Which Learning Methods Actually Work?

Here’s an interesting article on the effectiveness of various study techniques—and in particular—which ones have evidence supporting them.

Some of my thoughts on the key findings:

Self-Explanation and Reading

Elaborative learning and self-explanation were found to be moderately effective. This is similar to the Feynman technique, but I’d argue the use of the method was different (I mainly use this method to hunt out specific misunderstandings, not as a general catch-all which is usually too time consuming as indicated by the research).

Summarizing and highlighting were found to be ineffective. I was surprised about the finding on summarizing, but the note on highlighting was what I expected. Perhaps some of the problem with summarizing is that it lacks a feedback mechanism to know whether you’ve actually gathered the key details?

Rereading was found to be ineffective. No surprises here. Passive review strategies are less effective than active ones.

Visualization and Mnemonics

The keyword mnemonic (using visual links to memorize words) was labelled “ineffective” but probably a better description of the actual findings is that it has more narrow usage.

Visualization while reading was found to be ineffective. I found this interesting, given my advice to students to visualize. However, it seems like the issue may be that visualization while reading is distracting. In addition, I’ve always felt the major benefits of visualizing are for abstract subjects, which don’t naturally lend themselves to images, as opposed to the concrete subjects measured here.

Practice and Spacing Were The Most Effective Methods

Practice was one of the most effective methods studied. This was a staple of the MIT Challenge, probably making up 50% of the total time I spend working through the courses. I found it interesting that practice questions were still effective even when you created the questions yourself—a good alternative if practice exams are unavailable.

Spacing effects were shown as being effective as well. During the MIT Challenge I tried to make use of spacing as much as possible, doing classes in parallel after the first few classes. It was an unfortunate weakness of the tight time-constraint premise of the challenge, however. I’d recommend most students looking to follow my self-education attempt to spread out their learning over a longer period of time and at a lower intensity than I did.

I find the spacing effects on learning to be somewhat tricky because I’ve also found focus to be enormously effective for getting things done. Juggling a couple different learning projects at the same time to be far harder to manage than being dedicated to only one or two.

Ultimately, there may be a trade-off between spacing and focus—you want the spacing to ensure better long-term recall, but you want the focus to actually get the work done.

Science, Experience and What Actually Works

Scientific research on the efficacy of different learning techniques has been a very useful counterbalance for me to the methods I’ve developed through practical experience.

I’m only a single data point. Although I collect a lot of observations and data from my students in my courses, the empirical rigor of a self-selected online course is not the same as a scientific paper. Placebo effects and the lack of control groups mean that it’s important to return to the psychological research for checks and balances.

However studies are often designed to measure the outcome of a very narrow set of conditions. If the conditions change from the experiment, the results may be very different. I end up relying a lot on practical experience to fill in those gaps in my own self-learning efforts.

Opinions I’ve Changed Since Learn More, Study Less

I find myself learning a lot about learning, as more research like this comes out and I get exposed to different learning situations and am forced to adapt. While I still support the most of the main points of Learn More, Study Less, I’ve evolved considerably on my views since then.

Here are the major opinions I’ve shifted:

  • Repetition isn’t a bad thing (even if repetition alone probably is).
  • Speed reading is only narrowly useful. In most learning situations, reading at a deeper level of processing and reading more slowly is better.
  • Practice and active recall should be a bulk of your strategy. I haven’t given enough emphasis on active recall in the past, even though it should probably form a large chunk of your learning time.
  • Spaced repetition software can be quite useful. I’ve flipped my thinking on this point since I mentioned it earlier. To me the disadvantages of decontextualized and unprioritized knowledge are outweighed by the automatic structuring of review and active recall.
  • Don’t highlight. I used to have highlighting as part of an active reading strategy, but now I’m inclined to avoid it altogether. Taking sparse notes is better.
  • Holistic learning is still valid for law and languages. I expressed doubts in my initial ebook as to whether learning via connections was appropriate for densely factual subjects, but since then I’ve found it useful for these subjects nonetheless.

