What Are the Best Ways to Study (And Which Don’t Work Too)

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What are the best ways to study? What about those techniques that don’t work so well and should be avoided? Find out what the science says.

It’s not uncommon for students to get frustrated when they don’t get good grades even though they’ve studied hard for an exam. There are also those who feel that they quickly forget what they learned just a few weeks earlier.

These are particularly big challenges for students who have just arrived at university, who are faced with much more voluminous and complex content than at school and often have to combine their studies with work.

“There are students who put in a huge amount of effort but in the wrong way and accumulate a lot of surface or declarative knowledge without being able to get to a more conceptual level,” he tells the BBC. Matthew Bernacki, Professor in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina (UNC), USA.

Bernacki is dedicated to the science of learning, which in practice translates to helping students get the most out of the time and effort they invest in studying. He explains which techniques have proven more or less effective, according to his own scientific studies and those of other scientists in the field.

Here are common techniques he and his colleagues at the University of North Carolina have found ineffective — and how to replace them in practice.

What is often ineffective:

reread and underline: Although reading and underlining texts are an important part of learning, they are usually not enough for a student to gain knowledge of the content they are studying. Re-reading, in particular, requires effort and time that they don’t always pay off, because “Gives a false sense of familiarity with the content”. “When you go outside the text, you can’t reproduce what you’ve read,” says Bernacki.

“When it comes to underlining, there’s mixed evidence: if you use (the technique) as a deliberate process, think about what you’re highlighting in the text, take notes and use them to further your strategy, it can be very productive,” he says. the investigator.

“But if you underline for no particular purpose or just as a way to keep track of the text, you may get less benefit.”

Replace with:

“Interactive learning: The UNC Learning Center sees reading as a step before learning. To really learn the content, it is most effective to actively interact with it. Here are some ideas from the center to do just that:

  • Create questions, problems or “quizzes” to answer. It’s what Bernacki calls the “practice of reclaiming” content.
  • By testing yourself, your ability to retain the content you study increases, the researcher explains.
  • Explain the content to yourselfout loud, in your own words.
  • For technical content like math, it’s worth it detail the problem and the steps to solve it.

What is often ineffective:

study at the last minute: Spending the day before an exam studying is a common practice to try to do well. But the effort is usually just for that exam and not to actually memorize the content.

“Usually we combine the whole study in a very short time, which can serve immediately, but not for long-term use”explains Bernacki.

Replace with:

Short, spaced study sessions: Instead of studying for hours right on the eve of the test, it is more worthwhile to have short study sessions, but over several days, of the content you want to learn.

“The important thing is how you use your study time, not how long you study time,” says the Learning Center. “Long sessions lead to a loss of concentration and, consequently, less learning and retention.’

In practice, you can study for the same amount of time (or less) as if you had left it all until the day before. The advantage is that it gives the brain time to strengthen the neural connections of this learning, which is more likely to become long-term memory.

What is often ineffective:

“Multitasking”: There are already many studies showing that studying with distractions — for example whatsapp messages the videos on TikTok — is inefficient not only because it divides your attention, but because the very act of changing windows or devices wastes time and energy.

Replace with:

Technique “pomodoro”, or study in blocks: Bernacki’s recommendation to avoid suffering from distractions is to create study blocks. For example, mark 35 minutes on the clock and, during this time, devote yourself exclusively to studying content, disconnecting from all distractions.

After that, you have five minutes to reward your brain with some distraction — for example, eating a snack or checking your messages. And then it’s back for another 35-minute study block.

This method is known as “pomodoro”, in relation to these tomato-shaped timers. This technique helps not only to avoid wasting time with distraction, but also to keep the brain motivated with the prospect of “reward”.

“Self-regulation” in studies

Bernacki points out, however, that it is not enough to apply the above techniques as if they were magic formulas that work at all times, but rather to determine which techniques are most appropriate for each learning goal. This goes through what the expert calls self-regulation in studies.

“It’s about analyzing the task, understanding the learning objective, the resources available to me, and choosing the strategy that matches that,” she explains.

“Sometimes knowledge is very specific and clear – for example, a fact, a definition, a formula, which can be studied more concisely. But other things are more complicated, have multiple steps, or require a more conceptual understanding. They are more difficult to study at the same time. So you have to create your own knowledge and your own answers and assess yourself: ‘How well did I understand this?'”

Bernacki has applied these techniques and observed their results primarily in groups of high school students. STEM courses (acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as well as first-generation students, i.e. young people who are the first in their family to enter university — who tend to have a smaller repertoire of technical studies.

In a study published in 2022 in Journal of Educational PsychologyBernacki and colleagues investigated how a curriculum focused on the learning sciences and self-regulation strategy affected biology students who were identified, through an algorithm, as being at risk of poor course performance.

The students did 12% better from the control group in the final exams of the course.

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