How to Study for Exams: Evidence-Based tips

The Science Behind Why Your Study Methods Aren’t Working (and what to do instead!)

In the first semester of my freshman year of college, I had to take a math class to fulfill my major’s requirements. My advisor enrolled me in a 300 level statistics course, which ended up being much harder than I anticipated. It had been a few years since I had even taken a math class, and I hadn’t ever taken a stats class before. 

That whole semester was a slog, and I got some of the worst grades on quizzes and homework I’d ever gotten. As the end of the semester loomed, I realized I would have to pull off a miracle in the final exam in order to pass and keep up my GPA. 

The week before the final exam, I printed off five copies of the study test our professor had posted online. I took the practice test over and over and over again until I could get a 100% on it without having to look at the book. 

The day of the test came, and all my hard work paid off — I got a great score and passed the class. 

While taking that many practice tests wasn’t easy (and definitely took up a lot of time!) it ended up being incredibly worth it. The practice tests forced me to learn the material inside and out and to not just memorize the formulas, but to understand them and know how to apply them. 

What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had just implemented one of the most effective studying techniques known to modern psychology: active recall. 

Active recall is the practice of retrieving information from your brain. Active recall methods include activities such as practice tests or flashcards. These techniques work incredibly well for learning because they strengthen the pathways in your brain that lead to the information you’re trying to learn and ultimately make it easier for you to remember them when you get the exam.

In the celebrated psychology book, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel, Brown et al. demonstrate the power of active recall through a variety of scientific studies conducted over the last decade. They also shed light on just how effective (or ineffective) some of the most popular studying techniques actually are. 

So, why might your current studying strategies not be working that well for you? And what can you do differently to see an improvement in your learning, and ultimately, on your exams?

First, let’s take a look at what doesn’t work so well when it comes to preparing for tests:

Many people use re-reading as a study strategy. In fact, it’s extremely popular among students to re-read their textbooks over and over, highlighting them, underlining them, even summarizing them. However, it turns out that re-reading is actually not that effective of a studying tool.

In a study conducted by Callender & McDaniel, The limited benefits of rereading educational texts, they demonstrate through four different experiments that re-reading is not as effective as we thought. In their experiment, participants read educational texts and then were tested on the material. With only a few exceptions, the participants who re-read the text did not significantly increase their testing performance. 

As Brown et. al puts it:

“Rereading has three strikes against it. It is time-consuming. It doesn’t result in durable memory. And it often involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the content. The hours immersed in rereading can seem like due diligence, but the amount of study time is no measure of mastery.”

Essentially, while re-reading may seem like a simple and effective studying solution, it actually takes up more time than it’s worth and doesn’t create long-lasting connections because it does not require the re-reader to actively study. 

Brown et al. also discuss that mindless repetition is not a successful study strategy either, since simply being able to repeat something does not necessarily mean you understand it or could apply that information in different ways. 

So if you find yourself studying for an exam by re-reading or repeating facts to yourself over and over, you may not be giving yourself the leg up that you expect. 

But what can you do instead? What would make studying for your exams actually worth your time? How can you learn information more thoroughly and accurately? 

Here’s where active recall (or active retrieval) comes in. 

Brown et al. write:

“Retrieval practice—recalling facts or concepts or events from memory—is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading. Flashcards are a simple example. Retrieval strengthens the memory and interrupts forgetting. A single, simple quiz after reading a text or hearing a lecture produces better learning and remembering than rereading the text or reviewing lecture notes.”

Instead of rereading a text, try creating a set of flashcards either with notecards or with an app on your phone. Practicing flashcards will help you learn which information you already know, and which information you need to practice more. You’ll also be forced to think harder about each flashcard question, further strengthening your brain’s ability to retrieve the information. This method is a simple and effective way to practice active retrieval. 

Brown et al. also recommend, of course, giving yourself practice quizzes. If your teacher has given you practice quizzes to use, that’s great. But if not, you can make your own by writing down questions as you read. Then, when you’re done reading the material, close your book and try answering all the questions you wrote down for yourself. 

Retrieval practices such as these have shown to be much more effective than any other study method. For example, experiments conducted by Roediger & McDaniel in a school district illustrated that active retrieval improved students’ grades from a C+ to an A-, with benefits lasting the rest of the school year. 

But there are even more study methods you can use besides active recall to help enhance your studying. Brown et al. also promote the effectiveness of spaced repetition and interleaving. 

They explain that “practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied, produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility.” So rather than cramming as much information as you can into one night of studying, it’s much more effective to space out your studying over time. 

In a study by Nate Kornell, Optimising Learning Using Flashcards: Spacing Is More Effective Than Cramming, Kornell conducted three experiments where participants used a web-based study program to learn GRE-type word pairs. While 72% of the participants believed that cramming the flashcards would be more effective than spacing the learning out, the experiments actually proved that spacing was more effective than “massing” (or cramming) for 90% of the participants.

So next time you go to practice your flashcards, try spacing out how often you look at them, rather than looking at them just once. 

Finally, interleaving is another effective study method where a student combines different topics together while studying, rather than blocking them separately. In a study conducted by Taylor & Rohrer, children who practiced interleaving during their studying saw worse performance during their study session but actually performed higher on final tests. 

Unfortunately, while we’d all like to have an easy fix to studying — a way to make it all stick in our heads without having to put in more work — countless studies prove that it’s actually when we have more difficulties and put in more effort, that the information sticks. Brown et al. write that “Many teachers believe that if they can make learning easier and faster, the learning will be better. Much research turns this belief on its head: when learning is harder, it’s stronger and lasts longer.” 

Brown et al.’s best advice for learning, then? Embrace difficulties. Embrace when you don’t get the answer right. It means you’re learning! 

Having a positive attitude then, even when you don’t get the flashcards right or you get stuck on a practice quiz question, may just be the most crucial technique for keeping up your study habit and acing your next exam.

Sources

  1. Make it Stick, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel
  2. The limited benefits of rereading educational texts
  3. Test-Enhanced Learning in the Classroom: Long-Term Improvements From Quizzing
  4. Test-Enhanced Learning in a Middle School Science Classroom: The Effects of Quiz Frequency and Placement
  5. Optimising Learning Using Flashcards: Spacing Is More Effective Than Cramming
  6. The Effects of Interleaved Practice

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