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Article: The subject you were never taught in school: How to learn!

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The subject you were never taught in school: How to learn!

An article published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest reviewed ten techniques for improving learning - from mnemonics to highlighting - and came to some surprising conclusions.



Thorough questioning


Self explanatory






Mnemonic aids






Dirty testing


Distributed learning


Combined learning (we don't learn 1 topic at a time, but deliberately alternate it with another)


An article published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest reviewed ten techniques for improving learning - from mnemonics to highlighting - and came to some surprising conclusions.

The mentioned report is really a dull document, so I tried to summarize below the success of individual techniques according to it. However, it is necessary to realize that each person has his own learning style. So the fact that a technique works or doesn't work for others doesn't necessarily mean it will work for you. If you want to find out how to repeat yourself or how to learn most effectively, you should experiment with each technique on yourself a little before writing it off.

Thorough questioning (success = medium)

1 Why

A method that involves creating an explanation of why the given facts are true. In this method, one focuses more on answering questions focused on why instead of what , and asks oneself questions. To apply this method, always ask yourself after reading a few paragraphs "why does x = y?" and use your answer to create notes. It is a useful method - it is simple and easy to apply.

However, in order to be able to create worthwhile questions for yourself, it requires enough prior knowledge. So this method may be best for those students who are already well versed in the field. This technique is especially effective with respect to time. One study found that thorough questioning took 32 minutes compared to 28 minutes for simple reading.

An example of thorough questioning for the above paragraph might be:
Elaborate questioning is useful for proficient learners because it allows them to effectively apply their prior knowledge to process new information. This is rated as effective because it is time efficient and relatively easy to implement. "The current evidence base for thorough inquiry is positive, but insufficient in various respects."

Self-explanatory (success = medium)


A technique that is useful for abstract learning. It involves explaining and remembering how a problem is solved or explained and giving reasons for the procedure demonstrated. It has been found to be more effective if this method is applied during learning rather than after it has finished. Self-explanation is effective for students from kindergarteners to older students working to understand algebraic formulas and geometric theories.

As with thorough questioning, self-explanation benefits from simplicity. But reading the explanation in one's own words doubles the amount of time spent on the task as opposed to thorough questioning, which was shown by comparing control groups.

"A fundamental part of self-explanation is that students are tasked with explaining aspects of the learning process."

Summary (Success = Low)


One of the oldest methods. In the test, participants were tasked with summarizing all pages of text into a few lines. Summarizing and note-taking have been found to be beneficial for preparing for written exams, but less suitable for types of tests that do not require students to present information - such as multiple-choice tests.

Summarizing was rated as probably less beneficial than other applicable methods, but at the same time much more useful than the most common methods used by students: highlighting, underlining and re-reading.

"This method can be an effective learning strategy for those students who are already experienced in summarizing ideas."

As you might have guessed, I personally find the summary method very effective - it was probably my love of note-taking that led me to blogging. I really like the “ctrl + f” feature and I love going through my notes folders to find the information I have on my tongue. Ever since I started blogging, I've been happy to be able to type the phrase "neurobonkers" into Google and immediately have relevant facts in front of my eyes.

By the way, someone says that Googling destroys the memory - but based on my experience, I cannot agree with this view.

Highlighting and Underlining (Success = Low)


Among the students, the most popular technique fared visibly poorly. But intuitively, we can figure out that the highlighting method itself is ineffective for the same reasons it is so popular: it requires no training and takes virtually no extra time. Crucially, it requires only the effort required to simply read a piece of text.

It should be noted that the study only evaluated the separate meaning of highlighting/underlining. It would be interesting to explore how highlighting would fare in combination with other strategies.

Mnemonic aids (success = low)


A technique for memorizing information linking words and their meaning through associations. These are based on the sound form of the word, according to which a person creates images. Much research has shown that mnemonics are useful for remembering information in a short period of time.

It can be learning a foreign language, memorizing names and professions, scientific concepts, etc. However, it seems that mnemonics are effective only in cases where the key words are essential and the material itself contains those that are inherently easy to remember.

For example, the given scholarly text cites a study in which students were required to use mnemonics to remember English definitions, which themselves were not very suitable for matching keywords. It was found that the group using mnemonics did much worse than the control group. More worryingly, it appears that although mnemonics were considered effective in enhancing short-term memory, they have actually been shown to have a rather negative effect compared to long-term mechanical memorization.

It follows that mnemonics may be useful for memorizing the definition a week before the exam, but they are not very useful for supporting long-term memory.

Creating images (success = low)


Experiments requiring students to imagine vivid visual images while reading texts have shown some benefits in memorizing sentences. But when it comes to other texts, these advantages seem to be much less pronounced. An interesting finding is that visualization was more effective when students listened to the text than when they read it themselves. From which it follows that reading as an activity causes poorer concentration on the creation of ideas.

