Your Favorite Study Method Is Probably the Worst

When studying for an examination, do you reread the information over and over again?

Underline words and sentences on paper? Highlight in yellow, pink, green or blue?

Does this really help?

Mary Pyc is an American cognitive scientist, meaning she studies the human mind and its processes. And she wants you to know those methods don’t work very well.

Mary Pyc

“For example, with rereading, it’s maybe not as effective because you are not trying to actively retrieve the information,” Pyc says. Re-reading gives a false sense of fluency, she explains.

“It is going to feel like you already know the information because you’ve already read it. … ‘Ok, yes, I know the information.’ ”

The problem with highlighting, Pyc says, is similar to the problem with rereading: Students have a false sense of what they know. If you don’t understand what you are reading, you might not highlight the correct information to retrieve later.

“Students aren’t always aware of what the most important information is. So it’s possible that they are maybe highlighting details that aren’t as important as the higher level concepts,” she says.

It’s not that rereading and highlighting are useless, she says. But there are other methods that will help more.

One idea is to test yourself. Simple flashcards and practice tests can help show what you have learned. Another strategy is to space your practice at different times, not all at once.

Don’t cram, or overload your brain with information the night before the test if you want to retain it long term. Pyc says that the day after the test, you are not likely to remember that information you crammed into your head the night before.

Effective learning takes time and effort. While rereading and highlighting are better than not studying, there are better methods out there!

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