How to Study More in Less Time – 3 Mistakes Most Students Make12 min read
Evidence shows summarizing, highlighting, and rereading are poor techniques when it comes to retaining information. Active Recall and Practice Testing have been shown to be significantly better in regards to improving content retention.
I remember sitting down and looking at my anatomy textbook for my first exam in October. The exam was three days away. I had to learn the anatomy of the back, shoulder, and chest. The blood vessels that supply them and the nerves that make them move. I flipped open Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy and began rereading in hopes something would stick into my brain:
The infraspinatus muscle, aided by the teres minor and spinal (posterior) fibers of the deltoid muscle…
My eyes glazed over.
The infra-who-know? Ok maybe I should start with some bones in the hand or something and work my way up:
The anular and cruciform (cruciate) parts, often referred to clinically as “pulleys,”…
What part of your hand is a pulley???
I repeated the same studying technique and scored a 12/30 on the anatomy exam. If you don’t know that isn’t too good. In fact, that’s failing.
I spoke to one of my new medical school friends, and made the cardinal mistake of sharing my score:
“What do you think Dan, that was killer right? I didn’t even get a 50%”
Dan was trying to be nice, “Don’t worry about it man, it’s your first anatomy exam!” He patted me on the shoulder, “No one does well on the first anatomy exam.”
I was feeling better, so I asked him, “That makes sense, how did you do?”
“Oh I got a 30”
“Out of 30???”
I knew I was doing something wrong. I went on to learn Dan never opened the book. How could that be possible? He went on to tell me about practice testing and quizzing himself, and how he tried to think what questions would be asked on the exam.
That was a turning point for me. I changed my methods from rereading to active recall and practice testing and saw my grades jump up. Like by a whole letter grade kinda jump up. I was never going back.
Hopefully, by the end of reading this, you will learn from my mistakes, fix your workflow, and improve the efficiency and efficacy of your studying.
Summarizing, Highlighting, and Rereading is Inefficient
A review article from 2013 looked at 10 learning techniques. They gave the techniques a rating of either low utility, moderate utility, or high utility1.
Guess what rating summarizing, highlighting, and rereading got?
The only two ratings which were given a rating of High utility?
Practice Testing and distributed practice; both are forms of Active Recall.
On the basis of available evidence, we rate summarization as low utility.1Dunlosky et al.
They go on to say that it can be of use but needs extensive training. That of which children, high school students, and some undergraduates, do not have.
This one hit home. I would (and sometimes still do) review before an exam by summarizing all the information.
The evidence just doesn’t support it. I have since eliminated trying to summarize slide lecture presentations into my notes and have gained at least 1 hour per day with no loss of content retention (based on my exam scores).
Luckily I never did this one, but I have many friends that have the prettiest textbooks. What do I mean by that?
They had four different colored highlighters (some bold bastards even had SIX) and they color-coded their textbook. I always wanted to review from their textbooks because I thought, “Oh wow! they spend so much time picking out the good information, I need that textbook! I need to read that special information. They must do well!” I was wrong.
It turns out my friends, I’m thinking of two in particular, never really socred that well on exams; My journey to becoming like Dan hit another roadblock.
On the basis of available evidence, we rate highlighting and underlining as having low utility. In most situations that have been examined and with most participants, highlighting does little to boost performance […] it may actually hurt performance on higher-level tasks that require inference making.1Dunlosky et al.
This is the way a majority of students review. I occasionally reviewed like this. It takes hours and hours. But hey if you read it all, slowly and carefully, you will understand the information and perform better, right?
The relative disadvantage of rereading to other techniques is the largest strike against rereading and is the factor that weighed most heavily in our decision to assign it a rating of low utility.1Dunlosky et al.
So rereading might help, a little bit, but the hours you spend rereading a textbook or slideshow presentation could be spent much more effectively doing something else.
