Frequently asked questions about learning strategies

I have used summarizing throughout my studies and I always passed the test. Why is it not effective?

Passive summarizing, by copy-pasting the most important information from a textbook to another document is not effective for long-term learning because it is a very passive strategy. Maybe you passed the exam with it, but can you still remember what you have written in that summary? Make your summaries more effective, by writing them in your own words, always checking whether you actually understand what you write down. You can also use the Cornell-technique: write for each paragraph of your summary a question or a keyword. Then cover your summary and try to answer the questions you wrote or actively explain the main message of that paragraph. That way, you can make your summary more effective, which will help you to remember the information longer. Even after the exam!


How can I use practice testing? How can I test myself?

There are many different ways how you can test yourself:

  1. Make your own flashcards, on papercards or on online platforms such as quizlet or anki. There you can also easily exchange the flashcards with your peers.
  2. Look for old exams or available practice questions in textbooks and test yourself with these questions
  3. Dump your knowledge: write everything you know about a topic on a white page. Check afterwards, whether you covered everything
  4. Take your summary, write keywords or questions about each paragraph on one side of the page, then cover your summary and answer these questions
  5. Draw a picture or process of something you are learning, can you explain everything without the textbook?
  6. Meet up with your friends and test each other
  7. Can you think of other ways to test yourself? Be creative! Everything that forces you to retrieve the knowledge from your memory is beneficial.

We do not get access to previous exams. How and where can I get good practice questions?

Some textbooks have practice questions at the end of each chapter. Often, student associations collect exam protocols or offer a ‘pubquiz’ before an exam, with often asked questions. Or you can make some questions yourself and together with your peers. Check with your tutor whether the answers of your questions are correct. But you can practice retrieval also by simply ‘dump your knowledge’: write everything you know about a topic on a white sheet of paper. Afterwards, check, whether you covered all important aspects. Or take 10 minutes after each tutorial to write the key concepts on a flashcard. Test yourself with your own flashcards.


I cannot read without highlighting, I need it to focus on the text. What shall I do?

If highlighting helps you to concentrate on the text while reading, that is fine. You do not have to stop highlighting immediately. But be aware: by only highlighting and rereading, you won’t be able to remember the learning content for a long-time. Highlighting is a strategy that helps you to select the most important information, but makes it difficult to see the connections between topics. It can also create a fluency-illusion: by highlighting and rereading, learning feels easy and it creates an illusion that you know that knowledge. But can you explain what you highlighted without your notes? Combine highlighting for example with self-explanation and elaboration techniques.


How much space should I leave between learning or quizzing the same information?

While there has been lots of research about spacing intervals and lags between study sessions, finding the optimal spacing interval between two study sessions can be quite tricky. On the one hand, when studying and repeating the same material in short intervals, studying can be too much like cramming and the benefits of distributed practice don’t come to light. On the other hand, are the intervals between two study sessions too long, so much could be forgotten that you have to re-study the information from scratch again. Some study apps like “Anki” try to incorporate the optimal study interval and remind you when you have to restudy information. The principle of distributed practice is to bring information to memory again, shortly before it is forgotten. Thereby, it is important, that you still need to actively think about the information you try to retrieve and create some amount of difficult. Is it too easy (too short intervals) or too difficulty (too long intervals), learning becomes difficult. Try and experiment with different study intervals to find out, what works best!

If you want to read more about distributed practice:

(1) Cepeda, N. J., Vul, E., Rohrer, D., Wixted, J. T., & Pashler, H. (2008). Spacing effects in learning a temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. Psychological Science, 19, 1095-1102.

 


It takes too much time to make practice questions, rereading is so much faster. What can I do?

Changing your study strategies takes time and it can be difficult and overwhelming in the beginning. So try to start small: while you reread your study material, stop after each paragraph and write a keyword or a question about that paragraph next to it. In the next study session, start to answer 3-5 of these questions without looking at your notes. Check afterwards, whether your answers where correct. Did you cover everything? This will cost you a bit more time, but it will be worth it!