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Top six proven study techniques (Part 1)

2020 SPS Learn Better Top 6 Learning Part 1

A group of learning scientists gathered data on how students learn, and with it they created “evidence based” conclusions.

For any students and learners out there, these findings should be essential reading. Here are the first 3 evidence based study techniques.

1. Spaced practice

Spaced practice is the exact opposite of cramming (intensive working). This is when you repeat your study, over longer periods of time. Evidence shows that if you revisit what you’ve studied, over time, it boosts both your ‘retrieval and storage strength’ (i.e. memory and ability to access the info).

If you study over a short period of time, your retrieval strength improves but your storage strength reduces. Therefore, cramming can work but only if you want to retain information for a short period of time - to pass an exam for example.

It’s understandable why students do this, because they’ve proved that it has been successful. However, if you need that information for the next level of study, you may need to learn it all over again!

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.

This video provides an excellent summary.

2. Interleaving

Interleaving is the studying of different subjects rather than studying one topic very thoroughly and then moving on. The latter process is called blocking.

However as with spaced practice (above) students might find it harder because interleaving involves retrieval practice and is more difficult than blocking, 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. It’s about switching activity.

But be careful, interleaving is best done within a subject, don’t move from Tax to Bookkeeping 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 it’s too short a time, however, there is a danger you will effectively be multitasking, and that simply doesn’t work.

This video by brain hack explains it perfectly.

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, but testing actually improves 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’re 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.

Stay tuned for part two

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

The Learn Better blog is a series of evidence based stories from the world of education, with a common theme - to inspire and motivate students. They are mostly based on original articles/blogs by Kaplan's Head of Learning, Stuart Pedley-Smith.