My favorite class in graduate school was “The Psychology of Learning,” where we discussed the science behind study skills. Not only did this class delve deeply into the fields of cognitive and behavioral psychology, but it also gave me practical tips I could apply to my own life as a student. I wish I had known these study skills – and understood the science behind them – during my middle school, high school, and undergraduate years.
I decided to write this blog on study skills for teenagers like the one I used to be: serious about grades, short on time, and skeptical toward any advice that comes from adults. In each part, I’ll present an exceptionally well-researched learning technique and discuss the psychology behind why it works. If learning is your full-time job, then it makes sense to use study skills that will make you effective and efficient at that job.
Imagine you are walking through a forest. Rather than following a path, you’re trudging through the undergrowth looking for a good location to set up camp. When you return the next day, you notice some faint evidence of your passage the day before. This time, you stomp down the weeds and cut back the undergrowth to leave a clear trail to your campsite. You return a week later and notice parts of your path are disappearing back into the forest. So, you widen the path and put down mulch to keep the weeds at bay. In time, you may even pave the path and make it a permanent roadway.
The human brain is made up of approximately one hundred billion neurons. Each one of them can be connected to 10,000 other neurons. Electrochemical signals can travel down these pathways of neurons, with each path being a unique thought or idea. Like in the story about the forest, pathways that are used frequently become more permanent over time, and those that are not used will disappear back into the landscape. There is something special that happens when you realize one of your neural pathways is beginning to degrade. Your brain responds by strengthening the connections that make it up. If you learn how to capitalize on this moment – the moment when you are beginning to forget something but haven’t completely forgotten it – your study time becomes more effective and efficient.
You can accomplish this effect using a study technique called spaced repetition. That is, you study a new fact or concept, give yourself a little time to start to forget, then review it again before you have completely forgotten. The sensation of partially forgetting something triggers a strengthening of the neural pathways that make up that memory.
Contrast spaced repetition with massed practice, cramming all your study time into a single session. Hundreds1 of psychological researchers have demonstrated that when you allow for a gap in your study time you retain information better than when you study for the same amount of time, but without the gap.
In one such study, Professor Kate Gordon asked the students in four college psychology classes to memorize the Athenian Oath. 2 Some of the classes were read the Athenian Oath three times and then three more times a few days later. Other classes heard the Oath six times in a row. All the classes were quizzed on the oath immediately after the sixth reading and again a few days later. The classes who heard the oath six times in a row did remember slightly better when asked to immediately recall the information. However, after a wait of only a few days, the students in the spaced repetition group remembered significantly more. 3
Professor Gordon’s simple study shows that spaced repetition is better than massed practice for long term retention. It also demonstrates how massed practice can lead to the illusion of learning. That is, if you give yourself a quick quiz after a cram session, you can trick yourself into thinking that you have remembered the material. What actually happened was that you established a new neural pathway and then traveled down that pathway again without allowing any time for deterioration. Since you didn’t wait for that moment when you are just starting to forget, your brain didn’t feel the need to strengthen the memory.
So the next time you decide you have the time for one more episode of Stranger Things before you start to study for tomorrow’s test, do this instead: Study for 30 minutes, watch your show, then get back to studying.
Articles in This Series:
- Kang SHK. Spaced Repetition Promotes Efficient and Effective Learning: Policy Implications for Instruction. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 2016;3(1):12-19. doi:10.1177/2372732215624708
- Athenian Oath: We will never bring disgrace on this our City by an act of dishonesty or cowardice. We will fight for the ideals and Sacred Things of the City both alone and with many. We will revere and obey the City’s laws, and will do our best to incite a like reverence and respect in those above us who are prone to annul them or set them at naught. We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty. Thus, in all these ways, we will transmit this City not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.
- Gordon, K. (1925). Class results with spaced and unspaced memorizing. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 8, 337-343.