Advice for making effort count towards achievement

Remember that learning is different from understanding. But you cannot have understanding without learning new knowledge and skills. Spend time on strategies that work well to help you learn, rather than wasting time on strategies that don’t, and you’ll need less total study time.

Attend classes

Learning in a classroom with a passionate teacher and your peers is time well-spent. Attendance is a good predictor of academic success, while absenteeism is associated with poor academic performance.

Take the train or bus and study or listen to podcasts on your way to classes. Use time between classes to study.

If there are readings or homework to complete before class, get them done. Not doing so means you are contributing to the educational waste that so many students complain about.

Plan your assessment

Aim to complete assessment pieces a couple of days ahead of time. This will give you time to reflect on your work before submitting it for grading. It also gives you some room to move if something unexpected briefly interrupts your study. Extensions are not for when you run out of time; they’re for when a major interruption prevents you from completing your work.

Break your assessment pieces into tasks, and schedule time to complete those tasks, as well as – not instead of – time to study your course content. Double the amount of time you think each task will take! We consistently underestimate how long it will take to complete tasks (this is known as the planning fallacy).

Desirable difficulty

When learning requires some effort, it’s stronger and stays in your memory for longer. The strategies listed below aim to bring about some of this desirable difficulty.

Distributed practice

A schedule that spreads your study out so that you are engaging with the knowledge and skills briefly and regularly over a long time is far more effective than trying to do it all at once; this is known as the spacing effect.

“But the more, the better. The more often you come back and restudy, of course, and use retrieval practice, the longer you’re going to retain that material. For stuff that students really need to know, this is an essential strategy, or else they just forget stuff. I mean, you don’t have to tell a student that after they take a test that they crammed for, the next day they pretty much don’t remember anything that they studied. Distributed practice ensures that you’re going to remember that for a much longer period of time.”

So, instead of making each Tuesday the day to study subject A, and each Wednesday the day to study subject B, and Friday the day for subject C, induce “desirable difficulty” (see below) by spending Tuesday evenings studying subject A for 50 minutes, then after a ten minute break studying subject B for an hour, then (after another short break) subject C for an hour. On Wednesday, do the same, but study the subjects in a different order. A similar strategy is known as the “Pomodoro” strategy, which breaks study time into 25 minute chunks of focused effort, with a ten minute break after every two or three chunks.

Within your 50 minute allocation to a subject, you might spend 10-15 minutes reviewing a past topic, then the remaining 35-40 minutes studying a new topic. If you are studying that subject in 3-4 50 minute blocks over the week, you will be able to revise 3-4 past topics as well as develop your knowledge in the new topic.

Retrieval practice

Retrieval practice is when you actively recall information in your brain. The outcome of this practice is known as the testing effect. Once you have read the text or watched the videos, and taken some notes, next time you sit down to study, cover up the information with your hand, and try to recall what was written without looking. If you don’t get it right, you do need to reread your notes, but if you do get it right, you have reinforced that information and you will remember it much more easily next time. Flashcards are effective, for exactly this reason, and they mean you can study with a friend. The act of writing questions and framing correct responses is also an effective strategy for developing understanding of ideas.

Interleaving

Interleaving involves rehearsing different topics, alternating practice of different topics, strategies or skills within a single study session. The opposite of interleaving is blocking, where the content from a single topic or strategy is rehearsed before moving onto the next topic. Interleaving has been shown to be more effective at learning material than blocking.

When you are revising topics that you have already studied, how can you interleave the material? Once again, flash cards can be useful. Instead of sorting your flashcards into topic sets, mix them up as you go to interleave your rehearsal.

Elaborating

When you are reading a text, give the new material you are learning your own meaning by expressing it in your own words. Do not copy directly from the text; this is not effective at all. Extend your notes by making connections with what you already know. Making those connections will help you remember it later. The practice of recording notes in your own words and extending them with connections to what you already know is known as elaborating. Here’s an example:

Yeast prefers an environment that is approximately 37 degrees Celsius. That’s why I have to let the dough sit and rise while it’s warm but before I bake it; once the oven gets too hot, the yeast dies and stops releasing carbon dioxide into the dough.

What doesn’t work so well?

Cramming does not work. It might make you feel less (or more) anxious in the days before a test, but the learning gains are minimal, and short-term.

Re-reading, highlighting and massed practice (rehearsing one skill, or idea, repeatedly) also do not work very well. Again, they take up a lot of time with minimal impact on your capacity to remember new material. So what does work?

 

Further Reading

I recommend the book Make it Stick by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel for more advice and research on how we learn.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

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