Are you appearing for an exam? If you are—whether it's school exams, the SAT, GMAT or IIT-JEE—this post offers some useful tips.
Many times, we might hear children or ourselves say, "I don't feel prepared", or "Oh I'm not good at this", or "I am horrible at math". We think that we are not good learners. But often, our struggles just mean that we are not using effective practices to learn.
Learning is the product of mental effort and the right strategies. For example, when you are asked a question on something you learnt about, and you don't remember the answer. Even if you dont know, try to recollect as hard as you can, try to come up with things related to it- i.e mental effort. There has been lot of research to understand how we learn best. Evidence has shown that oftentimes we give up easily, as we misjudge our own learning and memory. Learning is better if it is a long-term process, as opposed to cramming for exams and then forgetting everything in a week. Long-term retention is important as that allows us to recollect the knowledge we have acquired and to apply it in new situations.
Research on long-term memory shows that learning can be optimized if we use the following four strategies.
1. Less input, more output
Instead of studying to learn, you should test yourself in order to learn. Often, when we want to learn we keep studying (reading and re-reading) the same thing many times and we think we are learning. However, research shows that learning is better when we test our memory i.e. try to retrieve what we have taken in.
Retrieval is important for learning because you are using your memory actively. The more you recall, the more you remember. Ways to do this include creating study questions, quizzing yourself or others, taking a practice test and so on. These active ways of studying are more effective in generating long-term retention of material than simply sitting in your room and reading a chapter four times.
2. Spacing your studies
For long-term benefits, it's best to spread the bulk of your learning over a sensible period of time. Typically, most of us study just before the exams—we stay up all night and try to cram as much material as we can into our head. Though this kind of study may boost exam performance, most of the information will be forgotten rapidly. Research suggests that spacing your learning of new material or skills over a longer period of time (distributed practice) will improve long-term retention. So, if you need to study something for three hours, it is effective if you study 1 hour each day, rather than studying for three hours in a single day. The reason is that when you wait for a short interval and retrieve that memory later, it bolsters its strength and it's going to be forgotten much slower.
3. Mixing concepts
Often, when we learn multiple concepts, we naturally tend to immerse ourselves in one concept at a time (block practice) and then move on to the next. This type of block practice is extremely prevalent also in sports, skills training etc. Research shows, however, that if you move back and forth between different concepts (interleaved practice), rather than study them in isolation, it actually leads to better learning. Because, this way, you get a better sense of the big picture as you are able to make connections and see differences between the concepts and recall the information flexibly later.
4. Varying locations/cues
Usually, we see parents and teachers guiding children to find one nice quiet place (say a library) to do all their studying. In fact, most of us have our favourite spot to study. Research suggests, though, that learning happens in context. Cues from the environments get associated with the information that we are learning. So, it is advisable to mix up studying in different locations—sometimes in the library, park, kitchen, coffee-shop etc. Here, studying in different contexts gives the learner more cues to remember information and also to trigger those memories better when tested later.