In recent years, I have enjoyed reading and sharing the latest research regarding brain-based strategies to help children with engagement, memory and learning. The work of Hattie, Tokahoma-Esponosa, Sousa, Willis and others has made its way into much of my work. I have primarily focused on instructional strategies for teachers and have led assemblies for middle and high school students about how their brains work and things that they can do to optimize brain function. As my daughter struggles through her first Biology course at Birmingham Southern College, it occurred to me that a summary of the most beneficial brain-based study practices would be helpful for students as well.
In the book, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger & McDaniel, the authors share that the number one study strategy with college students is one of the least effective. Re-reading is recommended by some of our top institutions of higher learning and yet re-reading has not proven to be optimal for a number of reasons. It is time consuming, it doesn’t result in long-lasting memory and it often leads to a misconception of learning because of a growing familiarity with the text begins to feel like mastery.1
Learning is most productive when it takes significant effort. It is often difficult for us to know when we are learning well and when we are not. When we struggle and the learning is hard and slower we are often drawn to strategies that are faster and easier like re-reading or massed practice (cramming for tests) unaware that the short term gains are often temporary.
The process of practicing retrieval from memory is one of the best study methods. The act of retrieval from self-testing has two major benefits. First, it reveals where we need to focus our study efforts. Second, the process of recalling learning helps our brains re-consolidate our memory which strengthens our connections to previous learning. This makes it easier to retrieve in the future. Testing interrupts forgetting and there is lots of evidence to prove that testing and retrieval practice cements learning.
I have listed below my favorite study tips from Make it Stick1.
1) Read text or lecture notes and write down the big ideas or key concepts and necessary skills from the reading or notes. Rewrite the concepts in your own words in the form of questions. Then, try to identify connections with previous learning and other examples outside of your experience.
2) Practice retrieving the material from memory by creating self-quizzes. Use the big ideas (in your own words) and the end of chapter summary material at the end of a chapter if available. Include any new terms or definitions in the chapter that you are not familiar with.
3) Space your study sessions on different days and interleave the practice of different but similar topics. Try to solve problems before you know the solution. This makes the learning more difficult but the struggle to learn is extremely beneficial.
4) Create a chart or mind-map on how the various things that you study fit together and how they relate with one another. This strengthens your big picture understanding.
5) Consider using mnemonic devices to help you remember complicated lists, names, dates, facts or formulas. By assigning devices such as an acronym, rhyme, or phrase one can store or chunk large pieces of information in the brain as a single unit which can be easily retrieved.
Pass these tips along. They work for students of all ages.
1Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger, and Mark A. McDaniel. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Belknap. Print.
Note: This article first appeared in Southern Distinction Magazine - Education Column. White, C. Vol 3.6, 2015