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Work Smarter Not Harder: Exploring Different Study Methods to Maximize Your Efficiency

Hey everyone! My name is Annaba Tasnia (she/her), I’m in my second year of the Psychology, Neuroscience & Behavior program and I’m so stoked to be serving as the VP Finance! While grappling with my first few semesters of University, I’ve done a lot of experimenting with a variety of study methods and am here to share what I have found to work the best for me while increasing my efficiency in retaining course content.


As reading week approaches, the unfortunate reality is that midterms are to subsequently follow, or for some, have already begun. Let this read serve as your reminder that despite how hectic midterm season can be, it does not mean that other aspects of your life have to go on hold, as you will find that the following study methods suggested will rapidly increase your ability to learn content at a faster rate while presenting you with a lot more time to engage in other activities to foster a healthy work-life balance.


But first and foremost, regardless of whichever study method you choose to engage in, the key to succeeding in your courses is allotting an appropriate chunk of time towards studying for assessments. Although many of us assume that a week is sufficient for midterm-prep, it is actually best practice to keep up with new information as it is presented in class, and instead use the week prior to the evaluation for practice-testing and revision rather than absorbing information for the first time.


Distributed Practice

To dive a little deeper into my remark regarding keeping up with content as presented, this can formally be labelled as distributed practice - a concept backed by science and actually taught to me in one of my first year psychology courses. The premise of this study method is that it encourages long-term studying instead of cramming (which we know all too well isn’t the best way to go about midterms/exams). In fact, Hermann Ebbinghaus actually proposed a mathematical model in 1885 known as the forgetting curve which portrays the rapid rate at which new information tends to slip our minds, without spaced and frequent engagement with it (McGarry, n.d.). The figure below illustrates this, as it depicts the highly prominent nature of forgetting something upon newly learning it (Figure 1). However, with each additional review session memory is seen to persist and extend over a longer period of time.


Figure 1: Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve


As a result, take some time to compose a schedule in which you will revisit content following the presentation of it in class. For instance, an example of a distributed practice timeline I have used before is as follows:


Day 1: Learn the material in class

Day 2: Revisit and review

Day 3: Revisit and review

One week later: Revisit and review

Two weeks later: Revisit and review


Retrieval Practice

Another technique which I really love and tend to use the most is called retrieval practice. This is the idea that recalling information on your own actually increases memory retention at a significantly quicker rate than techniques which solely promote fluency such as constantly highlighting and rereading your notes. This makes sense as memory retrieval is a low-input high-output activity, while highlighting and rereading notes is a high-input low-output activity. When it comes to an actual midterm or exam, it is often if not always, a low-input high-output situation as you are expected to demonstrate your learning by remembering content. As a result, mimicking this while studying is a smart decision as it will allow you to better gauge how prepared you are and make changes accordingly prior to the evaluation.


Some ways to enforce retrieval practice may be with the help of practice tests, coming up with your own questions, and using flashcards. In fact, one of my favorite ways to engage with retrieval practice is with the use of the Anki flashcards app on my laptop. Using this app has allowed me to significantly improve my performance on midterms and exams. Anki is described as being a “powerful, intelligent” flashcard app which truly makes remembering things easy (Anki, n.d.). In fact, with the use of an integrated algorithm, it incorporates retrieval practice for you by presenting flashcards either more or less frequently depending on how easily you are able to recall the information. For more information on Anki, check out their website!


I also highly suggest the 3x3 rule as it combines both distributed practice and retrieval practice. How it works is that in my first study session, I try to recall content correctly 3 times. Following this, I test myself to see if I can recall the same information correctly within 3 different subsequent study sessions, each spaced one week apart.



PQR4 Method

Lastly, I would like to present the PQR4 method which takes an active approach to learning and consequently improves memorization and understanding of a topic. PQR4 is an acronym designed to help you remember the following steps while studying (10 Effective Study Techniques to Try This Year, 2020):


  1. Preview: before you start reading, skim the material lightly while only paying attention to the headers, subheadings and highlighted texts

  2. Question: engage with the content, ask yourself questions related to the topic such as “what do I already know about this?”

  3. Read: read the info, focusing on one section at a time while trying to actively look for answers to your questions

  4. Reflect: ask yourself if you have been able to answer all of your questions, if not, try to revisit the content until you are able to

  5. Recite: in your own words, try to summarize the information you have just learnt

  6. Review: look over the material one more time and try to answer any remaining questions which are yet to be answered


Wrap Up

While I hope that these methods will be of use to you and will help you succeed during the upcoming wave of midterms, it is important to remember that learning comes in all shapes and sizes. These methods are what I have found to work the best for me, but if you find that these are not your method of preference when it comes to studying, that’s okay!! Learning is a very personal experience and perhaps with some tweaking and revisions, you’ll find what works best for you in no time. Thanks for taking the time to read through this :)


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