This is the first two lines of a paper by Karpicke & Roediger in 2009 that studied 177 college students and their study habits
Basic research on human learning and memory has shown that practising retrieval of information (by testing the information) has powerful effects on learning and long-term retention. Repeated testing enhances learning more than repeated reading, which often confers limited benefit beyond that gained from the initial reading of the material.2Karpicke & Roediger
Let’s reread that last line again, “limited benefit beyond that gained from the initial reading of the material.” Wait so rereading it doesn’t work?!!
One more scholarly research article to hammer this in, this one is from McDaniel & Callender in 2009
…memory research has shown many times that repetetive reading by itself is not an effective strategy for promoting learning and long-term retention.3McDaniel & Callender
Highlighting, summarizing, and rereading are inefficient and ineffective. So what do we do? How do we study effectively?
Active recall is answering a question with no supporting information, notes pictures, or anything; think of answering a flashcard.
Active recall is not easy, I do probably 3-6 hours of flashcards a day using the Pomodoro method (which, for me, is studying for 25 minutes then taking a 5-minute break). I can actually feel my brain working hard as opposed to when I am just reading lecture notes. Now my retention of these ~1000 flashcards isn’t 100%, it is around 90%, but that is much better than it would be than just reading the facts.
But don’t take my word for it, Morris et al. asked participants to try and remember as many people’s names as they could in a simulated “party” scenario.
One group was asked to use active recall and retrieval practice, while the other group was simply shown the names multiple times and asked to remember them. The results?
The active recall group recalled 11.5 names on average while the other group remembered only 5.8. That’s a nearly 100% difference based on just using active recall4.
One review article from Yale in 2014 compiled many papers and came up with this conclusion:
Active recall […] is a significantly more effective learning strategy than passive restudying of the facts.5Augustin
Finally, I saved the best for last. Practice testing is doing questions that (hopefully) closely mimic the exam and what you will be tested on. Practice testing is a form of active recall.
The same review article, which is actually titled “How to Learn Effectively in Medical School: Test Yourself, Learn Actively, and Repeat in Intervals,” also spoke about practice testing.
Testing as an active element of learning is more effective than studying the factual knowledge repeatedly5Augustin
This is one of the reasons, I think, it is important to never phase out testing in school. Yes it is stressful, and yes, in certain situations it may not be indicative of future performance, and yes I dislike tests. But the evidence for it is so great that we, as a society, I believe, should not get rid of it.
When students have been tested on material they remember more in the long term than if they had repeatedly studied it.2Karpicke et al.
I’m going to throw four more papers at you to really drive this point home. Then (I promise) we are done. And you can begin burning your highlighted notes and start creating your flashcards.
One experiment took 324 undergrads and surveyed their study habits and correlated them to their GPA. Take a look at this graph. The top performers, with a GPA of 3.7-4.0, indicated that they tested themselves with practice questions. While students with the lowest GPA (1.7-2.1) reported significant less usage of self testing.6
Another question they asked was “If you quiz yourself, why do you do so?” The choices were:
- I learn more that way than I would rereading
- To figure out how well I have learned the information I’m studying
- I find quizzes more enjoyable than rereading
- I usually do not quiz myself
What did the top performers answer?
“To figure out how well I have learned the information I am studying“
Also, notice how few (less than 5%!!) of top performers indicated that “I usually do not [quiz myself]” The top performers quiz themself.
This supports another method that I have found extremely helpful to my exam prep, I call, “The Rongie Strategy” I will go into in another post but basically this entails, before an exam, writing down every topic or idea that you don’t understand and teaching yourself those topics. You should be able to explain those topics as if you were teaching them to a five-year-old (The Feynman technique). Then every day before the exam you quiz yourself (sense a theme here?) on those topics and add to it based on the content you realize you don’t know.
Both of these techniques, Rongie and Feynman, along with active recall, practice testing, and spaced repetition have massively improved my retention.
Two more and we are done. A 2019 USC paper looked at pharmacy students. One group of students rewatched lectures and another group did retrieval practice. I bet by this point you know the answer to their experiment, they concluded
Testing may be more efficient (ie, cost-effective) for long-term performance. Students who attend class may want to avoid rewatching course recordings in favor of practice testing7Palmer et al.
