Are these study techniques effective at boosting your learning?

Sara | AbstractedCollective
7 min readOct 1, 2017


“three men laughing while looking in the laptop inside room” by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Do you remember all the content you’ve studied? Do you know what study techniques work for you?

If you are anything like me; you read — no, skim — your notes a day before the test, cramming everything into your head at the last minute…Praying to the Study Gods that somehow, something will stick… That you will be able to regurgitate material like a pro on exam day.

That didn’t work out too well. I have a hard time recalling information and studying was also a huge pain. I still have no clue what works for me and I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

Worry no more, dear friends, as help is here! Several educational psychologists have recently reviewed 10 popular study methods. They analysed learning conditions, student profiles, the context in which the techniques are used, and the effects these has on performance.

This review will help anyone — not just students — who has new material to learn, but are constantly struggling to engage with the content and retain information.

Let’s find out what the research has to say.

Techniques are classified according to their usefulness in helping you recall material and study effectively. We start with the best (high utility) to the not-so-good (low utility).


#1 Practice Testing

This involves, for eg, recalling information via actual or virtual flashcards, completing practice problems or questions at the end of textbook chapters and completing practice tests with electronic resources.

How it works:

Testing enhances retention by triggering an elaborative retrieval process. This means — when retrieving relevant information, our brain activates other related information. All these information is processed together during learning.

Understanding, organizing, recalling and processing of information increases with each practice test. This lead to better learning, retention and better test performances.


  • The more tests the better: more retrievals of the correct information
  • Are more effective when there is a longer ‘resting period’ between tests
  • Are more effective when accompanied with feedback
  • Minimal training, not very time-consuming. Self-tests can be done via cued recall (ie: Flashcards or summary section of the Cornell note taking system)
  • Is effective across a range of practice formats, material and learners’ age

#2 Distributed Practice

Spreading learning sessions across a period of time as it benefits retention. This is better than mass learning sessions done back to back or in very close succession.

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How it works:

When study sessions are too close together, there are “missed” learning opportunities. This is because our brains don’t try very hard to retrieve information, as everything is still fresh in our working memories. This might mislead us into thinking we know the material more than we actually do.


  • Effectiveness is similar to practice testing above
  • Works across wide variety of materials, people of different ages, easy to implement, requires little to no training

Moderate –

#1 Elaborative Interrogation

Asking ‘why’. It facilitates deeper learning. Kids love doing this.

How it works:
Prompts us to generate an explanation for a situation/fact. It integrates new information with prior knowledge. Helps us organize and recall information.


  • Is difficult to do for more complex, lengthier material.
  • Is useful in recalling simple lists

#2 Self-Explanation

Solving a problem whilst explaining how you arrived at the solution/the process.

How it works:

Concurrent explanations enhances learning by integrating new and existing information.


  • You can use it for a wide variety of tasks and content
  • Downsides:
  • You’d be a better self-explainer if you’ve already have strong content knowledge
  • For some people, self-explaining does not come naturally, and requires much practice and training

#3 Interleaved Practice

Mixing up different skills in a single study session. For eg, you are studying something related to problem solving. Introducing other topics/subjects that also involve problem solving will help enhance your learning.

How it works:

Eg: when a Math student is solving for the volume of a solid (ie: wedge). The solution used previously to solve a different kind of solid (ie: cube) can be used for the wedge. This involves retrieving the formula for a cube from memory. Also known as delayed practice testing; boosts retrieval of information and thus, memory.


  • Helps you see the similarities, differences and links between ideas and different problems
  • Organizes information and aids in processing items specific to a particular topic
  • Particularly effective for mathematical skills, but more research needs to be done

Low –

#1 Summarization

Capturing the important points and gist of the text whilst excluding unimportant details.

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How it works:

Involves extracting information with high level meaning & main points in the material. It aids our retention.


  • Summaries have to be of high quality to be effective.
  • High quality summarization requires extensive training.
  • Summaries may be affected by the individual’s interest or knowledge in the subject, writing skill and ability to extract the correct information.

#2 Highlighting and Underlining


How it works:

Isolation effect. A more distinct item on a list (ie: a highlighted string of text), is better remembered than its non-highlighted counterparts.


  • It is simple, and usually doesn’t require any training or investment of time beyond reading the material
  • Downsides:
  • It prevents people from engaging in other more effective and productive strategies
  • Has to be paired with another technique to be truly effective (ie: note taking). An additional technique is required if the reader has to decide which is important. This prompts them to think of the meaning of the text and how the different pieces of information are related.
  • Only worked if they were tested on things they highlighted
  • Worked if they highlighted the text themselves and weren’t memorizing items highlighted by someone else
  • Overmarking vs undermarking. Overmarking reduces the distinctiveness of the text and people will be less likely to remember the highlighted bits. This is because it takes less processing to mark a lot of text vs singling out most important details.
  • Is dependent on reader’s prior knowledge of the topic. Those less familiar will struggle with knowing which parts of the text are more important.
  • Reduces the ability to make inferences. Highlighting draws your attention to individual concepts (memory for facts) than connections across concepts (inference)

#3 Keyword Mnemonic

Is used across a wide variety of materials and across ages. Popular uses include: studying foreign language vocab, obscure scientific English definitions, people’s names, medical terminology.

How it works:

Forming associated images. Ie: Spanish word la dent. Dent = tooth. students can imagine a dentist holding a tooth with pliers.


  • Cannot be used with abstract terms and complex definitions. Limited to key-word friendly words (ie: nouns)
  • Does not retain information as well. Associated images disappear a few days/weeks after the test.
  • Extensive training needed to develop interactive images and keywords. Thus, is time-consuming

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#4 Rereading


How it works:

  • Qualitative Hypothesis: Increases the total amount of information encoded
  • Quantitative Hypothesis: Affects high-level and low-level information differently. Our brain is better able to differentiate high-level vs low-level information after a few re-reads.


  • Requires no training and very little guidance. Not time-consuming,
  • Rereading with breaks between reading to be effective, as it enhances retrieval. However, breaks cannot be too long. A break that is a couple of days improves performance but not a couple of weeks.
  • Studies with students younger than college age are still inconclusive
  • Greatly depends on other factors like our knowledge/ability of the topics
  • Helps with memory. When it comes to aiding comprehension — results are inconclusive.
  • Is relatively ineffective compared to others like testing or elaborative interrogation

#5 Imagery use for Text Learning

Mentally imagining the contents of each paragraph of text whilst reading.

How it works:

Developing images enhances organization, integration of information and learning of the text.


  • Works better when done whilst listening to text (vs reading it). Reading whilst trying to form mental images disrupts the thought process needed for processing images.
  • Works better with text that can be visualized (ie: fiction, narratives) than abstract text
  • Can be used in many more contexts than the Mnemonics method
  • Effectiveness has been inconsistent across studies and further research is needed

Key Action Steps

  1. Explore how different techniques might be suitable for different types of material (ie: Asking “why” for simple lists vs self-explanations for new problems)
  2. Combine different techniques. Many of us are comfortable with techniques in the “low utility” category (ie: highlighting). Combine them with others in the high or moderate categories for greater effectiveness
  3. Always include a test as part of your revision. Explore some of the methods mentioned above, ie: flashcards.
  4. Ensure there is a comfortable level of difficulty or challenge when learning. it can greatly improve long term retention as we are forced to process material more deeply.

Which techniques work for you?


Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58.

Originally published at on October 1, 2017.



Sara | AbstractedCollective

I write about relationships, personal growth and mental health. Dreamer. Tea addict. Researcher.