How to stop this unproductive way of studying

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Today’s distance learning tip is about setting yourself up to avoid one of the most common, but unproductive, study methods.

What do nine out of ten of students do immediately before an exam?

Answer: cram

It would be wrong to say cramming doesn’t work. But it is far less effective than most students think. And it often comes with a heavy price tag of creating extra stress and tiredness at exam time.

Why cramming doesn’t work

A study by University College, Los Angeles found that for 90% of students, cramming does not work well. Worse still, 72% of students actually felt like cramming was working better than it actually was. In short, they were deceiving themselves.

When we attempt to memorise a lot of information our mind tends to pick up the beginning and end of a list, but will not store the middle. This means the majority of the information we need to learn and recall is forgotten shortly after. Our minds are also designed to forget.

Imagine we remembered every item of clothing we ever wore? The amount of information would be quite staggering. And pointless.

So our brains are careful about how they store things. Most information is assigned to short-term memory. That’s why three days after learning something, most of us will retain only 20%.

Spaced repetition will help 

For 90% of students, spaced repetition of content will be much more effective than cramming – and the information is retained for longer.

The idea is to review the information at carefully chosen intervals, just as we begin to forget it. That way it is easy to boost knowledge back towards 100%.

Opinions vary on the optimum interval, so you will need to experiment. One popular approach is based on 2x2x2 formula:

  • Review after one day
  • Review two days after that
  • Review four days after that, etc

Here is another approach based on an algorithm by Piotr Wozniak – the developer of spaced repetition software, SuperMemo:

  • review within 24-48hrs
  • review by day 10
  • review by day 30
  • review by day 60

Difficult is the new easy 

When we review information, it’s best to review thoroughly and challenge ourselves. That way our brains are more likely to retain the information.

Educationalists call this ‘desirable difficulty’, and it arises from the Levels of Processing theory.  Put simply, the more deeply we think about information, the more our brains take note that it is important. And useful. And they take steps to encode it in our long-term memory.

We are also more likely to learn by actively using information and concepts than passively reading or hearing about them.

Three great ways to review information to avoid cramming

Below are three methods of reviewing information that have been shown to be effective.

1. Mock assessments 

All AAT students know the value of mock assessments and practice questions. Try these under stress conditions. Time yourself and see which types of question you find easiest, and which you need to plan more time for. Check out AAT test questions to get started.

2. Elaborative interrogation 

Elaborative interrogation is a fancy way of saying: ask yourself questions in order to learn.  Calling on information improves your ability to retrieve stored memories. Although it’s challenging, this is actually the point.

Question the material you’re studying by asking: What is this? How does it work? Why does it work? What are the applications?

Make a list of the concepts you need to learn, then write out questions to test and expand your comprehension.

3. Flash cards 

Flash cards are a high impact learning tool – and a great way for you to develop a deeper understanding of subjects.  You can create your own set of flash cards, using simple online tools.

To set you on your way, we’ve prepared flash cards to help you study on the go – see below.

Resource of the day

Flash cards are a great way for you to develop a deeper understanding of material. Download your pack now!

Download Foundation Certificate in Accounting flash cards

Download Professional Diploma in Accounting flash cards

Download Advanced Diploma in Accounting flash cards

Up Next: The way to remember more

Browse the full range of AAT study support resources here

David Nunn is Content Manager at AAT.

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