Reading and re-reading text, or memorising facts, is not considered active learning. For information to really stick, it is necessary to be actively engaged in the content you are learning. And this doesn’t mean highlighting important sentences and hoping they’ll stick! Active engagement is the process of constructing meaning from text that involves making connections to lectures, forming examples, and regulating your own learning.1
Ideas for active studying include:2
Create a study guide by topic. Formulate questions and problems and write complete answers.
Create your own quiz.
Teach it. Speak aloud and using your own words as if you are the instructor teaching the concepts to a class. One of the best ways to learn is to teach it – because you have to really understand the material to be able to convey it to someone else!
Think of examples that you can relate to your own experiences. This helps the information to really stick.
Go visual: Create concept mapsor diagrams that explain the material. Working visually can really aid retention of information.
Develop symbols or even acronyms that represent concepts.
For non-technical classes (e.g., English, History, Psychology), figure out the big ideas so you can explain, contrast, and re-evaluate them.
For technical classes, work the problems and explain the steps and why they work.
Retrieval and Spaced Practice
Two techniques that are very useful when studying are known as retrieval practice and spaced or distributed practice.
Many teachers and students believe that studying is all about getting information into one’s mind, and we often focus on how many facts we can retain. However, it turns out, the key is actually in retrieving information and being able to pull it out of our minds!
The method of retrieval practice, also known as ‘the testing effect’ is a strategy in which bringing information to mind enhances and boosts learning. Deliberately recalling information forces us to pull our knowledge “out” and examine what we know. Very often we think we’ve learnt something but then struggle to recall it. The ‘struggle’ is exactly the challenge that improves our memory and learning capacity, as well as helping us to identify gaps in our learning.3
Tools that are effective for retrieval practice include short quizzes or tests as well as flashcards, practice problems and writing prompts. It’s worth noting that it’s not the tests or quizzes that help us to learn more, it’s the process of memory retrieval as an activity that boosts learning and retention.
One of the most impactful learning strategies is “distributed practice”—spacing out your studying over a few short periods of time over several days and weeks.4 So, rather than cramming for 5 hours the day before the exam, schedule 30 minutes a day over a week or two beforehand. Studying for shorted periods allows you to focus better and retain more, as opposed to sitting for long session where you may become distracted and fatigued. Spacing out your studying allows your mind to make connections between ideas and build upon the knowledge that can be easily recalled later.
To try this technique, review your material in spaced intervals similar to the schedule below:5
Day 1: Learn the material in class.
Day 2: Revisit and review.
Day 3: Revisit and review.
After one week: Revisit and review.
After two weeks: Revisit and review.
For this approach to really work, it’s important to start planning early and to schedule time each day or at intervals over a period of time. So, for example, at the beginning of each term, set out a schedule with some time each day just for studying and reviewing the material. Even if your exams are months away, this will help you hold yourself accountable.
Davis, S. G., & Gray, E. S. (2007). Going beyond test-taking strategies: Building self-regulated students and teachers. Journal of Curriculum and Instruction, 1(1), 31-47.