A major challenge for me is that, in spending a lot of time learning, my opinions grow with time. Hopefully my minor reversals and shifts in emphasis don’t irk or confuse longtime readers too much. The alternative is to be dogmatic, an unsupportable long-term strategy.

  • Felipe

    I’d like to know what’s your actually reading strategy Scott.
    Do you use speed reading techniques sometimes?
    I’m actually just using active reading techniques.

    I don’t speed read any more, I found that I lose a lot of information (sometimes important ones, sometimes just garbage).

    Maybe you could write about it in any future post, i’d love a post about reading technique you’re using these days.

    F.R

  • Alan

    I can definitely echo your opinion on spaced repetition software. I used it for an Astronomy course as well as an Art History course a couple of years ago.

    For the Astronomy course, I ended up doing worse because the exams didn’t just test dates and facts. And since the software was all I used to study for the course, whatever connection or “contextualized knowledge” was missing in the program was also missing in my head. Of course, this could be remedied by simply being more comprehensive in what is actually entered into the program, but I found that time to be better spent just doing active recall.

    It worked very well for the art course. But that’s because I didn’t have to know anything else beyond the artists names and dates of their works. For that class, the software was just a buffed up flash card system which suited the material well.

    great post!

  • John

    Scott,

    Since you have changed your opinions on effective learning techniques, does this make your books less relevant?

  • PatelK

    This is interesting stuff!
    I also thought visualizing the information would help.

    But I wonder if practicing first enhances the images you may have created before. I mean… data gathering is a must if you’re making your own questions, right?

    So the question may be:
    –>What’s the best way to gather the data that I will later create test questions on?

  • JB

    Can you go down the list of what should no longer be practiced. I read the bigthink article and it would seem Notes Compression should be deprecated. I am not sure why they don’t like mnemonics because I have found them very useful. Who doesn’t still remember “please excuse my dear aunt sally”?

    It seems when I read Learn More Study less is that making connections between ideas was at the forefront of the strategy. Does it still deserve this position or should the focus be on varies type of practice?

    Is Visceralization still useful? Judging from the article it should no better than metaphor. Also why is speed reading inappropriate for most things. I agree you remember less and stuff but I am in agreement that only the main ideas are important and the details work themselves out in practice.

    I would like to say that starting out I was very much like you. I looked through scientific journals looking for way to improve learning. But it was too time consuming, and I was satisfied with your book. But, I am someone who always yields to superior evidence whenever there is conflict between ideas. With that said, will you please revise the book or at least write and article that would explain changes you would make to each method more deeply? I know you have learned a lot since writing it and it could use an update.

  • M.Park

    When reading a psychology research paper in the domain of learning and education, I tend to think about what the finding means in the context of studying math. It seems that most of the research findings are not really applied to studying math. It probably has to do with the fact that the most researchers in psychology don’t know how to measure learning in mathematical subjects. In math, it’s very hard to develop a problem question that employs the underlying idea of what has been learned. It’s very easy to come up with a problem question that asks to use what’s been learned without really knowing the underlying concept.

    From what I have learned so far, a lot more study and researches are needed before we learn what works in learning math effectively.

  • Rodrigo

    One think worth remembering when looking at the research assesment is that the generalization of the technique was considered very important. So if a technique worked well for a small group – say, for the advanced learners – but failed for most people, then it received a lower grade for effectiveness.

    So it may be that some techniques are still valuable if used in the right context by the right person, even if the method received an overall low grade.

    I recommend taking a look at the original research:

    http://psi.sagepub.com/content

    specially Table 4, which gives a more detailed view of the results.

    Atually, for those interested in this kind of thing, the whole research is worth reading, since it goes more deeply in the advantages and limitations of each method, as well as the reasons for each result.

  • Tony Pierre

    I must confess I have often questioned the value of speed reading as a serious learning exercise. Of course you need to move with some haste through the realms of information particularly available on the Web but only if your primary aim is one of search and discovery. I think therefore that the process of learning is more intense and would be accomplished at a slower pace, however, if you simply desire to be informed and updated speed reading, highlighting and summarizing are required for the task.

