A brief summary of effective study methods

by Arran_Stirton4 min read28th Apr 201415 comments


Scholarship & Learning

EDIT: Reworked and moved to Main following Gunnar_Zarncke's advice.

Related to: Book Review: How Learning Works, Build Small Skills in the Right Order, What are useful skills to learn at university?

This article is organized into three sections focusing on attention, processing and recall respectively. The advice in each section is roughly organised in order of usefulness, although your mileage may vary. It's best to view this as a menu of study techniques rather than an in depth guide.

Just follow at the links provided if you wish to learn more about any point. Links with a lettered superscript[a] generally link to a part of a YouTube video while those with a numbered superscript[1] link to an article. Links without any superscript generally link to another LessWrong page.

Paying Attention

Attention is very important for learning. Where you spend it directly determines which areas of your brain you'll develop while studying and learning new skills.
  1. Split your study up into 25 minute chunks, separated by five minute breaks[a]
    Also known as the Pomodoro Technique[b]. This one is simple to implement but tremendously effective. It will protect you from attention burnout, increase your useful study-time, and help prevent distractions from becoming procrastination by setting up a Schelling fence around your breaks.
  2. Focus on one task at a time[1]
    Multitasking is one of the worst things you can do while studying, it can reduce your productivity by up to 40% and divides your attention up unnecessarily which will impair your ability absorb new information. If social media and the internet is of a particular distraction to you, tools such as Stay Focused can help you stay on track.
  3. Set up your study environment[a]
    Exploit situational psychology by making your environment more conducive to study; identify cues that cause you to procrastinate, remove them if possible, and set up cues for studying. Mentioned in the video, a 'study lamp' can make an effective cue providing it is only ever used for studying. Additionally joining a study group can be an effective way to do this (a good example being the LessWrong Study Hall).
  4. Choose the right music[2]
    There are a few rules of thumb to follow here. Avoid listening to music while trying to absorb new information, though if your aural environment is particularly distracting then music without lyrics or white noise can be useful. Don't use unfamiliar music or music with lyrics in as this will unnecessarily tax your ability to focus. Music can increase productivity for mundane or well-practiced tasks involving low mental effort.

Learning Material

Before going any further I'd advise you to watch this video[c]. It's an excellent explanation of why just going over material isn't enough to actually learn it and additionally dispels a few myths about the important factors in learning.
  1. Understand the principles behind 'deep processing'[c]
    The key thing to understand here is that the more you relate a new concept to ones previously learned, the more likely you are to remember it. This is far more effective than learning by rote, not only does it improve recall but it also improves your ability to apply the material. A study strategy that forces you to process things deeply is called to as an orienting task[c].
  2. Develop your metacognition[c]
    Metacognition refers to your beliefs about how well you know the material you're studying. Overconfidence here is negatively correlated with academic success (see the video) and can prevent you from updating on new material[d]. One of the reasons for this negative correlation is that overconfident learners spend less time on material than they should. Being sure to test yourself on your knowledge regularly can go a long way to combating this. 
  3. Understand the difference between recognition and recollection[a]
    Related to the previous point, a sense of recognition is one of the biggest causes of overconfidence when reviewing material. A good solution is to test yourself on your ability to recall material before you review it. Not only will doing so help you avoid mistaking recognition for recollection, but knowing what you don't know will help target your revision. 
  4. Troubleshoot your understanding[e]
    In most subjects, concepts have a chain of dependencies with advanced concepts depending on the more fundamental ones (in mathematics this chain is particularly long). If you're having trouble understanding a new concept it is very unlikely that you're inherently bad at understanding that concept, rather there's a flaw in your understanding of the more fundamental concepts that lead up to it. Target your understanding of those and understanding the concept in question will become much easier.

Holding onto Information

Once you've processed the material effectively you need to be able to recall it efficiently. While deep processing helps you get information into long term memory, getting it to stay there is a different matter entirely. Memory follows what's known as the forgetting curve[3]. Forgetting has not so much to do with losing the information, but rather having trouble retrieving it – and as far as learning goes you haven't really learned something until you can effectively retrieve the information.
  1. Test yourself on material[4]
    Practicing retrieval has a dramatic effect on your ability to recall information. Key to this method is ensuring your cues are appropriate to the way you're going to be test, so past paper questions tend to be best. When using flashcards it is important to make sure that the cues require you to not only recall the information, but process it on a deep level too. 
  2. Make use of spaced repetition[4]
    Spaced repetition is testing yourself on material over incrementally larger periods of time (an hour, a day, a week, a month and so on). The idea is to test yourself on information just as you're about to forget it and as it turns out, it is far more efficient than just blindly testing yourself on material over and over. Keeping track of when to review information can be a pain, fortunately there's plenty of spaced repetition software out there to do that for you (I personally find Mnemosyne is simple to implement and use).
  3. Get some sleep[a]
    Sleep is absolutely crucial for retention. If you must cram, make sure you do it the night before the exam, if you do things the other way round your memory will be considerably worse off for it. In general make sure you get a good nights sleep every day that you've studied. If you're having trouble sleeping due to spending a lot of time at a computer f.lux might be helpful to you.

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