Updated: August 11, 2017
I suspect many of you have heard something along the lines of, “We remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, and 30% of what we see.” This claim has been published in several forms with various percentages and definitions; it has been around for decades and has definitely influenced educational methods. Careful research into the origins and foundations for such a claim has identified no evidence for it—just repeated references to this supposed fact.
Over the last decade, hundreds of articles and books have been devoted to identifying the different “learning styles” of students. Identifying a student’s learning style and matching the educational methods and materials used to that style has been seen as way to improve student learning. Recent research about the foundation for such a belief has concluded that there is no empirical evidence to support it. Commercial products based on the claimed benefits of identifying various learning styles are widely offered.
Even so, to this day, some teachers require memorization of a poem, essay, or address on the grounds that memorization will strengthen a student’s memory, much as lifting weights develops muscle strength. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that this is true. On the other hand, memorizing poetry does have one learning effect—you can get better at memorizing poetry.
As a student, I was told that I needed to have a dedicated study place that was quiet and organized. As it turns out, just the opposite is true. Students who studied in multiple places and under differing conditions outperformed those who studied in a single (and more attractive) location.
In a January 2013 article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, five university researchers examine decades of evidence on the value of 10 study techniques in terms of their increase in learning and retention, as well as their general applicability across different student characteristics, learning conditions, materials, and tasks. Here is a partial summary of what they found:
It’s difficult to find a used college textbook without significant underlining and/or highlighting, sometimes in multiple colors; it is a very frequently used study technique. Several studies have failed to find any difference in test performance among groups that highlighted text on their own, groups given previously highlighted text, and groups that did not highlight or underline text at all.
Writing or speaking (to someone) a summary of what has been studied did not raise test scores in classroom research. There is a consistent finding that students who write better summaries do better on tests, but perhaps students who don’t understand and learn the material well just write poor summaries.
Rereading has been cited by 55% of students as their number one study technique. While there is evidence that rereading can improve test results, especially on memory-based tests and for the broad ideas of a text (rather than details), it is relatively less effective than other techniques requiring the same amount of time.This refers to the technique of mentally imagining the content of text paragraphs using simple, clear mental images. This technique has been shown to improve test scores on memory-based tests, but was ranked low utility by the authors because these results were based on “imagery friendly materials and tests of memory.”
This refers to asking why a particular fact is true when studying, that is, generating an explanation of why a particular fact is true. While this technique has been shown to increase scores on tests of factual material, the authors ranked it as having only moderate utility because similar results have not been demonstrated for more complex material.
This refers to mixing problems of different types, requiring different techniques, as opposed to working many problems applying a single technique to be learned (massed practice). Mixing questions across the material to be learned (after each technique had been learned) produced dramatically higher scores on an exam over all the material in multiple studies. This result was more consistent for learning mathematics than for learning foreign language, and a number of studies have not found this result. While interleaved practice improved initial test performance, there is little evidence that interleaved practice improved retention relative to mass practice, only initial test performance.
The fact that taking practice tests improves recall and retention, compared to simply re-studying the material, has been documented for decades. The current thinking is that completing practice questions improves learning and retention because this activity creates information linkages that facilitate later recall; it is also believed that this practice helps students to better mentally organize the material. Repeated practice tests continue to increase learning and retention, especially when practice tests are spread out over time.
These studies focused on the time between multiple practice sessions. Distributed practice refers to allowing longer time periods between practice sessions. When the practice sessions were further apart in time (by as little as one day), performance on a test 30 days after the study sessions concluded was significantly better. Although students forgot more from their previous practice session between sessions with longer intervening intervals, this improvement in final performance was actually better when the interval between practice sessions was extended to 30 days. The retrieval of the information after longer lags is thought to require more intensive retrieval effort and, in that way, may be related to the above results for practice testing.
So, here’s the bottom line: study in shorter sessions over a longer period of time, complete more practice questions and space those question sessions over time, and add topics to your practice questions as you move through the material. As you study, ask why and provide yourself with explanations of why things are true or why relationships must hold, linking new topics to your previous knowledge for better recall and retention. These are proven methods that will work.
With that being said, nothing here demonstrates that a particular method will not work for you. I often write summaries of complex material for my own review, just to make sure I can explain things clearly and that the “story” holds together logically. I likely won’t give that up, especially for finance articles and research results that don’t come with any practice questions. Happy studying and best wishes on your exams.