Learn easier by planning better, and thinking harder

Think about the same problem repeatedly and you learn less. Think about different problems in-between and you learn easier. To learn easier, think harder.

Think about the same problem repeatedly and you learn less.
Think about different problems in-between and you learn easier.

To learn easier, think harder.

Learn easier by knowing your capabilities better

One reason to make things difficult while studying is that making things too easy leads to overconfidence, which in turn leads students to stop studying too soon. Students should actively avoid overconfidence, especially students who have a pattern of doing worse on exams than they expected:

  1. Test yourself.
  2. Consider what could go wrong on a test.
  3. Think about what you don’t know.

Ironically, students also tend to be underconfident in their ability to learn and improve, and so if you are a student who is discouraged by how difficult the material is, you might benefit if you:

  1. Remember if you are prone to underestimating your capacity for learning.

Learn easier by planning better

There are also ways to overcome another huge problem for studiers, the planning fallacy:

  1. Break the task down into elements and consider how long each subtask will take.
  2. Consciously estimate that everything will take twice as long as you think it will take.

Procrastination is a huge hurdle to effective studying. Advice that one should avoid procrastination is easy to find (e.g., Benjamin Franklin: “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,”) but advice on how to do so is difficult to come by. Research suggests that there are ways of decreasing procrastination:

  1. Increase expectancy of success.
  2. Set appropriate and achievable subgoals.
  3. Form predictable work habits that essentially make the decision that it is time to work for you.

Learn easier by learning to think harder

With respect to how to study, our most general advice is this:

  1. Struggle while thinking.
    Easy studying is often ineffective.
  2. Do not try to take shortcuts on the path to knowledge.
  3. Make it as easy as possible to think hard.
    Avoid pitfalls such as trying to study in a situation that leads to too much distraction.

We have already alluded to multiple productive ways to make things difficult.

  1. Summarize notes during a lecture.
    Don’t transcribe notes during a lecture.
  2. Ask yourself questions while studying.
  3. Simulate test conditions by quizzing yourself and see if you really know the answers.
    Don’t go over the answers and decide that you know them—which is easy when they are right in front of you.
  4. Space repeated study sessions apart in time to allow forgetting.
  5. Return to restudy information that seemed well-learned at one point but might have been forgotten.

These strategies have dual benefits: They enhance learning, and they make self-monitoring more accurate.

Learn easier by learning longer

Studying more is not effective unless one is smart about how to study. We have tried to explain how students can become smarter studiers. Making bad choices about how to study can be akin to pedaling a stationary bike: You put in effort but you go nowhere. Making bad choices about what and when to study can be like riding in the wrong direction (what) or starting a race at the wrong time (when). Our goal in this chapter is to point studiers in the right direction and give them a faster bike.

There is one last piece of advice, and it is the most obvious of all: The more time you spend riding, the farther you get—and the same is true of studying:

  1. Learn to study efficiently.
  2. Study a lot.

Distance = rate × time, and learning = efficiency × time.

If you end up accomplishing your goals and have free time afterward:

  1. Study some more.

Learn easier

learning = efficiency × time

  1. Test yourself.
  2. Consider what could go wrong on a test.
  3. Think about what you don’t know.
  4. Remember if you are prone to underestimating your capacity for learning.
  5. Break the task down into elements and consider how long each subtask will take.
  6. Consciously estimate that everything will take twice as long as you think it will take.
  7. Increase expectancy of success.
  8. Set appropriate and achievable subgoals.
  9. Form predictable work habits that essentially make the decision that it is time to work for you.
  10. Struggle while thinking.
    Easy studying is often ineffective.
  11. Do not try to take shortcuts on the path to knowledge.
  12. Make it as easy as possible to think hard.
    Avoid pitfalls such as trying to study in a situation that leads to too much distraction.
  13. Summarize notes during a lecture.
    Don’t transcribe notes during a lecture.
  14. Ask yourself questions while studying.
  15. Simulate test conditions by quizzing yourself and see if you really know the answers.
    Don’t go over the answers and decide that you know them—which is easy when they are right in front of you.
  16. Space repeated study sessions apart in time to allow forgetting.
  17. Return to restudy information that seemed well-learned at one point but might have been forgotten.
  18. Learn to study efficiently.
  19. Study a lot.
  20. Study some more.[1]

  1. Kornell, Nate, and Bridgid Finn. “Self-regulated learning: An overview of theory and data.” The Oxford Handbook of Metamemory, edited by John Dunlosky and Sarah (Uma) K. Tauber, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 325-340.

