The science of Learning – Top six proven study techniques (Part one)

Brain in jar

One of the most difficult questions to answer is – “How do you know”? This is because it challenges both the logic behind your thinking and the quality of information on which you based your statement or opinion. Is it possible you have taken reliable information and put it together in the wrong way or is the evidence supporting your argument questionable?

Saying something with confidence will lead people to believe that what you are saying is true but without real evidence it is still only an opinion.

The so called scientific method which introduced us to the idea of gathering evidence cannot be attributed to one individual, the high-profile contributors include Aristotle, Ibn al-Haytham, Descartes and Newton. It was clearly an organic process that Newton eloquently described as standing upon the shoulder of giants.

Regardless of the originator, the scientific method has changed the way we think and shaped much of the modern world, from discoveries in medicine, putting a man on the moon and the creation of the internet. But……Not Learning.

Learning science

Although still a relatively new field there are a group of individuals who include cognitive and computer scientists, linguists and educational phycologists who collectively call themselves Learning Scientists. By gathering evidence in the form of data about how students learn they have been able to draw conclusions that are “evidence based”. What can be proven and what cannot. For both students and teachers their findings should be essential reading.

One important point, this does not in any way detract from what a good teacher does, no more than offering advice to doctors on the evidence supporting the success of a new drug.

The top 6 evidence-based study techniques

1. Spaced practice (distributed)

Spaced practice is the exact opposite of cramming, you are effectively taking the same amount of time to study, just doing it over a longer period of time. The evidence shows that if you revisit what you have studied over time it boosts what is called your retrieval and storage strength but if you study in a short period of time, your retrieval strength improves but your storage strength reduces. One implication is that cramming can work but only if you want to retain information for a short period of time, to pass an exam for example. As such it is understandable why students do this, because they have proved in the past it was successful.  If, however you need that information for the next level of study, you may need to learn it all over again!

“The effect is simple: the same amount of repeated studying of the same information spaced out over time will lead to greater retention of that information in the long run, compared with repeated studying of the same information for the same amount of time in one study session.”

Watch this video, it’s an excellent summary.

2. Interleaving

Interleaving is simply studying different subjects or topics as opposed to studying one topic very thoroughly before moving to the next, this latter process is called blocking. However as with spaced practice students might find it harder (see desirable difficulty) because interleaving involves retrieval practice and is more difficult than blocked practice, but the knowledge is retained for far longer. One proven technique is for students to alternate between attempting a problem and viewing a worked example. This is much better than attempting to answer one question after another. Its simply about switching activity.

But be careful, interleaving is best done within a subject, don’t move from Chemistry to Art for example. Unfortunately we don’t have any evidence as to what the optimum time period should be, so that might have to come down to trial and error. If however its too short a time there is a danger you will effectively be multitasking, and as I have mentioned in a previous blog, that simply doesn’t work.

This video by brain hack is excellent

“Interleaving occurs when different ideas or problem types are tackled in a sequence, as opposed to the more common method of attempting multiple versions of the same problem in a given study session, known as blocking.”

3. Retrieval practice

This may come as no surprise to many students and certainly not to anyone who reads this blog, its true tests actually improve memory. The process of reflecting back and having to retrieve a memory of something previously learned is very powerful.  There is also an added benefit, if you are told there is going to be a test, the increased test expectancy leads to better-quality encoding of the new information.

One concern is that while there is little doubt that retrieval practice works, there is some research to show that pressure, perhaps the result of test anxiety during retrieval can undermine some of the learning benefit.

“However, we know from a century of research that retrieving knowledge actually strengthens it.”

Part two, next month

I hope this insight into evidence based learning has been useful, next month I will cover Elaboration, Concrete examples and Dual coding.

And if you would like to find out more here is a link to the article that quotes much of the research to support these techniques.

 

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Twas the night before ………..the exam – but what to do?

keep-calm-and-study-all-night-5

Well not exactly all night

For students May and June are the main exam months. Studying and learning can be enjoyable…. honestly, but the fun has to come to an end and it does, with the exam. It cannot be avoided and so is best embraced, treat the exam as a game and you the player. What you need to do is give yourself the very best chance of winning.

Become a professional exam taker, someone who follows a process of preparation, very much like a top sportsperson. This means you personally need to be in the best physical and mental shape and have a series of exercises that will get you match fit.

Below is your training regime from the night before the exam – good luck

The night before

You should by now have:

  • Read through and reduce your class/tuition notes down to approximately 10 pages (20 max) of revision notes, see March Blog on how to prepare notes. You may have some professionally produced revision notes, but it is still best to make your own.
  • Practiced past questions on the key examinable areas both under exam and non exam conditions.
  • Started the process of memorising the revision notes.

Be realistic – The key to the night before the exam is to be realistic. You don’t have much time, so don’t think you can cover everything. Let’s assume you have 3/4 hours, 6.00pm – 10.00pm maybe.

Put to one side the large folder that contains all your notes taken throughout the term/year, and concentrate only on the 10-20 page revision notes.

Focus and memorise – In the 3/4 hours that you have you want to get an overview of the subject and focus on the areas that need memorising. These should be the key examinable areas and are most likely to be standard formats, definitions, lists, formulas s not given in the exam etc.  Memorising should include some rewriting of notes, but very little, talking out loud, drawing pictures, writing out mnemonics etc. See my blogs on memory, in particular: Thanks for the memories  and To pass an exam do and exam.