  • Stephan

    Hey Scott, I got a question-suppose you are learning a hard, abstract math/science course, and you are using a textbook. (no video lectures) And you want to learn as quickly and as deeply as possible. Would you read the entire textbook first, and then do exercises from each chapter, or read each chapter and do the accompanying exercises before moving to the next chapter? And is it meaningful to do exercises/ practice problems if you have no solution manual?

  • Lucy

    I think that ultimately, the most effective technique is the one that requires the most amount of deliberate focus. If you don’t feel your gears turning, then the effort is probably mindless.

  • Matt

    Are you going to revise Learn More, Study Less? As much as I like going back through it now and again, I think we would all gain from your improved knowledge since you wrote it.

  • Michael Bowen

    What I find works best for me is reading through a chapter without stopping, then going back and doing practice problems or creating problems for me to solve based on the material. That was the concepts become less abstract and more practical.

    And because I’m a super nerd, I place a difficulty level, from 1-5, for each concept and then assign the correlating number of practice problems for that difficulty 🙂

  • Scott Young

    Matt,

    I think I’ll probably update my books at some point–but I stress that most of my revisions are nuanced adjustments. The thesis of LMSL regarding learning by connections and the tactics I teach are still valid.

    Stephan,

    In the MIT Challenge I read first, then applied. That was faster for the time constraints I was under, but I think if I were trying to get higher levels of understanding I would interject practice so that misunderstandings won’t accumulate.

    Tony,

    When I first wrote about speed reading I was reading a lot more books that were less dense and intellectually challenging than I am now. I still think it was a good method for those types of books, but I don’t think it’s as useful when you need a higher retention rate.

    Rodrigo,

    Yes–as I mention in the article, the conditions being tested are often very narrow. At least in my own experience context is crucial. Many of the methods that got poor reviews, in my mind, were used inappropriately. Visualizing, for example, wasn’t used in the way that I try to recommend.

    JB,

    The majority of my revisions are about nuance, so the main points of LMSL wouldn’t change. I put more emphasis on practice now, but that doesn’t lower the value of learning by connections.

    Alan,

    SRS is good when you need to bulk memorize facts–that’s it. I’ve found it helpful for languages in the process of adding large amounts of vocabulary (of course, using holistic learning principles in addition), but I would never use it for a class that required conceptual knowledge to any significant degree.

    Felipe,

    I used speed reading when I was working through 800+ page economics textbooks during the MIT Challenge, but otherwise I used a sparse notes strategy with reading.

    -Scott

  • Anna

    Scott, can you elaborate on what you mean by a sparse notes strategy? Thanks.

  • Dave Carlson

    I totally agree… repetition does have its value, especially when paired with active recall. I’m designing an MCAT course that is based on repeated active recall of logical models until they’re deeply ingrained in a sort of neural “map”. Having organized knowledge significantly aids performance.

  • EV

    Hmm. Interesting thoughts, but right off the bat, I say that I adjust my learning strategy to correlate with what I am learning. I wonder if that is an art more than a science, since people learn differently in the first place. So, in a sense, all of the strategies can be useful and valid, some even simultaneously, depending upon what works best for you and the subject matter at hand.

    For example, for me, the periodic table requires a combination of memorization, correlations and conceptualizations. I don’t think the overall visual will ever leave my mind either, but I couldn’t necessarily place all of the elements in their proper location without some other support strategies.

    Using multiple resources is one of my more favorite learning practices, because different people can say/show the same thing different ways. I will scan a number of resources, seeking whatever seems to hit my brain the most effectively. Sometimes it takes a while to find the resource(s) that works for my muddled brain, but that’s a separate issue. I found this strategy particularly useful for physics. So easy to find multiple resources with the Internet, from text, lecture, graphics and movies.

    Good topic, nothing like thinking about thinking!

  • Cynthia Aguilar

    What do you mean by sparse notes?
    Is this a method you cover in your book?

  • Jdsong

    hi, it is awesome !
    gratitude from China !

  • Eric-Wubbo

    Hi Scott,

    thank you very much for the info and the link! I love such scientific overviews.

