What Research Tells Us About Effective Studying

Originally written as a letter to parents in May 2013.

As parents, one way you can help your children prepare for exams is to encourage them to follow a study schedule that avoids last-minute cramming. Approached properly, studying for exams can be an exercise in synthesis and self-understanding. Students, with the help of study guides and discussions with their teachers, should identify the key themes, content, and skills from the entire semester.  Once they have identified these, they should ask themselves three questions:

  1. What topics have I already mastered?
  2. What topics require further reinforcement in order to master them?
  3. What topics still confuse me, and how can I get the help I need to understand them before the exam?

Organizing information in this way early in the study process empowers students to seek the help they need and allows them to prioritize their time.

In addition, here are three more study suggestions, based on cognitive research, that you may want to share with your children.

  1. Diversify Where You Study: Research show that studying the same material in more than one physical space helps students retain information better.  For example, if you study vocabulary words in the kitchen, your brain makes subtle associations between the words and the sights and smells of the environment. If you then move to the living room, the brain is forced to make new associations – in essence encoding the information in two different ways.  This allows for easier recall later.
  2. Diversify What You Study in a Single Session:  Athletes know that it can be helpful for muscles to alternate exercises – strength training, aerobic activity, etc. The brain is also a muscle, and research finds that moving between related subjects in a single study session helps with later recall.  So consider reviewing vocabulary, grammar, and literature in one session. When reviewing a foreign language, mix up speaking and reading.  One advantage of “mixing it up” is that it mimics the exams themselves, where students will jump between concepts and skills in a single sitting.
  3. Space Your Study Sessions:  Cramming may boost short-term recall, but it does not allow our brains to encode material for long-term use.  The more effective – and less stressful – solution is to study a smaller amount each day.  This allows the brain to encounter the material frequently and in different environments.

For more research on studying, I recommend this article from the New York Times


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