick, The Science of Successful Learning. Our brains, the authors explain, fool us into thinking that reading something over and over again cements the material in our memory (it does, but only for a very short time.) We buy into the notion that practice-practice-practice makes perfect, but in fact, the "drill and kill" exercise is not only exhausting, but impedes our ability to retrieve the information out of context. As the authors, writer Peter Brown and Washington University psychologists Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel, contend,"the most effective learning strategies are not intuitive."
Here then, a study guide on how to study, according to the principles of Make it Stick.
Don't waste your time reading notes or the textbook over and over again. As you go through the material or readings (ideally shortly after the lecture or class) stop at each section, and tell yourself, in our own words, what the key information it is. Then make up questions as you go that you think might be appear on a test which you can use to study later.
Use sleep as your study companion. Cramming may get you through the next quiz, but it won't store the information long enough for the midterm. It's better to "allow some forgetting to happen," says Roediger. This means studying for shorter spells each day, and then sleeping on the material so it has time to consolidate in your memory.
Test, test, test. Nobody likes a pop quiz, but teachers who give them may actually be doing their students a favour. In a 2007 experiment conducted by the authors, Grade 8 science students were given "no stakes" quizzes at the beginning and end of class, based on the material presented that day. (The marks of the quizzes didn't count.) For other subject matter, they received no quizzes. At the end of three semesters, after writing a test that mixed up all the material, the class average for the material not quizzed was 79 per cent. For the quizzed material, the average was 92 per cent. Testing yourself on the material – either by writing it down, or answering questions out loud – may be more work, but it's the best way to memorize material, according to Roediger. That's because it requires your brain to go to the effort of retrieving the information – which itself helps bolster learning – and it reveals the material on which you should spend more time. Remember those questions created from reading the textbook? Use them for review, but see if you know the answer before looking it up. If you get it wrong, mark the question as something to review later.
Mix up your subject matter. Don't study one area of science or one kind of math equation in one big chunk and move on. It's better divvy up your material, and practice questions out of order, so that your memory can recall them in a variety of test situations. Researchers call this "interleaved practice." The book cites one experiment in two groups of college students who were taught four different methods for calculating volume. The students who practised the different methods in separate chunks actually did better than the students who mixed up the order. But when tested a week later, the latter group scored 63 per cent, way ahead of the 20 per cent average of the first group.
Never throw away a flash card. The authors recommend flash cards as a good tool for spaced testing. But don't remove any cards until you know them instantly, and even then return to them occasionally for a refresher. Also make sure to shuffle flash cards so you aren't practising in the same order.
Put material such as scientific definition in your own words, or relate them to a personal example that gives it meaning. You'll remember that much more quickly than trying to recite a textbook answer.
Learn the reason behind the facts. It's easy to remember details such as timelines, or group descriptions, if you understand the reason behind why something happened, even if the teacher won't ask it that way on the test.
If studying is easy, you aren't learning. Innate ability certainly helps, but behind most A-pluses lie highly developed (and persistent) study habits. For instance, the authors of Make It Stick include a great anecdote about a university professor amazed by how well a student was performing in his course. So the professor inquired about about his study habits - which included anticipating test questions, creating his own study guide with the course material, and posting important concepts on sheets of paper above his bed.
Following these steps will take more time than simply reading material – and may feel, says McDaniel, that you aren't absorbing the material, in the short term. "You have to trust it," he says. "Learning is work. It takes effort."