Effective Study Methods

Four Steps to Effective Study Methods

A girl is reading in the library and taking notes.Phyllis is reading her history book but she has a problem. She has forgotten nearly everything in the chapter she read last week. Should she continue reading the new chapter or go back and read the last chapter again? And what can she do differently to remember what she reads this time? She has decided to take notes

You have probably had similar problems. Do you remember times when you read a chapter and, all too quickly, forgotten nearly everything? This is not unusual. Research shows that, just one day after reading a chapter,  students  often forget between 50 and 80% of what they “learned”. Perhaps they never learned the material in the first place. They need to learn how to study

I have heard many conversations where students discuss how quickly they forget “everything” in their class. Some claim that once they have taken final exams, it only takes a week or two to forget everything – even though they had spent many hours studying for the exam. Other students, perhaps more typical students, forget most of what they learned over a period of several months. They wonder why they worked so hard to learn the material if all they were going to do was forget it all. If they had learned effective study skills they might still remember the information.

Lucille is listening to a lecture on medieval history. History is not her favorite subject but she is trying hard to A young woman listens to a lecture but isn't sure what to write in her notes.pay attention and take notes. Like Phyllis, she is concerned about how quickly she forgets this material. She will need to look at her notes to see what the last lecture was about. From the look on her face, I image Lucille isn’t quite sure what to write in her notes.

Research show we forget lecture material even more quickly than reading. In a single day, a typical student forgets 90% of what they heard in a lecture. This material is  harder to remember because we cannot go back over something that was unclear, we can’t move at our own pace, we don’t even have time to think about the material. Lucille needs effective study skills so she learn and remember.

Both Phyllis and Lucille think they are studying

The truth is reading is not studying, even though Phyllis is taking reading notes. Listening to a lecture and taking notes are not studying. These are the ways we get information input. You might notice on the “Links to the Site” page that reading, listening and computer research are all listed under INPUT.

The material we get from reading and listening go to our short-term memory. If we don’t do something quickly, we will forget it.

To really learn the material we need to learn how to study

We remember what we understand; we understand what we pay attention to; we pay attention to what we want.       — Edward Bolles

Effective Study involves four steps: Understanding, Organizing, Thinking, and Remembering. You need to understand the material you read or heard. You need to organize it in one or more ways. You need to think about it. You need to remember it (getting it into your long-term memory).

Step 1 is understanding the material.  Imagine you are given two sentences. “The man watched the little girl climb the orange tree.” and “Watched orange girl the man little the tree the climb.” Which would you remember most easily. Obviously, material that you understand is easier to remember.

This step is used while reading. If a paragraph you have read doesn’t make sense, stop and go back over it until it does make sense. If you don’t understand the words, look them up. If you still don’t understand try re-reading the material just before this paragraph. You might check the computer for a simple explanation. You might ask a friend to explain it. You might even talk to your professor. But you cannot learn what you don’t understand.

Step 2 is organizing the material. You might organize your information into an outline, write a summary or an explanation. Outlines help us remember a great deal of information, but because outlines are linear we don’t get a clear image of the structure of the material.

A Concept Map will help you find the main ideas and organize them to visualize the structure. It is difficult to include a lot of information on a concept map. In history, Lucille might use a timeline. In biology you might use diagrams. The combination of one verbal strategy and one visual strategy helps you learn both structure and details.

Step 3 is thinking about the material. Some material requires more thinking than other materials. You might ask yourself which information is most interesting, helpful, or important. You might think more deeply and distinguish facts from opinions. In some subjects, you will find more opinion than fact. You might ask yourself how sure we are about a fact and how they might know it. With opinions, you might ask what evidence the author used as the basis of his opinion. Would you have a different opinion?

Step 4 is remembering. Actually, as you understood the material, organized it and thought about it, you were already moving information from short-term to long-term memory. But there are other methods that will get more of the material into long-term memory and strengthen the memory.

The section of the website on memory suggests a variety of methods for this. For some material, you will want to use rote memory (like flash cards) or mnemonics (like using HOMES to remember the Great Lakes). You will find many ways to use visual, auditory and kinesthetic memory. The most helpful method is relational memory. When you relate new information with what you already know well, the two are connected and stored together in long-term memory. When you relate information with your personal experience, the same thing happens.

As the section on memory points out, it is best to use multiple pathways to memory. When you use visual memory it is stored in the visual cortex. Auditory memory is stored in the part of the brain for hearing. The more parts of the brain used to store the information, the better we remember it.

Finally, scheduled reviews are the key to long-lasting memory. Some educators recommend that you take very few lecture notes and concentrate on listening. After the lecture, you should write down all the important information. That might be helpful for some people, but I’d prefer to have good notes to refer to. Either way it is definitely important to go over your notes in detail soon after the lecture. Since we forget lecture material so quickly you might organize it into a concept map or outline within the next ten to twenty minutes.

With both reading notes and lecture notes, it is best to test yourself within a few hours and again before bedtime. When you forget some of the main points, go back over your notes, try to re-learn it, and test yourself again. Then create a schedule of reviews. You might re-test yourself twice a day for several days, then once a day, twice a week, and then weekly. The time needed for these reviews depends on the amount of material you have chosen to remember. You certainly don’t want to remember every word. When you use effective study skills to learn the material, you will be pleased to discover that you understand and remember it. When your exams are over, you will remember the material longer.

If you want to remember some of this information for the rest of your life, you’d need to continue regularly scheduled reviews. Eventually you might only need to review material once or twice a year. Choose for yourself which information you want to remember.. You might use a single sheet of notebook paper to write down everything that is that important to you from a subject and review that  monthly and eventually once a year. You might be surprised to discover that when you remember the main ideas, you can also remember may of the details you didn’t review.

This is an overview of the most important part of the website:

Study and Mental Processing



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