Put down that highlighter!

… and stop just re-reading your textbook.

Huge study shows that most commonly used revision methods are the least effective

Although a huge amount of research has been carried out over more than a century, looking at learning methods and how effective they are in different circumstances, this knowledge has largely stayed within academia and hasn’t filtered down to either students or teachers.

So it’s not surprising, then, to find that the most commonly-used revision methods are actually the least effective, and people are often fooling themselves about how well they know something that they are revising.

For example, a huge study was carried out in 2013 by John Dunlosky, who lead a team of four other psychologists who sifted through thousands of research papers and graded 10 different revision/learning methods for their effectiveness.

The most commonly used revision methods that students use are highlighting and re-reading texts.

Sadly, the least effective learning methods were highlighting and re-reading texts.

Why is re-reading so useless?

When you go back to a textbook to and re-read it, in the hope that you will be learning more, you are fooling yourself. The page and the text will be very familiar to you because you have seen it before and because we all have a fantastic visual memory.

An experiment carried out in 2008 demonstrated that people could be shown a series of images, 2,500 of them at ten-second intervals, and the test subjects could remember 90% of them a few days later; in fact they could remember 60% of them even a year later!

In 1973 they did a similar experiment using 10,000 images – it took a week to display them all – and test subjects were able to remember more than 80% of what they had seen!

So as soon as you look at the page, what you see will be familiar to you and your mind will be screaming at you, “been there, done that, seen it, seen it, boring, I know what this looks like, old news”

But the fact that the look of the page and the text is familiar to you does not mean that you will be able to recall it, and just reading it again does not mean that you are committing it to memory well.

In the same way, highlighting some text, so you can look at it again another time, does not mean that you are memorising it when you look at it or re-read it.

You need to get active!

Re-reading a textbook, or your notes, is too passive. Highlighting things is too passive. And passive learning is rubbish; it’s not effective, it doesn’t work well.

To memorise well you need to get active, you need to get creative and you need to put in some effort. Potent learning involves some sweat, some strain, some discomfort… and will repay you ten times over!

In later blogs I will explain exactly how to get the most ‘bang for your buck’ in terms of learning and revising, and you’ll be amazed by what’s possible.



Photo credit: Tricia Laing




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