Science Says This Is the Most Effective Way to Learn (but You Weren’t Taught It in School)
By Jessica Stillman
Whether you went to school in Alabama or Alaska, a pricey private institution or the local public elementary, chances are excellent that your day was organized roughly the same. The day was carved into a certain number of short blocks, with different subjects assigned to each slot. Bing, the bell rang, and you moved from math to biology or whatnot.
It seems like a sensible enough way to keep chaos at bay and help teachers plan their days, but according to science there’s one not-so-minor problem with this way of arranging learning: It forces schools to move away from a study method that’s been proved to help us actually learn the fastest.
Spread-out learning is more effective learning.
According to research, if you really want new material to stick, the best way to study is something called “distributed practice.” That means that if you want to master a new concept, your best bet is to study hard for a short period of time, take a break, and then have another go at it, spreading intense bursts of learning over a long period of time.
But while research shows this is one of the best ways to practice, it doesn’t necessary fit neatly into the usual way school days are planned. Creative teachers could, of course, work around that to incorporate the strategy into their plans, but according to Kent State’s John Dunlosky, who led a team of psychologists to review the evidence for a great variety of learning strategies, many teachers are simply unaware of the benefits of distributed practice and other science-backed techniques.
“These strategies are largely overlooked in the educational psychology textbooks that beginning teachers read, so they don’t get a good introduction to them or how to use them while teaching,” Dunlosky commented.
But while you (or your children) are unlikely to use distributed learning at school, that doesn’t mean you can’t inform yourself and improve your study techniques at home or work. The takeaway is clear: It’s past time to ditch the highlighter and take a more scientific approach to learning.
“I was shocked that some strategies that students use a lot — such as rereading and highlighting — seem to provide minimal benefits to their learning and performance. By just replacing rereading with delayed retrieval practice [i.e., spreading out studying], students would benefit,” Dunlosky concluded.
What other study techniques are backed by science?
Looking for more research on how to learn faster and more efficiently? There’s a lot out there, and it deserves a higher profile. Check out this roundup of ideas or take a deeper dive into another research-backed study technique known as interleaving.