To close it out, let’s go back to that first review article that looked at 10 learning methods from Dunlosky et al. The chart speaks for itself.
The higher-ability readers who took practice tests had an approximate 20% improvement in accuracy from those who did not.
We rate practice testing as having high utility […] practice testing is not particularly time intensive relative to other techniques, and it can be implemented with minimal training. Finally, several studies have provided evidence for the efficacy of practice testing in representative educational context.1Dunlosky et al.
Summary and Implementation
Alright, we made it. Now the good stuff, how do we take all these smart people’s advice and actually integrate it into our lives?
1. Cut out highlighting, summarizing, and especially rereading.
The evidence is there, these methods just don’t cut it.1, 3, 4, 5, 7 But if I had to pick one thing for you to change, it would be eliminating rereading. That includes rewatching lectures, rewatching youtube videos, and rereading your notes.
Get a basic understanding of the topic, then quickly move on to active recall and practice testing.
2. Practice Active Recall with Flashcards
I use ANKI (a flashcard app) literally every day, for 3-6 hours a day, going over ~1000 cards a day. This helps me retain EVERYTHING I have learned throughout my first year of medical school. I highly highly highley (get it, that’s my name!! Ok plz don’t hate me) recommend it. ANKI’s built-in algorithm for spaced repetition is key. You must, for long term retention, test yourself consistently and repeatedly.
I am currently working on a post exactly why spaced repetition is so important, and how I implement it.
3. Test Yourself
Use book questions, teacher practice questions, anything you can get your hand on that mimics exam style questions.
When I was studying for the MCAT (the “entry-exam” for medical school) I split my 98-day study plan into three phases: learning new content, doing content questions, and practice testing. Guess where I saw the biggest jump in score? I really hope you can answer that by now.
If not keep checking your mailbox, I’ll be sending some flashcards over, pronto, on the talking points. Then I will be testing you. Then 3 years later, when you are laying in bed on a rainy Sunday morning after a long night out, tired and wondering when the next Zach Highley post will come out, BAM I’ll have 700 flashcards fly under your door Harry Potter Style.
The answer was practice testing. When I implemented self-testing I saw my MCAT practice test scores go from the 53rd percentile to the 90th. Then, when my actual exam score came back, I scored in the 97th percentile.
Want to do better? Stop rereading, highlighting, and summarizing. Start using active recall and testing yourself.
I hope you found that helpful! I’d love do know what you think, do you agree? Disagree? What study techniques work for you?
- Dunlosky J, Rawson KA, Marsh EJ, Nathan MJ, Willingham DT. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychol Sci Public Interest. 2013;14(1):4‐58. doi:10.1177/1529100612453266
- Karpicke JD, Butler AC, Roediger HL 3rd. Metacognitive strategies in student learning: do students practise retrieval when they study on their own?. Memory. 2009;17(4):471‐479. doi:10.1080/09658210802647009
- Callender and Macdaniel. The limited benefits of rereading education texts. Contemp. Educ. Psychol., 34(1) (2009), pp. 30-41
- Morris, P.E., Fritz, C.O., Jackson, L., Nichol, E. and Roberts, E. (2005), Strategies for learning proper names: expanding retrieval practice, meaning and imagery. Appl. Cognit. Psychol., 19: 779-798. doi:10.1002/acp.1115
- Augustin M. How to learn effectively in medical school: test yourself, learn actively, and repeat in intervals. Yale J Biol Med. 2014;87(2):207‐212. Published 2014 Jun 6.
- Hartwig MK, Dunlosky J. Study strategies of college students: are self-testing and scheduling related to achievement?. Psychon Bull Rev. 2012;19(1):126‐134. doi:10.3758/s13423-011-0181-y
- Palmer S, Chu Y, Persky AM. Comparison of Rewatching Class Recordings versus Retrieval Practice as Post-Lecture Learning Strategies. Am J Pharm Educ. 2019;83(9):7217. doi:10.5688/ajpe7217