3 Evidence-backed Study Tactics that Effectively Improve Learning for Anyone

How to study efficiently and build strong, stable memories

Jan 9 · 4 min read
Photo by Philippe Bout on Unsplash

By Bryan Kitch

There are a lot of different theories on how to learn and retain information on Medium, and often those ideas are articulated in ways specific to individual experiences with studying, or academic pursuits.

But there are 3 things that are backed by more than 100 years of research that anyone can do to improve their ability to learn and recall information:

  1. Distributed learning — i.e. learning that is spaced out over time
  2. Retrieval practice — sometimes called ‘active learning’ or ‘the testing effect,’ where you ask yourself to actively recall the material
  3. Timing the intervals between learning sessions based on the principle of ‘desirable difficulty,’ where you review the information just as it is beginning to fade from memory — this is the optimal time to strengthen those memory pathways

Like what?

  • First, spacing your learning out over time doesn’t mean you do a 6-hour session, and then another 6-hour session two months later. As with exercise, it’s far better to do shorter sessions at more regular intervals. Yet, who among us hasn’t crammed for an exam?
  • Second, retrieval practice has to be active. Simply re-reading, highlighting, or going over notes does not have the same effect. It’s the action of recalling the information that builds stronger and more stable memories. This is why you’ll see people saying things like ‘teach what you want to learn’ — explaining something to someone is effective because it involves active recall. Also, it’s ok to get it wrong — in fact, as Cerego’s adaptive learning platform as shown, being asked to remember something, getting it wrong, and being reminded of the correct answer immediately afterwards actually boosts your retention nearly as much as getting the answer right.
  • Third, timing your reviews isn’t as simple as setting a schedule for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The key is to time reviews according to when your memories are fading — a principle of cognitive science that goes back to Hermann Ebbinghaus in the 19th century, who established what is called ‘the forgetting curve.’

What Ebbinghaus found is that we forget what we learn at a predictable rate. Along that forgetting curve, there is an optimal time for review, which helps strengthen your retention of the material. That sweet spot is the key to what is known as ‘desirable difficulty’ — the moment in time when it is difficult, but not impossible to recall the information. This is has been well established by the research of UCLA’s Robert Bjork.

(Much more on the science here in this interactive tutorial.)

This requires an understanding of how your mind works, and what areas or subjects might be weaker or stronger. This can also be affected by prior knowledge or related knowledge for a given subject.

While the first and second step of this process are fairly self explanatory, Step 3 is just as critical to building long-term knowledge, but very difficult for an individual to execute, especially across multiple subjects or disciplines. It’s almost impossible to know, for example, how your ability to learn and retain Spanish compares to your ability to learn and retain, say, astrophysics. Still, the creation of long-term memories, and ultimately foundational knowledge, of these subjects is partly contingent on how well you can time your reviews.

That’s where artificial intelligence and machine learning can play an important role in helping humans learn faster and remember better, by automatically determining the timing of reviews to the exact moment when it is most likely to build retention, on a per-person, per-subject basis.

Even without machine learning, knowing your aptitude for certain subjects can help you determine where you might need more reviews, or more frequent reviews — this is a process called metacognition, or understanding your own thought processes. Even without the assistance of machine learning, metacognition can be a valuable tool in determining how and when to review material you are trying to turn into long-term knowledge.

When studying new material only once, the stats say you are likely to forget 70% of that new information in 24 hours. Use the techniques above to strengthen those memories and build foundational knowledge, which is the key to unlocking your analytical and creative mind.

Cerego | The Future of Learning

How learning, training, and upskilling are evolving in the…


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Cerego | The Future of Learning

How learning, training, and upskilling are evolving in the Information Age

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