7 Evidence-Based Study Strategies (& How to Use Each)

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As doctors, we treat patients with evidence-based medicine, meaning treatment modalities that are backed with sound scientific research. We can do the same when it comes to studying strategies. Here are 7 evidence-based study techniques with supporting scientific evidence.

 

1 | Spaced Repetition

We can thank the psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus for studying his own memory and generating what is known as the Forgetting Curve. In its simplest terms, the Forgetting Curve demonstrates that after forming a memory, we gradually forget more and more of it as time elapses. With attempts to retain the information at increasing intervals, just before we forget it, the memory becomes more durable.

We know from neuroscience fundamentals that repetition potentiates neural connections and allows us to remember information more effectively. The problem is that we have far too much information to learn – we can’t repeat every fact we need to know on a daily basis. Enter the Spacing Effect. By repeated exposures to a piece of information at increasing intervals between each repetition, we can optimize memorization and retain the most information in the least amount of time.

Spaced repetition is most powerful when the timing is just right. If too little time elapses between repetitions, the information is not reinforced as strongly. If too much time passes, you forget and are unable to recall the desired information.

How to Implement Spaced Repetition

If we see the same information multiple times over increasing intervals, we’ll be far more effective at encoding those facts into long term memory. This is why cramming is so ineffective. Studying for 8 hours over 2 weeks will generally result in superior performance compared to studying for 8 hours in one sitting.

I’m a big proponent of using tools and systems to streamline and automate processes. I recommend you take this same approach with spaced repetition. You could create a study schedule for yourself where you plan out when to review older lectures in addition to recent lectures. Alternatively, you can offload the process to other apps, like Anki, which will test you on bite-sized pieces of information through flashcards and automatically schedule the cards based on the difficulty of recall for each.

Common Mistakes with Spaced Repetition

The most common mistake is procrastinating and cramming just days before the exam. This undermines any of the potential advantages of spaced repetition.

When practicing spaced repetition, make sure you’re using effective study strategies and not simply re-reading your notes. Re-reading your notes is a form of recognition, whereby you look at some facts and tell yourself, “oh yeah, I know that.” This is unreliable. Instead, spaced repetition is most effective when combined with active recall, whereby you test yourself for the answer. Which brings us to the second evidence-based study strategy.

 

2 | Active Recall

Active recall is the practice of using the Testing Effect to your advantage. If you’re already using active recall, chances are you love it because of the resulting drastic improvement in performance. If you aren’t using it yet, there’s a bit of a learning curve that may be discouraging. You should expect active recall to be a difficult process, as active learning methods are, by definition, far more challenging than passive forms.

How to Implement Active Recall

When it comes to active recall, I normally advise students to create flashcards through Anki, or to use practice problems, which also has the added benefit of practicing higher order level thinking.

There are other ways to incorporate active recall, though. For example, you could write or sketch out everything you know about a certain topic without looking at your notes. Be as thorough as you can be, and afterward check what you’ve written compared to your class notes for accuracy and to fill in points you may have missed.

Common Mistakes with Active Recall

Many students try active recall for a short period of time, only to give up soon after because they find it difficult. The key is to understand that if it feels difficult, that means it’s working. And with anything in life, with practice, you’ll get better at it. It becomes easier with time!

Another common mistake is studying facts in isolation. Particularly with flashcards, students may focus too much on individual facts without adequate comprehension. Do not neglect comprehension, which means truly understanding the relation between ideas and how certain concepts are similar or different.

Lastly, remember to not only practice the recall part but also check your answers. If you are practicing recall without verifying the accuracy, you may be reinforcing incorrect information.

 

3 | Desirable Difficulties

Closely intertwined with active recall is the concept of desirable difficulties. This states that a learning task that requires a considerable amount of effort will improve long-term performance, even though it may slow down learning initially. Research demonstrates that the traditional easy forms of passive learning show better temporary performance effects, but more difficult tasks, such as learning with active recall, resulting in improved performance in the long term.

Think of it like going to the gym. If you bench press 10-pound dumbbells, you’re technically doing chest exercises, but you’re not challenging yourself enough to improve. This is like passive learning. On the other hand, if you bench press 100-pound dumbbells in each hand, you’d be exerting yourself to a far greater capacity, resulting in muscle breakdown and ultimately hypertrophy. This is a desirable difficulty, which you are more readily able to achieve with tools such as active recall.

