GUEST POST: A Student Tries out the Six Strategies for Effective Learning
By Syeda Nizami
As most of our readers already know, we’ve been creating materials to communicate with teachers and students about six learning strategies that have received strong evidence from cognitive psychology. We know these strategies can help students if they apply them – but what’s it like for a student to actually use them? In this post, Syeda Nizami (@sniz77) – a UMass Lowell junior currently doing BAs in English and Psychology – describes her attempts to use each strategy for one week at a time. Syeda’s previous contributions to the blog can be found here.
When first considering a quiz or an exam, many students don’t know how to approach studying. Should I start studying three days before the exam? Or should I just cram the day before? Should I make flashcards or just read the book? Take notes on my laptop or handwrite them? There are a lot of techniques and ways to study, but some are more likely to get you the A on that quiz than others. In fact, there are six learning strategies, as emphasized on this blog, whose effectiveness reigns superior to others:
I put these six evidence-based strategies to the test for the past six weeks. I used a different strategy each week to prepare for my weekly Research Methods quizzes, examining my own experience using each strategy, the difficulty (regarding time or thought) that went into it, as well as how I perceived the overall effectiveness of the strategy, as well as my own results with using it.
Week 1: Spaced Practice
During Week 1 of this venture, I employed spacing as my first strategy to practice. Confession: I am usually not the type to space out my studying too often. I usually do start studying for an exam at least two days ahead, but with quizzes, I usually find myself waiting until the day before to review the materials. This was a change of pace for me – one that proved useful. After my first Research Methods class that week, I followed the Spaced Practice poster to a T, spreading out time to study over the course of a week rather than a single day. My class took place every Monday and Wednesday morning, so studied on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. I also briefly reviewed the day’s material after I got home from work on the days I had class. This strategy was incredibly invaluable to me, not only that week but throughout the semester, as spacing allowed me to recall information from this chapter better than any other. However, it was difficult to fit my spaced out studying with my hectic schedule (one of the downfalls of working a lot and having a full course load!), and I had to fit in studying at odd times to make it work; but the overall experience was satisfying as I got a 100 on the quiz. I can much better recall the material now that I am preparing for the final, and I owe that to spacing.
Week 2: Retrieval Practice
The first week went by in a blur of quizzes, exams, and papers, and the next week was even more chaotic, so I was almost grateful I didn’t have to do spacing that week. I had moved on to retrieval practice – something I already do on my own when studying. Throughout my high school and college career, one thing has always worked for me: flashcards. This was my tried and true method of studying for a quiz or exam, especially when dealing with terminology – and Research Methods is full of terminology! I created flashcards for every term in the chapter, and tested myself by asking myself to define each word without looking at the opposite side. I tried to go beyond simply regurgitating the exact definition and instead put it in my own words. I repeated this until I felt I understood each term. This wasn’t much different than the way I usually study, so it worked as effectively as always. I personally think this is the best method of studying as it allows you to study whenever you have the time and gives you materials to work with on the go. I would study on the bus from my internship, or when walking home. I again got a 100 on the quiz, and with the midterm the next week, these study strategies would continue to be useful.
Week 3: Elaboration
Now that I had a good grasp on the chapters from weeks past, it was finally time to review them for the midterm. Elaboration couldn’t have come at a better time, as now I could dive deeper into the material by asking “how” and “why” questions about past chapters, and answering them by connecting ideas from one chapter to another. Elaboration also involves trying to apply the ideas learned in class to personal experiences, and as I am working as a research assistant on several projects, I applied many of the things I learned to what I did at work and tried to make connections to what I was learning. For example, I had learned about between-subjects and within-subjects design experiments, and I applied these concepts to the work I was doing on data analysis of a healthy homes intervention. Honestly, elaboration was much more useful than I had initially thought it would be, especially when reviewing for an exam such as this one. It made the material stick in my mind, and allowed me to draw conclusions and connections that I would not have realized otherwise.
Week 4: Interleaving
After I finished my midterms, the semester only picked up for me as professors piled on more and more projects and quizzes. I again relied on the study strategies to keep me on track with my studying. Next on my list was interleaving, or switching between ideas during a study session. The topic I was studying that week was surveys, so I made sure to switch between different types of surveys and not spend too much time on a specific survey type. This allowed me to see the differences between each type of survey. It would have been interesting to try switching between different class work within one subject to make broader connections, but since I wasn’t taking any other psychology courses I couldn’t do so. Hopefully, other students who try out these strategies for themselves can have a go at this.
Week 5: Concrete Examples
The next week, I dove into working on coming up with concrete examples for my next quiz. There were only a few quizzes left in the semester, and this was one of the last ones. The process of finding concrete examples involves collecting examples from notes made in class, the book, and other class materials. I reviewed my textbook, the slides, as well as other handouts, for each relevant term and section of the chapter. I wrote down each example and explained how the example applied to the idea. Having examples of a concept is always helpful, especially when trying to differentiate one concept from another. I did do well on the quiz, getting 9 out of 10 of the questions correct, but I still felt as if this strategy wasn’t as beneficial as the other strategies I used.
Week 6: Dual Coding
Finally, I had arrived at the penultimate quiz before the final, as well as my last week using the study strategies during this six-week experience. I never use visuals to illustrate my notes; for the most part, Psychology and especially English courses remain very word-based courses with not many diagrams, which is a shame, as making the circle diagram for my quiz this week helped me to synthesize more information in a single page than my notes could. The use of pictures and words together allowed me to explain more than I could with words alone. It made me truly think about the material and find images that could help me understand the material better. As a side note, making the circle diagram was a lot of fun as well as helpful now that I’m preparing for the final exam.
Overall, each of the six strategies had their strengths and weaknesses, and it somewhat depends on which method is preferable to you, but I think the two that are truly essential are retrieval practice and spacing. Retrieval practice was and is my preferred way of studying for a quiz or exam, but this experience made me realize how truly useful it is. To be perfectly honest, spacing was a strategy I had never tried out before, even though teachers had always stressed that cramming wasn’t effective. I enjoyed trying out different methods of studying and each of them made it so that studying didn’t get repetitive because I wasn’t doing the same thing each time I sat down to work. There is a lot to consider when sitting down to study, and now with finals rapidly approaching, these strategies will be more valuable than ever.