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Developing Your Ability to Learn

Developing Your Ability to Learn

Learning is one of the most important aspects of life and takes shape in many forms,whether it is motor learning in the form of skill development or knowledge acquisition through cognition. As such an emphasis should be placed on the development of this ability. Provided below are some proven techniques associated with memory retention and techniques that can be used to extract a deeper level of knowledge from information presented.

Handwriting and Drawing

Experiments done in 1979 by Hulme showed the extent of a child’s learning in two different scenarios. In one group children were presented with abstract graphic forms which they observed and were told to memorise. Another group was presented with the same abstract forms and instructed to trace them with their finger. The tracing group demonstrated better memorisation of the abstract graphics. Handwriting has also been proven to facilitate the memory of graphic forms (Naka and Naoi,1995). These results may be due to the integration of sensorimotor input as documented research highlights the strong neural associations of vision and proprioception between perceiving, reading and writing (Mangen and Velay, 2010); Meaning that engaging in handwriting and drawing may add another layer of integration to information stored in the brain therefore strengthening neuronal connections involved in memory retrieval.

Tip: Handwriting out notes and drawing diagrams may boost learning through a combination of sensorimotor input and selective attention which results in stronger neural networks that strengthen memory.

Study Partners and Peer groups

In one of my previous articles on academic excellence I interviewed 4 very high achieving students and questioned them on their study techniques. Studying with a group, teaching friends and being able to shoot a quick message to a peer for some help were all techniques they had utilized. Benefits of having a network of studious peers to work with include:

· Having the ability to test each other’s knowledge through elaborative interrogation and practise testing techniques.

· Learning content from peers that you may struggle with

· An ability to teach others, which can help you learn

· Discussing concepts and information with each other- keeping in mind that memory retrieval strengthens retention.

Tip: Investing time in people that are motivated and like-minded will pay off academically.


Some other well-known study methods are explored in Dunlosky et al.’s review “Improving students learning with effective learning techniques”. Educational psychologists conducted this research in an effort to improve learning outcomes. Highlighted below are some evidence based techniques that improved cognitive learning.

1. Elaborative Interrogation: “Why?”

Elaborative Interrogation is a process of learning relating to the questioning of explicit facts that results in a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Explanatory questioning has been shown to promote learning (measured via test scores which showed on average a 20% increase in test performance) across many age groups and is thought to work via integrating new information with prior knowledge. This learning technique is concerned with the understanding of “why” an explicitly stated fact is true. For example, in science it is well known that electrons orbit the nucleus; Elaborative interrogation would pose the question “Why do electrons orbit the nucleus”. By applying this theory to content you are trying to learn you will understand your content better and therefore be able to semantically organise it more efficiently allowing for better recall and learning.

Tip: Understanding your content is different to knowing your content

2. Self Explanation

Self explanation is a similar learning technique to elaborative interrogation as it involves individuals explaining to themselves aspects of their learning process as they are doing it. Berry (1983) proved its effectiveness through a logical reasoning experiment in which the self-explanation learning group performed better than the control groups measured by problem solving accuracy. In abstract testing conditions individuals that utilised concurrent self explanation performed roughly 55% better than those that did not. Like elaborative interrogation it strengthens learning through integrating new information with existing information. Self explanation prompts learners to work through their material in an organised and meaningful way. Prompts like:

- Explain what the sentence means to you

- What new information does the sentence provide for you?

- How does it relate to what you already know?

Can be used to develop a deeper understanding of the content you are trying to learn which increases your ability to organise and recall the new information.

Tip: Extract as much as you can from information presented to you to improve semantic organisation of content.

3. Summarisation and Note Taking

Summarisation is a technique used to break down large chunks of text and has been shown to improve the understanding and learning of presented content. In studies done by Bretzing and Kulhavy students that were asked to write down three main summarising points per page of text; or take three lines of notes per page performed better in tests than students that only read the text or copied out important areas of the text. This was demonstrated by a 10% increase in correct responses for students employing the former. The proposed mechanism of summarisations learning potential is attributed to an individual becoming attentive to the information presented and extracting a higher level of meaning.
 Tip: Summarise large chunks of information as concisely as possible by using 3 dot points to extrapolate the main content of the text.

4. Highlighting and Underlining

Studies mentioned in the Dunlosky et al.’s review showed that highlighting vs. no highlighting as study techniques to recall information in a test scenario yielded similar results. There were no advantages for highlighting. In circumstances where the students highlighted material that subsequently appeared on the following test, responses were more accurate however this was at a cost as test items that referred to content that had not been highlighted were answered poorly. Conversely students that participated in Fowler and Barker’s (1974) test group demonstrated that too much highlighting was correlated with lower test scores, however this was not statistically significant. Further studies reviewed by Dunlosky et al. showed that marking one sentence or one line per paragraph resulted in better recall of the content (thought to be due to students selectively attending to and processing information), however did not translate to better overall performance.

Tip: Over-highlighting may prove to be detrimental and highlighting in general may cause you to lose out on other important information; however highlighting 1–2 lines per paragraph can benefit the recall of content.

5. Rereading

Rereading is a widely used study technique by many students and undergraduates. A study done by Rothkopf (1968) demonstrated that cloze test performance improved as a function of the amount of rereading that an individual undertook. No rereading resulted in 35% correct test responses whereas 2 rereading’s improved correct responses to 45%.

Tip: Read important content twice over to increase retention.

6. Practise testing

This includes using flashcards to test the recall of information, participating in practise tests or answering questions at the end of textbook chapters. Utilising these techniques betters the mental organisation of information and helps to distinguish characteristic aspects of information. Studies done on practise testing showed a 17% average increase on test performance across a diverse group of students that employed practise testing one day or one week after learning the initial content. This learning technique not only involves benefitting memory retention but also comprehension Butler (2010).

Tip: Actively participate in learning through challenging stimuli

Frequency of Study

Another aspect of studying that can influence learning is the mode of study. Groups of researchers sought to find the optimal study mode that ensured better retention of information. Highlighted below is the spacing effect.

The Spacing Effect (Ebbinghaus)
 The spacing effect refers to revisiting study material after a delay opposed to learning in a once off single bout (massing) and revisiting in a cramming session. It has been shown to improve long term memory for the learning of educational content and a variety of other information. Mechanistically it increases memory retention by activating memory retrieval pathways and solidifying them. Pyc and Rawson (2009) proved that increasing the successful number of retrievals related to an increase in long term retention. Evidence in Kang’s (2016) paper highlighted that the optimal delay is 10–20% of the testing interval, meaning that if you were being tested in a week a one day lag would be sufficient whereas if your test was in one year a 1–2 month spacing gap before reviewing material produced the best results. Multiple revisions at equally spaced intervals yielded the highest test results.

Tip: Knowing this it may be useful to develop a study plan template where you can organise and categorise the studying of information you would like to learn, whether it is information for a presentation, exam or assignment.

Learning is an infinite and timeless process and to reap the rewards, is a process that must be engaged in regularly despite reaching an academic end point. There are many lessons taught from life that are generated from outside the classroom and far away from university buildings. Although this article focuses purely on study techniques for academic environments the implications of the research below are widely applicable to all areas of life as it provides tools for understanding and memorizing information that may prove to be significant, whatever its personal relevance.

Jayden Kafanelis 
Executive Director of InternMe Australia

[email protected]

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