Desirable difficulties is an overarching principle that serves as a common thread throughout the 6 other evidence-based learning techniques.

 

4 | Elaboration

Elaboration refers to further describing and explaining various ideas or concepts that you’re studying to solidify your understanding of the material.

How to Implement Elaboration

The concept of elaboration sounds great, but the tricky part is how to effectively implement the technique. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Generate questions for yourself about how various concepts or principles work and the underlying reasons as to why. Try answering on your own first, and then turn to your class materials or study buddies for verification and further explanation.
  1. Cross-reference different ideas, even if your professor or class materials didn’t explicitly do so. By comparing and contrasting relatable components, you’ll better understand the nuances of each, how they interplay, and you’ll be less likely to confuse the two.
  1. Make the content relatable. While elaborating on a concept, relate it to your own life experiences or memories for a stronger memory anchor. Integrating new material with concepts you already know helps you organize the new ideas, facilitating recall in the future, such as on test day.

Common Mistakes with Elaboration

Don’t be overzealous with your elaboration, meaning keep it within there scope of what is accurate and reasonable. Overextension of elaboration can actually cause further confusion in the long run.

Practicing elaboration with small groups, such as with the Feynman technique, can be helpful, but beyond three people the drawbacks begin to outweigh the benefits.

 

5 | Interleaving

Interleaving is the practice of alternating your studying from one topic to another rather than blocking time for only one subject for an extended period of time. The literature suggests that this strategy is particularly helpful with subjects requiring problem-solving, such as physics, chemistry, or math. Why is this counterintuitively beneficial? Interleaving facilitates finding the links, similarities, and differences between ideas.

How to Implement Interleaving

Interleaving simply means you need to switch between topics, ideas, or subjects during a study session. Avoid studying one focused area for too long.

As you interleave, it’s recommended you approach the topics and subjects in different orders to facilitate improved understanding. While doing so, make it a conscious practice to think about how you can link principles between the different concepts.

The added benefit that goes overlooked is one of sustained endurance. When you’re strategically shifting between topics, you can ward off burn out and boredom through novel stimuli. I used this practice almost religiously as a medical student to get through study marathons on an almost daily basis.

Common Mistakes with Interleaving

Interleaving requires a bit of calibration — if you spend too little or too much time on a single topic, it can prove detrimental. Switch too often and you begin to face the issues of multi-tasking, whereby you fail to achieve meaningful deep understanding and effectiveness drops. Spend too much time and you’re not interleaving but rather just performing traditional blocked studying.

My recommendation is to perform at minimum 1-2 Pomodoro blocks before switching to a new topic. At the end of the study session, summarize the relevant key points, but do so in a different order than when you first reviewed the information.

 

6 | Concrete Examples

Concrete examples are a useful tool in facilitating understanding complex or difficult concepts. It’s quite simple — find relevant examples that illustrate the principles from a lesson you’re trying to learn, and ensure you deeply understand how the concrete example is a reflection of this principle in practice.

How to Implement Concrete Examples

To implement this practice, collect examples and then explain how the example illustrates the principle you’re attempting to learn, and repeat. You can also create your own examples or exchange examples with your study group for added benefit.

Common Mistakes with Concrete Examples

When practicing this technique, ensure that the examples are actually relevant and accurate to the concept or principle you’re studying. Too often, students will find poor examples online, through friends, or from other resources that reinforce an improper understanding.

 

7 | Dual Coding

Dual coding is the practice of inputting information related to the same concept through multiple forms of media. For example, you may read about a concept in a textbook, and additionally use visuals and diagrams to drive the point home.

How to Implement Dual Coding

To most effectively implement dual coding, don’t simply look at a visual and think “ah yes, I know this,” but rather actively explain the concept in your own words. Even better, take the information you’ve read about in a textbook or heard about in lecture and create your own visuals. This goes back to the summary sheets and synthesis questions I spoke about in my how to take notes post. This will not only prove helpful in the active process of creating the diagram but now you also have a condensed high yield visual for future reference.

Common Mistakes with Dual Coding

The most common mistake to avoid with dual coding is passively reviewing the various forms of media rather than approaching the practice through active methods. To demonstrate mastery, you should be able to draw necessary figures from memory without cheating and looking at your notes.

 

Understand that these seven principles are not to be practiced in isolation, but rather are interrelated and should be used in conjunction. Out of these 7 evidence-based study techniques, which ones are you neglecting and going to practice moving forward? Let me know with a comment down below.

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