For many students crunch-time studying means locking themselves a room and frantically re-reading all of their notes.
But it turns out, that’s not an effective method at all, explains Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of the new book, “Learn Better.” In fact, science shows that repetition is actually an outdated practice that conflicts with the way our brains are wired.
We spoke to Ulrich for some practical tips for those who want to become better learners — in any subject.
Take time to reflect
“To understand any sort of skill or knowledge, we have to reflect on that skill,” says Boser. He encourages people to jot down everything that went well during class or practice in a journal. Something as simple as, 'In hockey class today, I discovered that I need to use my hips more,’ or ‘My acting instructor told me that I need to project my voice more,’ can be enough to spark a richer form of learning,” says Boser.
The benefits of reflection also apply to test taking, he explains. Students often believe that their first answer is their best answer — think of the common test tip strategies that encourage the “go with your gut” mentality — but it turns out, that’s not the case. In fact, there’s a whole trove of evidence that suggests that thinking through your answers leads to better test scores, explains Boser.
Mix it up
Despite popular belief, doing the same thing over and over again doesn’t actually make you any better at it, says Boser. “If you’re practicing piano for instance, a lot of people think, ‘On Tuesday, I’m going to do Bach, Wednesday, I’ll do Chopin and Thursday, I’ll do Mozart,” he explains. And while dedicating the entire day to one style may seem efficient, it’s actually not. So what’s the better approach? “Mixing up each session. So that Tuesday you practice Chopin, Mozart and Bach,” explains the expert. Doing that will help you pay more attention to each one, and get out of the habit of repetitive learning, which we know is not that effective.”
Even something as simple as switching up locations can make a big difference, he continues. “Rather than spending the entire day in the same little corner in the library, you’d be better off working a little bit in the cafeteria, then maybe at home, and so forth.”
People imagine brains as computers. “They think that if data comes at us, we’re going to acquire that data,” explains Boser, “except that’s not really how our mind works.” The truth is, we need to conceptualize material in order to fully grasp it, which is why quizzing is so important. Plus, “the practice of retrieving something from memory is what actually helps us to remember it,” says the expert.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to spend all day running through flashcards. After you’ve finished reading through your notes, ask yourself, “What does this remind me of?,” “How could I apply this in real life?” “How would I explain this to a friend?” says Boser. “Those types of questions are a bit more elaborative, and force you to think more richly about the material,” which in the long run, will help it stick.