Study Techniques for Long-Term Learning

By: Bill White

Over the holidays, CWA Head of Upper School Bill White caught up on some reading. Recently in the Scientific American Mind, there was an article called, “What Works and What Doesn’t” The authors reviewed more than 700 articles about successful studying and learning habits that promote long-term learning. He shares his key takeaways from the article below.

For years, students have been highlighting or rereading textbooks to prepare for tests. Research claims that these two strategies are not only ineffective but a waste of time. One study found highlighting hurt performance because students found it difficult to make inferences when dealing with different topics. The possible reason is that highlighting draws attention to a particular term or word and not the bigger picture. Researchers believe highlighting can be helpful when students are beginning their exploration of a topic, but it is not helpful when making connections between concepts is required. The authors wrote that if students took the next step after highlighting, which is to make flash cards of the material highlighted, then more advanced learning will occur. Rereading for increased comprehension is not fully effective either. Some comprehension can be gained through repetitive reading and picking up something that you might have missed the first time, but overall the amount learned versus the amount of time spent doesn’t seem to be the most effective way to promote long-term learning.

Researchers discovered the most effective way to learn and to promote long-term memory are self-tests. Students who ask questions, think about and answer questions at the end of a chapter, or spend time testing themselves on major questions asked during class find these study tactics to be most successful. Some teachers quiz students on a regular basis to make sure students have developed an understanding of what they have read and to promote self-testing, which promotes memory. Students who make flash cards or study in pairs are very successful in retaining the knowledge studied. The article suggests that students who take notes and make flash cards from their class notes find even greater success. While students of any age can do this, it takes time—but research indicates that hard work will pay dividends.

Another successful method according to researchers is to study material over a period of time. Students who try to cram all of the material that will be tested into a few long study sessions right before a test will not retain much of what thy studied for more than a week. Wes Westby, longtime Upper School learning specialist at CWA, always tried to convince students to review classroom notes and reading for four days after it was introduced or learned. According to Mr. Westby, after four days of studying the material, the knowledge was imprinted in students’ brains and long-term learning had occurred. It seemed to really work for students who used the study technique.

Another successful method for learning is to train students to ask “why” This method is called elaborative interrogation. Research shows that it is a great way to retain factual information, but more research is needed to see if it improves comprehension and the ability to make connections between different concepts. Finally, self-explanation seems to be a great way to learn. Students who ask the questions, “What new information does the sentence or problem provide?” and, “How does it relate to what you already know?” find it to be a successful learning technique. By asking and answering these questions, students begin to filter out what is important and what facts can be discarded.

Researchers have examined several other techniques, which seem to be less successful. Imagery, which is the study process of developing a picture or a mental image of a topic being studied, has not been successful for long-term learning. For some students who learn differently it can be beneficial, but for most students it is not. Creating mnemonic devices can be helpful to retain a fact, but is not effective for long-term memory. For example, I remember when Columbus sailed to the new world by using a mnemonic device: In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. The device is usually used when learning a new word or a phrase in English or a foreign language. Finally, summarization of a chapter supports learning a small amount of material, but it is not the most efficient way to learn a lot of difficult, complex ideas.