The main problem with visualization is the fact that most researchers have instructed a group to create a visualization, but have not checked to see if it actually happened. In one experiment, which was followed up after testing, it was later found that some participants instructed to visualize did not complete the task as instructed, while other participants in the comparison group admitted to using visualization of their own volition.

Therefore, it is likely that imagining/visualization could be a more useful technique than this assessment presents. Anyway, this is a method so simple that nothing will happen if you try it. But what is even more interesting, research has shown that drawing does not improve the understanding of the studied material. In fact, the benefits of using metaphors can even be counterproductive.

A final insight is that although imagery is supposedly more universal than mnemonics, it is only applicable to certain situations. For example, mental imagery has not been found to help students answer questions that require inferences from course texts, nor has it been shown to be useful in answering questions related to a passage about the human heart.

Reread (Success = Low)


Overall, it can be said that repeated reading was considered a much less effective method than other technical ones. Nevertheless, the research yields some interesting conclusions. The so-called condensed reading - repeated reading of the text immediately after reading it - is more effective than creating overviews and summaries in the same time. But repeated reading spread over a longer period of time seems to have much more significant effects than condensed readings.

Dirty testing (success = high)

8 Test

This is where it gets really interesting. Testing is often seen as a necessary evil in education. Exams traditionally consist of occasional but extremely important final tests. There is an extensive literature demonstrating their benefits in education, but more important is the realization that exams do not necessarily have to be in a final exam format.

All tests, including small midterm tests, have been shown to reinforce learning. Unlike many of the other techniques listed, the benefits of blind testing are not modest - studies have found that practicing tests can double your recall!

Research has confirmed that while multiple-choice tests are really effective, practice tests that require more detailed answers are much more effective. The important thing is that testing in the dark is useful for a person precisely when he creates questions for himself.

So how can we use this research? You can create flashcards or use free downloadable software that will do it for you. Alternatively, you can use systems like the Cornell note-taking system ( here's a pdf example ) that can write questions in a column next to your notes as you learn.

This finding looks like great news for MOOCs , which typically use intensive testing as their primary method of instruction. But it's also great news for students - in reality, testing takes much less time than other methods, such as repeated reading. Even in the result, it far surpasses them!

Try it yourself: can you name and explain two ways of self-testing?

Distributed learning (success = high)


Have you ever thought about whether it is better to concentrate your studies in larger sections or to divide them over time? Research has found that the optimal level of splitting study sessions is 10-20% of the length of time you need to remember something. So if you want to remember something for a year, you should study at least once a month. If you want to remember something for five years, you should devote six to twelve months to your learning. If you want to memorize something for a week, you should study for 12 to 24 hours with a break.

However, distributed learning seems to work best when the information is processed more deeply. Therefore, for best results, you should want to try a combination of two methods: distributed learning and self-testing. But here is the biggest catch - have you ever noticed that you study intensively just before the exam?

Most students fall into this procrastination spiral. Everyone has themselves to blame for cramming all the knowledge into their head right before an exam, but the evidence really shows conclusively that this is the absolute worst way to study. And even more so when it comes to remembering for a longer period of time.

However, the question is unclear whether speed learning has become so popular because students do not understand the benefits of distributed learning or because of poorly designed testing procedures. It's probably a combination of both. One thing is for sure: as long as you make sure to spread your learning over time, you are pretty much guaranteed to experience significant improvement.

Blended learning (achievement = medium)

10 Interleaved-Practice

Have you ever wondered whether it is better to study subjects in blocks or interleave them (meaning studying different topics in a random order)? Unlike the other mentioned methods, we are given much less evidence here on how to proceed correctly).

Research so far suggests that it is useful to translate motor (involving physical movement) and cognitive tasks (such as counting examples in math). In this case, up to 43% benefit was recorded. Just like dividing learning over time, blended learning has a positive effect on long-term memory.

"When practicing, the correctness of the answers was greater in the case of block learning, but a day later it already had much higher values ​​for students who studied combined."

So why do we use the wrong methods and which ones should we use instead?

The study reviewed a range of educational psychology textbooks and found that, despite the wealth of research evidence, none of them described all of the methods described above. And for those who engaged in one or more of them, the coverage was minimal. So if you happen to be an educational psychologist trying to write a textbook, you're certainly not in a bad position.

We are all expected to be able to learn, but nowadays no one actually teaches us how to learn properly. So, the next time you need to learn something, why not spend a few moments making a plan for how to divide your study time? During the reading, instead of (or at the same time as) taking extensive notes, why not come up with some questions with a special focus asking why ? As part of learning some new knowledge, why not write a detailed explanation of how to answer the questions?

Of course, this doesn't mean you should run out of the house and throw all your highlighters in the bin right now, but rather try to gradually incorporate some new technique each time you study and see what works best for you.

The article is translated from the Czech language from

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