    Eric

  • Daniel

    I agree with Scott that repetition isn’t a bad tool for learning. In some cases, it’s useful to help you recall information faster with less effort so that when in a situation when you need it right away, you would be able to recall that information on the spot.

    Highlighting, I argue, is very useful, that is, if you know how to use it. If you passively read and highlight as you go, then you aren’t engaging a level of learning sufficient enough to understand and recall the information later. But, highlighting the main ideas so that you can write a summary based on it, I find, very helpful in studying the text. It helps the newly learned information stick longer.

  • Robert

    Hi,

    Commiting yourself to the task at hand without any other distractions is definitely key to attaining your goals while studying.

    Thank you for the post. It was very informative.

  • J

    Scott –

    It’s impressive and wonderful that you are willing to consider new scientific data and revise your opinions and recommendations to comport with the evidence (with the caveats that you and Rodrigo mention). That is incredibly rare in the education and self-help worlds. I encourage you to revise your book and not be too worried about how much of the original survives intact. Be honest and rigorous and you will have the best book on the subject out there. Good work and good luck!

  • Scott Young

    Cynthia,

    Sparse notes is basically taking minimal notes while reading. You paraphrase important points and make connections. I use the word “sparse” because most people taking notes while reading try to write down everything, which is too time consuming.

    -Scott

  • Jim Stone

    Very nice piece, Scott. For the content, yes, but also, and maybe even more importantly, for managing the expectations of your audience.

    There’s not much worse than an “expert” who falls into dogmatic defense of old positions, long after the evidence has shifted against the old views.

    I have a lot more confidence in an expert who shifts his views over time in response to the evidence, than in one who doesn’t.

    The article was interesting — and empirical study is always welcome in the self-help arena. But their conclusions were at a very coarse level of generality. As you say, some of those techniques will work well in one circumstance and not as well in others. Analogies used at the right time are pure gold. Used at other times, they are a waste of time.

    Speed reading on some material is a time-saver. Used on other material, it is probably worse than useless.

    It would be nice to see a more subtle study put together. Maybe these results will spur more nuanced studies in the future.

  • Alexander

    Scott,

    I’m actually trying most of the techniques you have said in your book yet i’m also visualizing while I read (using speed reading techniques). In the article it’s said that it just worked for few sentences and I would agree that if you visualize sentence by sentence that would occur; however, according to the example that you showed in your book about a city with roads, each time I’m reading something new I add it to the very same file I had worked before not a new scenery. In other words, the way I do it is more holistically than by the parts, what I do agree is what you mentioned about distractions resulting from visualization (probably, this could be fixed with better incentives, such as contradicting the article).

    Moreover, I’ve been visualizing abstract concepts as metaphors or abstract images so that it’s possible to actually see them within the file and then I visualize them separately so that each concept can exist in it’s own each time it’s called searching is not linear but constant (depending my memory); nevertheless, the later one only works for the cases when it’s called rather than looked for. Empirically, I’ve found that each time I use mnemonics or videos within this map they get lost, only constant 3D scenarios stay if they are all within the same file. Finally, in order to actually memorize it forever it must be reviewed at least once. What would you say from this method I described herein?

  • Tim

    How do you handle learning or being able to active recall an online blog/article like this one? I find myself reading articles and blogs online and then get stuck with inefficient passive methods like rereading and I still do not remember much even a few days after.

    I’m interested in how Scott, along with others handle this?

  • Patricia

    I’m interested in Tim’s question in part because most of my learning involves textual recall. I can affirm that a rich, layered web of information is THE way to learn things in the humanities–because that’s basically what the humanities are! But “practicing” in areas like history, religion, or literature can feel an awful lot like memorizing or summarizing. It’s hard not to devolve into straight repetition.

    I tend to noodle around new ideas and facts, trying to fit what I’ve just learned into some broader context . . . though it’s easy to make wrong assumptions when doing that, and internalize bad information.

  • Ilham

    Hey Scott,

    I second Tim’s post.

    I was reading the article you posted to (haven’t gotten around to reading the journal article yet) and noticed that in the section regarding note-taking/summarizing they still mention that the technique is useful for advanced learners. By this I think they mean as you say taking “sparse-notes”.

