Highlighting textbooks doesn’t count as studying.
Older studies in psychology are recently receiving new attention. They say highlighting and underlining aren’t efficient methods of retaining information for classes.
“Most students know the big myths about studying,” said Ben Motz, senior lecturer and director of pedagogy in the Department of Psychology and Brain Studies. “Don’t cram. Get a good breakfast. Sleep the night before ... most of them are true, but some of the oldest aren’t effective.”
Students in psychology are now being taught to try a new method, one that requires less stress and cramming.
“Study for short amounts of time,” Motz said. “You’ll do better on the test if you practice instead of studying over and over. The reason it works is because you’re giving yourself a study, like your test.”
According to a study by Jeff Karpicke, associate professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University, this studying tactic has been proven effective. Students who studied for short amounts of time and took practice tests did better than students who studied by reading the text and simply tried to memorize it. The retrieval practice, as it’s called, produces greater gains in “meaningful” learning than elaborative studying.
“It’s one of the most effective ways to study,” Motz said. “Like with snowboarding. You’d want to study for a test on how well you can do it by going out and practicing snowboarding, not by reading a book on how to snowboard.”
Rob Goldstone, chancellor’s professor of psychological and brain sciences and the director of the Cognitive Science Program at IU, has put a lot of time into the study of how students should study and has come to the same conclusion.
“I’m not sure that there’s a best way to study,” Goldstone said. “But there are tricks. You have to actively test your knowledge. Test your memory and actively practice. Quiz yourself. Use flashcards and write questions on one side and answers on the other.”
Goldstone has done studies of his own on the subject here at IU, even testing in Monroe County schools. According to his studies, two different types of studying exist — massed and spaced.
“Spaced studying is studying a little bit at a time with space in between, for example, studying for a psychology exam that’s on Thursday for 20 minutes on Monday, 20 on Tuesday and 20 on Wednesday instead of for 60 minutes on Wednesday all at once,” Goldstone said. “Massed studying is cramming all at once.”
Teachers can also teach differently to help students retain the information as well.
“One thing we’ve found is that it’s good for a teacher to idealize,” Goldstone said. “It’s not always better to do it realistically. Details and background inhibit because they’re too tied to a first situation. It’s most advantageous to simplify.”
According to studies on the subject, these methods will help students relate what they learn to their lives, making it easier to practice. But it isn’t only up to the teachers. What students learn is due to what and how they study.
“Explain the material to yourself,” Goldstone said. “It won’t seep in by osmosis.”
Goldstone and Motz both offered advice on how students should study as well. Making practice tests and mixing up what’s being studied are some of the best ways to retain. And of course, leave out the highlighting, Motz said.
“Deeply engage in the material,” Goldstone said. “It takes effort, but you’ll get no gains if you don’t put in the effort.”