Yana Weinstein, an assistant professor of psychology, has been doing research on effective learning strategies for a decade.
But it wasn’t until she heard an NPR program on educators who were bringing their work to the community that she realized how wide a gap lies between research results and practical strategies to help students and teachers apply them.
“The research stays in academic circles, even though we’re doing applied research,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘Why am I not going out in the community and talking to people about these effective strategies that I research?’”
So Weinstein started reaching out informally on Twitter to students who were panicked about studying for tests, offering them advice based on research. A friend and fellow cognitive psychological scientist at Rhode Island College, Asst. Prof. Megan Sumeracki, quickly joined in.
Less than two years later, they have a website – TheLearningScientists.org – and thousands of Twitter and Facebook followers at @AceThatTest. On YouTube, they’re practically rock stars: More than 900,000 people have viewed a video about their work, “The 6 Habits of Highly Successful Students.” They’re in demand as speakers both at home and abroad, especially in the United Kingdom, and they’ve added two more scientists to their partnership. They’ve even launched a new podcast, which is available on their website.
So what are those six strategies for effective studying? Weinstein says the most important strategies are the first two: Spacing out your studying and retrieval practice, or when and how to study. The others help keep your mind engaged by offering different ways to tackle the material.
For more information, look at The Learning Scientists’ videos and posters, read their blog and listen to their podcast to see how students and teachers are using the six strategies.
1) Space out your studying. That’s right: Cramming for tests is NOT effective in the long run. Spread out your study times. You will remember the material longer if you review information multiple times during the week instead of cramming the night before a test. When studying, go over recent material, then go further back and practice recalling important earlier material.
2) Practice retrieving information from memory. Put away your books, notes and handouts and write down everything you know about a topic from memory – then check to see if you got it right and what you’re missing. Make flash cards and take practice tests. Study with a partner and trade questions and quizzes. This is one of the most effective ways to study. Re-reading and highlighting are much less effective, even though they’re popular. Retrieval practice also helps you think flexibly and apply what you’ve learned to new problems and concepts.
3) Elaborate. Ask “How?” and “Why?” questions about what you’re studying, then try to find answers in your class materials. Discuss your questions and answers with classmates. Make connections between different ideas and think about how they’re similar and different. Connect ideas that you’re studying to your own experiences and memories.
4) Switch it up. This is particularly useful for subjects such as math and physics that involve problem-solving. Switch between types of problems you tackle; this will help you learn how to select the right strategy for each type of problem. In other subjects, examine one concept for a while, then move to another. Next time you study them, do it in a different order. This will help you make stronger links between ideas.
5) Use concrete examples. It’s easier to understand abstract ideas when they are connected to concrete examples. Look through your class materials and notes to find concrete examples of abstract concepts. Think about how each example illustrates or applies to a particular idea. Share your examples with classmates and practice explaining them.
6) Use words and visuals. When you combine words with visuals, it gives you two ways of remembering information later. Find illustrations, diagrams or graphs of the concepts you’re learning and then write about what they convey. Then draw your own – preferably from memory. Pairing visual and verbal thinking deepens your understanding and reinforces learning.