Whether we’re traditional students or adult learners, we’re often taught what to learn, but we’re not often taught how. Fortunately, cognitive psychologists and expert educators have identified six learning strategies that actually work. Experiment with each tactic individually; then, try combining them. Take note of what works best for you on different types of assignments.
Space it out
Success Coaches and professors alike will often suggest that students space out their learning.
That is, try splitting your studying into a number of half-hour sessions across several days instead of cramming for hours the night before a test. During each study session, quickly review the material you studied in your previous sessions. The goal is to review concepts multiple times across multiple days.
Spreading out your studying and repeating ideas and skills is the path to more efficient, effective learning. You’ll also find that you actually remember what you learned beyond any assignment, quiz, or test, which is the ultimate goal.
Bring it back
Retrieval is all about putting away your reading and notes and then trying to remember as much information as possible without the aid of those materials. Write down or say aloud (to yourself or a study partner) everything you can recall. Then, review for accuracy.
Sound a bit like using flashcards when learning vocabulary? That’s because it’s the same approach.
For example, when I was taking language courses and knew I had a quiz on conjugating verbs coming up, I’d spend each study session writing down all the verb tenses I could remember. Then, I’d revisit the charts in my textbook and correct my mistakes. In my next study sessions (see “Space it out” above), I’d do it all again. Each time, I’d remember more and more. Even better, I retained those conjugations long after the quiz and could then apply them to translating as I was reading.
Draw it out
Have you ever noticed diagrams and infographics in your textbook or other course materials? You may have seen labeled pictures of the components of artificial intelligence in a computer science course or a chart contrasting the branches of government in a political science lesson. If you have, then you already have a good sense of something called dual coding: a strategy in which you combine words with pictures. The idea is that you learn more effectively by combining different formats of information—in this case, the visual and the verbal.
You can use the same approach to understand new information—and you don’t have to be an artist! For example, you might draw a timeline of events as you’re reading for your history class. You could draw a family tree to keep track of characters for a novel in an English course. Or you might sketch and label a molecule so you can better visualize the relationship between its atoms.
Your drawings don’t need to be perfect, but remember to use visuals that also include words.
Nail it down
Similar to using visual illustration, using concrete examples to illustrate an abstract concept is something parents, teachers, and writers do all the time to clarify a topic. Coming up with your own models can be just as useful when you’re trying to learn new material.
For example, if you’re taking a biology course, homeostasis can be somewhat difficult to grasp if you only encounter its definition: “a relatively stable state of equilibrium or a tendency toward such a state between the different but interdependent elements or groups of elements of an organism, population, or group.” So instead, imagine a dog that is on a walk with their human. The pup’s body temperature rises, so they begin to pant, which enables them to cool down. That illustration of a dog’s body trying to reach “a relatively stable state of equilibrium” is much easier to learn and remember because it’s familiar, specific, and concrete.
If you develop your own concrete examples, consult your professor, teaching assistant, or peer tutor to make sure you’re on the right track. You’ll want to avoid confusing yourself by coming up with a not-quite-there example of the concept you’re trying to understand.
Switch it up
Technically known as interleaving, this strategy involves mixing up the topics or skills you’re trying to learn. This is especially relevant to science and math courses, but you can try it in other subjects too.
For example, you might be asked to work through trigonometry problem sets on sine, cosine, and tangent. You could approach the homework as is: work through all the sine problems first, then cosine, and finally tangent. But you could also try interleaving the exercises, meaning you’d mix them up: sine, cosine, tangent, cosine, tangent, sine, tangent, sine, cosine.
Switching between concepts or strategies might mean you’ll make more mistakes as you practice, and it can take longer. However, you will learn the material more deeply.
Flesh it out
Elaboration is all about adding details and connections between ideas as you’re describing or explaining a concept. The idea is to ask questions about the topics you’re learning in a reading, lecture, or discussion. You can use the questions often used in journalism: who, what, when, where, why, how, and so what? Then, as you’re reading or taking notes in class, look for answers to your questions.
For instance, maybe you’re taking a sociology class. Your syllabus suggests that in an upcoming class, you’ll be discussing how different things and people shape our beliefs. You might ask, Who or what most shapes our beliefs? How do family, peers, and media influence our self-perception? When does this process happen? Why does this process matter? You’d then make sure to answer these questions as you’re working through your class materials.
This strategy is especially challenging. It can be tricky to know which questions to ask at first—and to verify that you’re answering them correctly! But if you want to give it a try, consult your professor or TA what kinds of questions you should be asking. You can also visit office hours to make sure you’re answering your questions accurately.
Keep it up
You don’t have to try all of these learning strategies at once. Pick one, and give it a shot in a class or two. Then, try a few more techniques here and there, and see what works best—and what doesn’t work!—for you. Ultimately, you can work your way up to combining strategies, such as drawing things out (dual coding) from memory (retrieval) or coming up with concrete examples during spaced-out study sessions.
Implementing these science-backed learning strategies can be difficult at first. They often take more time and effort than less effective methods, such as reviewing your notes over and over again. But don’t give up! Ultimately, your goal is to learn new concepts and skills more deeply so that they stay with you long after you’ve completed a course. Applying learning strategies that actually work will therefore benefit you much more in the long run. Good luck!
Need more study tips?
ReUp Success Coaches are here to listen and help you brainstorm learning strategies tailored to your individual needs. Your support team is available by phone, text, or email. Would you like guidance on achieving success—both inside and outside the classroom?