Researchers have devoted decades to studying how to study. The research literature is frankly overwhelming. The authors of a comprehensive guide published a few years ago examined ten different study techniques and drew on the results of nearly 400 prior studies. They awarded ratings to the various strategies.
Only two techniques got the top rating: practice testing and “distributed practice” (which means scheduling study activities over some time—the opposite of cramming.)
Practice testing can take the form of flashcards, answering questions at the end of a textbook chapter, or tackling review quizzes online. Practice tests are especially effective when they require “free recall” of learned content, as opposed to what researchers call “recognition tasks,” such as true-or-false questions or multiple-choice.
Testing yourself works because you have to make an effort to pull information from your memory—something we don’t do when we merely review our notes or reread the textbook. The researchers discovered that the act of retrieval is a more potent learning experience than merely restudying.
As for distributed practice vs. cramming, they found that “cramming is better than not studying at all,” but if you are going to devote four or five hours to studying, you would be far better off spacing that time out over several days or weeks. “You get much more bang for your buck if you space it out.”
Combining self-testing with distributed practice is extraordinarily powerful. But, never test yourself immediately after you study. You’re going to grossly overestimate how well you know the information if you test yourself right away.
Even better is to get some sleep between your study sessions. Memory consolidation is known to occur during sleep. If you interpose sleep between two study sessions, you’ll remember more—and in a much more lasting way—than if you study for the same amount of time without a sleep break. And when you come back and review material after sleeping, you’ll master it more quickly.
To take advantage of distributed practice and sleep, you’ve got to plan ahead and schedule your studying.
So, re-evaluate your study habits and try these techniques to get the edge you are looking for.