The Art of Studying
"The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled" - Plutarch
Blessed are those who are taught the art of studying from a young age. For the real caveat in the education system is that many of our students are merely taught the information to pass exams, with little to no idea of how to use, analyse or even remember that information. As a tutor, it is as important to help my students grasp how to learn and tailor methods for studying that work for them as it is to teach them the content. It may sound ridiculous but being armed with the knowledge of how to actually learn content is the first stepping stone to working smarter and not harder.
I often get asked what has been the single key to my academic success. If I had to pinpoint a single tool in my arsenal, I would credit a spaced repetition phenomenon I was fortunate to learn about very early on in my schooling. To go into more detail, the research behind this so-called memory phenomenon called the "Spacing Effect" is vast. To the avid readers out there, I recommend many of my students to read the books 'How We Learn' as well as 'Make it Stick'. Both books provide an interested and evidence based account into the spacing effect as well as how you can utilise the spacing effect to work for you and your studies.
To put it in very simple terms, we need to harness the power of our individual 'Forgetting Curves' which chart the hypothetical decline in our memory over time. The graphic below shows levels of memory retention over time, with the grey line denoting what happens if reviews are not undertaken!
In his research on the Spacing Effect, Ebbinghaus hypothesised that 90% of memory retention falls within 3 days if not reviewed. But what if we could take this spacing effect and use it to our advantage?
Say hello to the spaced repetition phenomenon! When information was reviewed after initial learning, the gradient (steepness) of the grey sections of the forgetting curves began to soften. People were beginning to remember the information for longer each time they reviewed it, giving rise to what many academics call the spaced repetition phenomenon. There are many other factors to consider when considering the quality of learning such as quality of sleep, focus and the environment you work in. However, the biggest initial improvement I can offer to my students is to incorporate some aspect of spaced repetition. Remember that little and often is better than long and drawn out study sessions. This phenomenon can be harnessed in all aspects of learning throughout life.
So what practical tips can you take away from this short article?
For younger children, I recommend using flash cards little and often and constantly testing the boundaries of their knowledge. Forming these good habits in the early stages keeps young minds constantly ticking away and helps helps the child to develop proper study habits moving forward.
Switch up rote learning and memorisation by mixing in interactive quizzes and games to test their knowledge. For example, when learning multiplication tables, I encourage parents to not only have focused sessions where the child is seated and writing but incorporate car journey or dinner games. Remember that little and often is key!
For older students, free programmes such as 'Anki' offer a digital flash card solution that takes the guesswork out of spaced repetition. Uploading flashcards under different 'decks' for different subjects allows Anki to track which cards you've studied and which you need to review. It's an absolutely brilliant way of learning information, the programme stores cards which you know very well as 'mature' cards whilst 'younger' cards are tested more often. They even have a mobile app where you can go through your flashcards for those long bus rides!I have personally sworn by Anki for the best part of 10 years. So much so that I still start my mornings by spending half an hour going through my personal Anki decks with a nice hot coffee!
Each student has their individual learning techniques and the art of studying is a difficult one to master. Starting to explore avenues of studying early on is imperative, I always urge all of my students to try a multitude of techniques to see what best suits them. Harnessing the power of spaced repetition and understanding how our memories work is a huge step to achieving success. No matter your individual studying style, the take home message is to remember to find ways to review the content often and constantly test your knowledge by constantly asking yourself questions.