Science of Studying: Why Remembering Is Such a Pain

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Every day at school, we are bombarded with things we have to learn and remember, and at many times it can be an information overload. What we were never really taught properly however, is HOW to learn these things! The most basic of concepts has been done wrong for so many years, but not anymore. A paper recently published in Psychological Science and the Public Interest has evaluated all the main techniques for improving the way we learn and found some surprisingly significant conclusions.

Gone are the days of re-reading and summarising, before realising you haven’t been paying attention to the content properly. Learning isn’t like osmosis – using your textbook as a pillow does not transfer the information to your brain (come on, we’ve all thought about it, right?). So let’s start with some techniques that don’t work as well as once thought, at least not by themselves:

Highlighting and Underlining

The favourite technique of many students – why? Because it’s easy, doesn’t require much effort and extremely quick, making your reading seem effective at the time, but not a method that should ever be used as a standalone technique.


This technique is beneficial for written exams, but not so much for tests that do not require students to generate information such as multiple choice tests. It is probably the most effective of the common techniques, but nowhere near enough to prepare you for an exam.

Keyword Mnemonics and Imagery for Text Learning

This involves linking words to meanings based on how a word sounds and images for word association. Although this works well for short term memory, there are very few situations in which it would help in an exam, unless it was the night before!

[imageframe lightbox=”yes” style=”bottomshadow” bordercolor=”” bordersize=”0px” stylecolor=”” align=”center” animation_type=”0″ animation_direction=”down” animation_speed=”0.1″]Practice exams are the most effective way to study[/imageframe]


But wait, not all hope is lost! These methods are important for initial learning, but cannot be used by themselves. The following methods have proven to be effective to a much higher degree, and can be the difference between an average mark and a perfect score:

Practice Testing and Distributed Practice

Hands down the MOST effective way to learn, practice testing allows students to use the information they have learnt, especially when they create the questions themselves. Techniques such as noting questions in a column as you learn, or using flash cards have proven to be the most effective ways to both retain and use information.

Elaborative Interrogation

This method involves creating explanations for why stated facts are true. Asking yourself to explain something helps you justify the reasons behind it, and can be done easily while reading – one study found that elaborative learning took 32 minutes as opposed to 28 minutes for simply reading a passage of information.


This is the how part of studying – useful for more abstract learning. It involves explaining and recording how you solve or understand problems and giving reasons for the choices made. This technique was found to more effective while learning instead of after learning, however it does add extra time to your learning and studying processes.

A final point to remember is the Generation Theory – basically the idea that you learn things better by writing and saying information as opposed to reading, seeing or hearing it. When you generate information it is stored in the long term-memory part of your brain, which is a lot more effective in the long run. This is also why it is important to use a range of techniques while studying and loads of practice for exam success.

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