Best (and Worst) Ways to Study for a Test

Want to ace a school exam or bone up for a work presentation? Forget the highlighter, and make yourself some flashcards instead.

That’s the upshot of a recent report in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The authors—a team of distinguished researchers led by John Dunlosky, PhD, of Kent State University—weighed the evidence for 10 simple learning strategies. Here’s what they found.

Two Received Solid A’s

These techniques are highly effective for learners of all ages and across many types of tests:

  • Practice testing may mean quizzing yourself with flashcards, doing practice problems at the end of a textbook chapter, or taking a practice test online. According to the report, a century of research involving several hundred experiments has shown that practice testing helps people learn and retain information.
  • Distributed practice means spreading out study activities over time, as opposed to cramming all at once. For example, you might read a chapter in one study session and take a practice test the next. How far apart should the study sessions be? Research suggests that the gap between learning sessions should be about 10 to 20 percent of the desired retention time. In other words, to remember something for a week, learning sessions should be about a half-day to a day apart.

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Three Got Incompletes

These techniques might be helpful in some situations, but more research is needed on them:

  • Elaborative interrogation involves coming up with explanations for why a stated fact or concept is true. Let’s say you’re presented with this sentence: “The badly injured man reached for the phone.” You might generate this explanation: “to call for help.” This strategy may be most useful for learning lists of facts.
  • Self-explanation involves thinking about how new information relates to what’s already known. In one study, ninth-graders learning a geometry theorem were prompted with questions such as: “What parts of this page are new to me? What does the statement mean? Is there anything I still don’t understand?” Like elaborative interrogation, this strategy encourages mulling over new information.
  • Interleaved practice involves interspersing different types of practice problems or study topics. Let’s say you’re learning to solve three kinds of math problems. When studying, you would mix it up, rather than doing all of one kind first before moving on to the second and the third. This allows you to practice not only solving the problem, but also identifying the best solution method.

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Five Got Failing Marks

These techniques may be popular, but they fail to make the grade in well-controlled studies:

  • Highlighting—Marking or underlining key passages in a textbook or article.
  • Rereading—Simply reading the same chapter or article more than once.
  • Summarizing—Writing summaries of the material you’re trying to learn.
  • Keyword mnemonic—Choosing a keyword and associating a mental image with it.
  • Imagery for text—Visualizing what’s being described as you read or listen.

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