How to Study

This is a short overview of the most commonly used learning methods along with their benefits and limitations.

There are two methods that are clearly better than the others because they work with a variety of subjects and settings. Additionally there are some that are somewhat effective when used with limitations. But can you guess which ones don't work at all?

What Works No Matter What

Self Testing

Self-testing is done outside of class by the students on their own.

How to Do It Properly?

  • Test yourself frequently
  • The tests should be short
  • You should be able to check the correct answers

"Undergraduates were presented with Swahili-English word pairs, followed by either practice testing or review. Recall for items they had been repeatedly tested on was 80 percent, compared with only 36 percent for items they had restudied."

Distributed Practice

Distributed practice means spreading out study sessions. E.g. you are not cramming all the material all at once (the night before the big exam) but study again and again over time.

How to Do It Properly?

  • Use longer intervals to be effective

"To remember something for one week, learning episodes should be 12 to 24 hours apart; to remember something for five years, they should be spaced six to 12 months apart."

What Works Sometimes

Elaborative Interrogation

Learners are asked "Why?" questions to produce explanations for facts.

What's Wrong with It?

  • Works only for factual information
  • It's more effective when there's prior knowledge

"Elaborative interrogation clearly improves memory for facts, but whether it also might enhance comprehension is less certain."


Self-explanation is basically checking upon on the connections by asking "How does it relate to what I already know?"

What's Wrong with It?

  • You tend to paraphrase instead of explaining
  • It's time-consuming
  • Long-term effects are unclear

"Further research must establish whether these effects are durable and whether the time demands make it worthwhile."

Interleaved Practice

Interleaved practice means alternating between different study problems and information, mixing them up.

What's Wrong with It?

  • Works best for similiar problems (to highlight the differences)
  • Can be applied only to cognitive skills
  • Doesn't work for vocabulary learning

"It is possible that interleaved practice benefits only those who are already reasonably competent."

What Doesn't Work


Highlighting or underlining pieces of text.

Can't I Use It at All?

  • Only to identify parts of text that can be used with other learning methods

"Underlining was ineffective regardless of text length and topic. In fact, it may actually hurt performance on some higher-level tasks. It may be that underlining draws attention to individual items rather than to connections across items."


Rereading texts or notes.

Can't I Use It at All?

  • Only once perhaps but other methods are recommended

"Most of the benefit of rereading appears to accrue from the second reading, with diminishing returns from additional repetitions."