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