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Effective study methods boost efficiency in learning, retention abilities

Interactive, constructive frameworks beneficial to students looking to understand content
Rachel Lee

Junior Vivian Tang frantically looks over her notes one more time before test day. She’s reviewed her chemistry notes and worksheets nearly a thousand times, yet the content remains just out of her grasp. The clock next to her reads 1 a.m., which she tries to ignore as she’s overcome with a sleepy yawn.
Most students have been there –– studying late for finals or a science test, desperately cramming as much information as they can the night before.
But is this the right way to study?
According to Stanford professor of psychology Jay McClelland, the cognitive science behind learning is less important than the final outcome.
“We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work from trying different ways of studying and encouraging people to study and finding the outcomes,” McClelland said. “We don’t have to worry so much about the brain. You just have to worry about the behaviors that lead to the outcomes.”
McClelland said there are a few changes students can make to their studying strategies. According to McClelland, the key to learning efficiently is the desire to understand content. “The best learning outcomes occur when your goal is to understand,” McClelland said. “If you’re in math class or physics class or even history class, you’re thinking about making sense of everything.”

McClelland also said rereading the text and thinking about the material in different ways can aid in understanding.
“What works in achieving educational outcomes (is) getting people to understand the content in some sort of structure that makes sense to them,” McClelland said.
In some cases, the structure of thinking can make a huge impact on learning.
McClelland said the right framework can help students better understand confusing content.
“If you find yourself not understanding and something seems strange and foreign to you, it might not mean that you’re stupid,” McClelland said. “It might just mean you haven’t thought in terms of this framework before.”
According to McClelland, attempting to understand the logic behind subjects like math can be more beneficial when studying the material.
Knowing the theorems behind the rules of math can be more helpful than simply trying to memorize the various formulas.
“There are systems of reasoning and proof that we can devise to understand mathematics as a system as opposed to a bunch of formulas,” McClelland said.
While using such tactics can aid greatly in learning, McClelland said it may be difficult for students to adapt to new studying tactics and try to change their way of thinking.
“You can imagine things that you couldn’t have imagined before because you see the relationships in a whole different way,” McClelland said. “But it’s hard to initially switch from one framework to another.”
While some students have heard of the benefits of active versus passive studying, McClelland said there are stronger methods of studying.
“There’s a well-known acronym in the literature, which is ICAP,” McClelland said. “And it stands for interactive, constructive, active, passive.”
A 2018 study by BMC Medical Education shows interactive and constructive learning is more effective than active and passive learning and that interactive studying through discussion can boost learning speed.
“It is better for learners to discuss after self-studying than listening to lectures,” the study said. “Moreover, creating their own discussion questions can maximize the learning outcomes.”
The study also said constructive learning, or generating new concepts based on a person’s knowledge, provokes higher levels of thought.
McClelland said active studying can actually hurt a student’s understanding of material.
“Active means you’re actually taking notes, maybe you’re even underlining the points you think are important. But it’s not quite as strong or effective as constructing it because you’re not integrating it for yourself,” McClelland said.
There are also certain studying methods that can improve learning. According to a study by Christopher Smith and Damian Scarf, spaced repetition, or studying facts repeatedly over increasingly longer periods of time, can aid learning.
McClelland also said practicing solving problems and doing examples can provide benefits compared to studying passively.
“You can predict whether somebody’s going to learn something if they’ve successfully used it six times,” McClelland said.
In the end, studying isn’t always about cramming blindly. McClelland said it’s about looking for understanding, coming up with study strategies, studying interactively and constructively, and finding the right framework.
“It’ll take a while before it starts feeling like the framework is complete,” McClelland said. “That’s something that’s massive. So don’t be scared. Stay with it. Play with it. Do more examples. Read the book a second time.”

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Gavin Lin
Gavin Lin, Assistant Managing Editor
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