Admin – make sure you have set to one side everything you will need the next day. This includes your exam entry documents, calculator, gum, mints etc. You don’t want to be thinking of these in the morning. And of course make sure you know exactly what time you need to leave to get to the exam with about 1 hour to spare.

Physical and mental preparation – Drink lots of water, avoid tea, coffee etc as you will need to get a good night’s sleep. Exercise is an incredibly effective method of reducing tension and stress. So you may want to build into your 4 hours, 30 minutes for a run or brisk walk. This could be at the half way point of your evening, combining a well earned break with the exercise maximises your time.

Getting sleep is important, so avoid reading your notes and then going straight to sleep. Pack you notes away, put them ready for the morning, then physically go into another room if possible or even outside, watch TV for 10 minutes, something trivial or read a book. You need to break the state of mind from that of studying, relaxation leads to sleep not stress.

And finally keep a positive attitude, think about what you know and are good at and not what you don’t know and are bad at. Keep telling yourself that you have done everything possible, and if you follow these steps you will have. Thinking you know nothing and should have done more will not help at this stage, it’s a pointless thought strategy and not what the professional exam taker does.

The morning before

Set your alarm sufficiently early to give you at least another hour of revision. You don’t need to get out of bed, just continue memorising your notes. This is now about little and often, short 10 minute intervals. Don’t worry about falling to sleep in the exam; the adrenalin won’t let you.

1 hour before

What you do after arriving at the exam centre/School etc  is personal. Some will prefer to sit on their own going over the revision notes; don’t bother taking your folder of course notes. This is still very much about short term memory. Others will prefer to talk, chatting about nothing, just to stop them worrying. Both are fine.

After the examExam post it!

Afterwards is also a little personal, most will go home, but some will want to talk through what was in the exam, looking perhaps for some conformation they have not made a complete mess of it. Most importantly, if you have another exam, go home, put your old revision notes to one side, forget everything and start on your next subject.

The American basket ball player Art Williams had a good saying that I will leave you with. I’m not telling you it is going to be easy — I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it”

And although personally I found exams difficult I have never regretted the hard work, it was for me worth it.

And something to watch

How to: Cram the night before a test and PASS

Or you could try this

This blog is for Beth – good luck xx

To pass an exam – do an exam

To ride a bike - Ride a bike

Although the debate around the value of examinations (testing) is set to continue, new research from Kent State University in the US suggests that examinations aid learning by making the brain develop more efficient ways of storing information. Dr. Katherine Rawson, associate professor in Kent State’s Department of Psychology, and former Kent State graduate student Mary Pyc published their research findings in the Oct. 15, 2010, issue of the journal Science. 

“Taking practice tests – particularly ones that involve attempting to recall something from memory – can drastically increase the likelihood that you’ll be able to remember that information again later,” Rawson said. 

In the article titled “Why Testing Improves Memory: Mediator Effectiveness Hypothesis,” Rawson and Pyc reported an experiment indicating that at least one reason why testing is good for memory is that testing supports the use of more effective encoding strategies. In particular the brain comes up with mental keywords – called mediators – which trigger memories which they would not do when studying only.

 I have to say that this comes as no surprise to me nor would it to any student or anyone who has ever read a book on memory techniques.   It does however add some significant evidence to support the use of testing or mock examinations as a means of preparation for the real thing.

 To pass examinations you require much more than just memory techniques, and in many ways all this research* has done is show that you can recall certain words far more easily if you link them via another word, the mediator, and then test to find out if you can in fact remember them. But because you can’t pass an exam without remembering what you have learned it does mean that by spending a little more time in encoding the information and by testing yourself afterwards you must improve your chances of passing.

 To my mind the research still has some way to go in recognising the other benefits of doing practice exams or tests, and I should add looking at the answers. For example do they not give a very clear indication of the standard required, provide focus as to what is important and what is not, give a concise summary of key parts of the syllabus, show how the knowledge should be applied in the context of the question and improve your level of concentration knowing that you will be tested latter, I could go on.

 How does this help – some tips

 When trying to get something into your head, don’t just read it, although reading is a method of learning, it is not very effective when it comes to remembering. Reading is largely an auditory process; you say the words in your head. Ever heard the saying “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand”. At the same time as reading, underline the key words and make notes with those key words. The very process of extracting them from the text will help. Next you need to remember those key words, well why not link them with a story (A mediator) or with single words as illustrated in the study. There are several memory techniques that use the principle of association to link words, check out the “stack and link and number rhyme” systems. See video below for an example of how to use the number rhyme system.

 And then of course you need to test yourself and your ability to recall those key words afterwards.

 So be in confident and inspired that what you new has now been proven and that  tests are not just about finding out if you will pass or fail the exam, they are an integral and vital part of the learning process, and that’s a fact.

 *In the research they asked students to remember Swahili-English word pairs, such as ‘wingu – cloud and use a mediator (wingu’ sounds like ‘wing’ – the mediator, birds have wings and fly in the ‘clouds) to link the two.

For more thoughts on what this means – click