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What's the best way to learn? Psychologists tackle studying techniques

What's the best way to study for a test? A new study says taking practice tests and engaging in distributed practice -- which means sticking to a schedule of spreading out your studying over time -- work the best.

Surprisingly, the methods that were least effective when it came to getting a good grade on the big test were: summarization, highlighting, keyword mnemonics, creating imagery for text and re-reading.

"I was shocked that some strategies that students use a lot -- such as re-reading and highlighting -- seem to provide minimal benefits to their learning and performance," study author Dr. John Dunlosky, professor of psychology and director of experimental training at Kent State University, said in a written statement. "By just replacing re-reading with delayed retrieval practice, students would benefit."

Ten different learning techniques were reviewed Dunlosky his team. Their review was published in the January 2013 issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

"Schools and parents spend a great deal of money on technology and programs to improve student achievement, even though evidence often isn't available to firmly establish that they work," said Dunlosky. "We wanted to take a comprehensive look at promising strategies now, in order to direct teachers, students and parents to the strategies that are effective, yet underused."

The widely-used learning methods examined were:

  • Elaborative interrogation: Generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true
  • Self-explanation: Explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving
  • Summarization: Writing summaries (of various lengths) of to-be-learned texts
  • Highlighting/underlining: Marking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while reading
  • Keyword mnemonic: Using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials
  • Imagery for text: Attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening
  • Re-reading: Re-studying text material again after an initial reading
  • Practice testing: Self-testing with flash cards or taking practice tests over to-be-learned material
  • Distributed practice: Implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time
  • Interleaved practice: Implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session

Using existing studies and other currently-accepted psychological concepts, researchers reviewed studying methods on the basis of four criteria: learning conditions, student characteristics, materials and criterion tasks.

Learning conditions included what kind of environment was necessary to partake in the technique (for example, if a student could do it alone or had to have a group). Student characteristics involved age, ability and prior level of knowledge. Materials questions what items were necessary to have in order to use that method of learning. Criterion tasks looked at different outcome measures to show student achievement through memory, problem-solving and comprehension among other categories, basically showing which specific skills the study method helped improve.

Researchers hope that teachers can use their findings and analysis to help find more effective ways to teach their students. Dunlosky explained that many of the strategies are often not used because educational psychology textbooks don't really explain them well to teachers or give them a sense of how to use these techniques.

"The learning techniques described in this monograph will not be a panacea for improving achievement for all students, and perhaps obviously, they will benefit only students who are motivated and capable of using them," the authors wrote. "Nevertheless, when used properly, we suspect that they will produce meaningful gains in performance in the classroom, on achievement tests, and on many tasks encountered across the life span."

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