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Studying for Learning

The following material is adapted from Brown, P., Roediger, P., & McDaniel, M. (2014). Make it stick: the science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Have you ever spent lots of time studying only to do poorly on a quiz or test?  You are not alone!  Many Northwestern students share this experience. And there are some straightforward strategies you can use to help make your study time more productive:

  1. Avoid endless re-reading. Generally speaking, reading the same material multiple times – which is a common study strategy among college students – isn’t terribly effective at encouraging retention and understanding of material. A much better approach is to read it carefully once or twice, and then take active learning approaches, like going back and noting important points, making connections among ideas, asking “why” (and trying to answer), and quizzing yourself.
  2. Distrust yourself. Not in general – just in terms of what you think you know. Studies show that students often overestimate what they know, after reading a passage, for example. This is why quizzing yourself can be so useful: It forces you to check your knowledge and points you to where you need to spend more time studying.
  3. Vary your practice. It may seem natural to study in blocks – as in 2 hours of verbs today and 2 hours of nouns tomorrow for my Spanish class – but this is not the way we really use information (most sentences use both!), and it is not the most effective way to learn. Rather than studying one topic (e.g., a particular chapter section, a particular concept, a particular theory) discretely at a time, study related topics together, so that you begin to see the interplay among them. Just as nouns and verbs together help you understand how sentences work, studying three theorists who write on a particular topic can help you deepen your knowledge of that topic, and studying related chemistry concepts together can help you more fully understand the underlying processes.
  4. Quiz yourself. When you have to practice generating information, you’re likely to learn it. It’s not enough just to read the material (or reread or highlight it); in order to learn it deeply, you need to generate it, too. Quiz yourself, paraphrase what you’re read, explain it to somebody else, explain it in a different way – these are all effective ways to ensure the learning sticks.
  5. Elaborate. When you learn something new, don’t be satisfied with just getting the facts. Take them and make them your own. Try to answer a question you have about the information or take a step to learn more about a concept or develop your own maps or metaphors or schematics for a theory or idea. Elaborating on what you learn will help you make more complex connections among pieces of information and ultimately learn more effectively.

Make It Stick at Northwestern Libraries