Better learning and recall

Psychologists at top universities worldwide have spent decades conducting experiments to determine what helps people to learn and recall information more effectively. Here are three of the most powerful, scientifically proven approaches you can use to make the most of your studying and give yourself the best chances of exam success


1. Elaborative questioning

If you have spent much time around young children, you will know that they often ask the question ‘Why?’ In fact, it’s not only children who do it. Humans of all ages are incredibly inquisitive by nature. 

Asking ‘Why?’ can also help us to learn facts more effectively. In a typical research experiment, scientists typically invite groups of participants to learn a list of facts. Some of the participants are simply told to read the facts while others are instructed to ask themselves why the facts may be true. On testing people’s subsequent recall of the facts, researchers have usually found that people who asked themselves ‘Why?’ questions typically perform significantly better.

To use this technique, be sure to ask yourself questions as you read material. Once you have finished reading say a handful of paragraphs or about a particular concept, formulate a question to ask yourself. You could use question prompts such as ‘Why does it make sense that…?’ or ‘Why is this true?’ or simply ‘Why?’ Then interrogate your own understanding by trying to answer the question.

Elaborative questioning seems to work because it encourages us to make connections between what we’re learning and what we already know. It prompts us to think about both similarities and differences between related facts and concepts.

2. Distributed learning

Suppose you have a test coming up in a week’s time and you can devote no more than seven hours to studying the topic. One approach would be to study for seven hours on say your one day off. An alternative would be to study for one hour a day over the course of the entire week.

Psychologists say that doing a large amount of study in a single sitting or a small number of sessions would be called mass practice. In contrast, doing your study in small chunks over a larger number of sessions would be called distributed practice.

A vast body of research shows that distributed practice leads to significantly better recall. In other words, if you want to get the most out of your limited study time, aim to study in short but frequent bursts.

Many students end up trying to cram all of their learning into the few days or weeks before an exam. But trust the research: most people do considerably better when they do larger numbers of short study sessions.

3. Practice testing

Few people like taking tests. Certainly, having to take a formal test or exam can cause a lot of people anxiety. However, people’s feelings about formal tests obscures the fact that even tests that we put together for ourselves can help to boost learning. In fact, there are several hundred studies showing that testing boosts learning and the retention of information.

To benefit from practice testing, simply make yourself do more tests. That could be in the form of official example questions that you have obtained. Alternatively, you could work with a fellow student. For instance, you could put together a short 10-question test on a topic for a study partner while he or she puts together a similar 10-question test for you.

Another option would be to put together questions for yourself. As you read your materials and take notes, try to write down occasional questions that you could later ask yourself. Ideally, write down these questions in a separate document.

Then, perhaps some hours or days later, look back at the questions and try to answer them. The mere act of trying to recall the information will ensure that the information is more deeply processed. That means that you will be more likely to retain that knowledge for when you need to recall it again during your exams.

Final thoughts

The three techniques we have discussed are fairly straightforward. However, the important thing is to apply them. Understanding the techniques is not enough. You actually have to use them to get the benefit out of them.

If you want to study more effectively and perform well in your exams, take a few minutes now to figure out how you will integrate these techniques into your study time. How will you remind yourself to ask ‘Why?’ during your studies? How could you reschedule your study time to distribute study sessions more evenly throughout the year? How could you take notes in a different fashion to allow more self-testing from now on?

Spend a little time preparing now. It may be a few minutes that could make a major difference to your learning and ultimate exam performance.

"On testing people’s subsequent recall of the facts, researchers have usually found that people who asked themselves ‘Why?’ questions typically perform significantly better"