    I think the reason this technique is useful for only advanced users is the use of shortcuts. (Am I the only one that uses this I wonder?)

    Maybe I’m the only one who does this but I have generally moved away from writing full sentence notes to notes that look almost like mathematical/algebraic equations. Words or whole passages could be represented by one simple symbol in my notes.

    It could be that this is the case since I did a science major, but even in my biology classes I used symbolism instead of full sentences.

    Scott, have you ever done this or looked into it yourself?

  • Scott Young

    To respond to Tim’s question and others, I’ve used the sparse notes strategy whenever recall is important (I generally don’t use it for blog articles). Sparse notes are distinct from summarizing in that they are taken while you’re reading, not afterward. The goal isn’t really to produce fantastic notes, but to try to paraphrase or think through what you’re actually reading, while you’re reading it.

  • Kevin

    So how do you get all the characteristic facts and functions in subjects like biology and anatomy? How do you actively recall from these sparse notes?

  • bunyonb

    Praxi without passion is mechanical and inhumane. Praxis is the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, practiced, embodied, or realized. “Praxis” may also refer to the act of engaging, applying, exercising, realizing, or practicing ideas. When you love something failure cannot stop you from improving and learning and you don’t need technique because you will work hard regardless of how difficult the material is. If you don’t like what you are doing and believe that a learning technique or a particular group of techniques are going to fix your problem there is a high chance that it wont and what do you do then? Make excuses that maybe the technique isn’t right for you? I believe that we should place less emphasis on cognition and more on emotions..because that is what determine whether you will learn the most. Of course the issue in this is how we are gonna do that? How can you make a person love what he/she currently hates? Being able to master your emotional reactions,beliefs and attitudes is key in making that happen. Some say that ways you can practice control over your emotional life is by fake it till you make it and others say mindfulness meditation.

  • bunyonb

    am not saying that techniques don’t serve any purpose as a result. I think it should be considered second. It may help to prune out and make you more efficient yes. For example in my long-ass writing to you you would by now realized that writing is something. Am interested in. I have a whole 500 page notebook filled with journal thoughts and ideas. I didn’t need technique to do writing. I just freaking write because my emotions beliefs and attitudes towards it were positive and conducive towards making me a gradually improving writer( well even if there are flaws in my comments) I like writing and the liking of it was enough to make me write long-ass comments such as this one right now :-). Maybe a writing technique could help me out to do necessary grammatical or spelling cleanups of course or to organize my thoughts more coherently.

  • Mark

    Hi, I’m a long-time foreign language teacher / curriculum designer who has more recently become a software engineer. I’ve done quite a bit of experimentation and in fact contributed the traditional Chinese translations for Anki.

    Here’s a 2 minute video I did on what spaced repetition is and isn’t good for:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v

  • Rajan Chandi

    One learning method that have worked since 1950s is Cornell Notes.

    More about Cornell Notes on Wikipedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C

    If you wish to take Cornell Note to the next level by adding things like text-to-speech, text annotations, image annotations etc. to be able to make Active recall, we’ve built Classmint.com.

  • Jim Jin

    That article seems vague to me. What exactly is the difference between “self-explanation” and “elaborative interrogation”? It looks like elaborative interrogation is the specific technique of trying to provide explanations to stated suppositions in your text. On the other hand, self-explanation appears to be a more general method of trying to explain why the text is correct. In that case, self-explanation could include elaborative interrogation has a possible sub-method.

  • Jim Jin

    That article seems vague to me. What exactly is the difference between “self-explanation” and “elaborative interrogation”? It looks like elaborative interrogation is the specific technique of trying to provide explanations to stated suppositions in your text. On the other hand, self-explanation appears to be a more general method of trying to explain why the text is correct. In that case, self-explanation could include elaborative interrogation has a possible sub-method.

  • Andrew Hung

    I think that both cognition and emotion are extremely important. It’s possible to love something and have every intention to master it, but not be able to retain the knowledge well because of ineffective study habits. Having passion is a pre-requisite for mastery, but having a good learning strategy could be the difference between becoming an expert and just being an enthusiastic amateur.

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