Learn well by high use of practice testing and distributed practice

Comparison of learning techniques showing that practice testing and distributed practice are the keys to learn well

Learn well by high use of high-utility techniques

Practice testing

For example… practicing recall of target information via the use of actual or virtual flashcards, completing practice problems or questions included at the end of textbook chapters, or completing practice tests included in the electronic supplemental materials that increasingly accompany textbooks.

Distributed practice

…distributing learning over time (either within a single study session or across sessions)… we use the term distributed practice to encompass both spacing effects (i.e., the advantage of spaced over massed practice) and lag effects (i.e., the advantage of spacing with longer lags over spacing with shorter lags)…

Learn well by moderate use of moderate-utility techniques

Self-explanation

…having students explain some aspect of their processing during learning.

Interleaved practice

…students alternate their practice of different kinds of items or problems.

Elaborative interrogation

…prompting learners to generate an explanation for an explicitly stated fact.

Learn well by low use of low-utility techniques

The keyword mnemonic

Imagine a student struggling to learn French vocabulary, including words such as la dent (tooth), la clef (key), revenir (to come back), and mourir (to die). …the student would first find an English word that sounds similar to the foreign cue word, such as dentist for “la dent” or cliff for “la clef.” The student would then develop a mental image of the English keyword interacting with the English translation. So, for la dent–tooth, the student might imagine a dentist holding a large molar with a pair of pliers.

Imagery use for text learning

Students…were told to read the text and to mentally imagine the content of each paragraph using simple and clear mental images.

Summarization

…having students write summaries of to-be-learned texts. Successful summaries identify the main points of a text and capture the gist of it while excluding unimportant or repetitive material…

Rereading

…rereading differentially affects the processing of higher-level and lower-level information within a text, with particular emphasis placed on the conceptual organization and processing of main ideas during rereading.

Highlighting and underlining

…students report… underlining, highlighting, or otherwise marking material as they try to learn it…[1]


  1. Dunlosky, John, et al. “Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14.1 (2013): 4-58.

Retesting builds knowledge base for making inferences

Pie charts show that learning is better using retesting than using restudying.
[1]

Retesting helps people make inferences

One of the oldest and greatest puzzles of all is the phenomenon of transfer of learning, or “the influence of prior learning (retained until the present) upon the learning of, or response to, new material”…

If initial learning produces better retention of information and numerous retrieval routes to access that information, it should increase the probability of a match between the cues given in the transfer task and the stored memory trace, thereby increasing the potential for transfer to occur.

Test-enhanced learning is based on the finding that taking a test on previously studied material produces better retention over time relative to restudying that material for an equivalent amount of time…

…four experiments examined whether test-enhanced learning, a method that has been shown to increase long-term retention…, can be used to promote transfer to new inferential questions about previously studied material.

The primary goal of the present research was to examine whether repeated testing promotes superior transfer relative to repeated studying.

Repeated testing produced superior retention and transfer on the final test relative to repeated studying.

…the… benefits of test-enhanced learning… extend to the transfer of knowledge [to] new inferential questions within the same knowledge domain…, or new inferential questions from different knowledge domains…

… testing may promote transfer because it increases the retention of information, which makes the recall component of transfer possible… However, repeated testing may also improve people’s understanding of the material, enabling them to better perform the execution component of the transfer process (i.e., the ability to apply the knowledge to a new situation).

Retesting using rephrased questions didn’t work

A secondary goal of the present research was to explore whether repeated testing using rephrased questions would lead to better retention and transfer than repeated testing using the same question. … the results… do not support this hypothesis. Although the results… do not support the encoding variability hypothesis, they do not invalidate the hypothesis either. The broader literature contains mixed results: Some studies have found evidence to support the notion of encoding variability…, whereas others have failed…[2]


  1. Akresh-Gonzales, Josette. “What Is the Testing Effect, and How Does It Affect Learning, Knowledge, and Retention?KnowledgePlus.NEJM, 14 May 2015, knowledgeplus.nejm.org/what-is-the-testing-effect-and-how-does-it-affect-learning-knowledge-and-retention/. Accessed 18 Nov. 2016.
  2. Butler, Andrew C. “Repeated Testing Produces Superior Transfer of Learning Relative to Repeated Studying.” Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition 36.5 (2010): 1118-1133.