The funny thing about school is that students are expected to study but, amazingly, there’s no class that actually teaches them how to do it.

Go figure.

Everyone knows the common study habits that have been encouraged over time: highlighting text, summarizing reading passages, reading and re-reading material. It turns out that these routines can be very inefficient, and in some cases counterproductive.

There are scientifically proven ways of retaining information much more effectively. And couldn’t we all use advice like that?

I’m a “tell me why that works” junkie, so I’ve put together some science-based methods proven to help retain information. Finals are coming up, so share this with your high schooler. (And use this for yourself the next time you need to learn something new.)

1. Self-test rather than cram.

Testing yourself on material you need to learn activates entirely different areas of the brain than repetition does – it forces you to retrieve information that’s already stored in there. This helps you retain information for the long term (to access a week or a month later). Cramming by reading the same material over and over is only good for short term retention, according to the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel.

2. Teach, or prepare to teach, what you learn to others.

When students expected that they’d teach information rather than be tested on it, they had a better-organized and more complete recall of a passage they’d read, according to a study published in the journal Memory & Cognition. It’s all about the difference in how the information is organized in the brain – those who expect to teach have to find key points to arrange information into a logical structure, which is different than how students typically organize things when taking tests.

3. Move study areas frequently.

According to a New York Times article that rethinks conventional study habits, studying the same material in a different place every day makes us less likely to forget that information.

The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.

“What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting.” said Dr. Bjork, the senior author of the two-room experiment.

 

So I don’t know about you, but these new, more effective ways of learning give me comfort about my decision to get out of the office more often (and about kicking the kids out of the house and trusting that they’re studying well and retaining important info at the coffee shop or on the nearest park bench).

Let’s continue the discussion! Thoughts on this post? Please leave a comment below!

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