Reading is not a bad technique in itself. When done well, it’s a great way to understand and learn ideas and facts. But there is a danger to reading, especially rereading, that few educators will warn you about.
You read a page. The next day, you read it again. The day after that, you read it again. It feels like you have understood – or at least memorised – the content. You look at it and familiarity spreads through your mind. Then, when you need to recall it later (say, I don’t know, perhaps in an exam…) the information isn’t there.
But… it felt so familiar, when it was there in front of you. What happened?
When you reread something, your brain goes “yes, I have seen these words before”. That feels like familiarity (because that’s what it is), which we mistake as having learned it. Which is a bit silly, really. Everyone knows that feeling: the where you recognise something even if you hadn’t memorised it. It’s a common trap that no one warns you about.
This is called the illusion of knowing or the illusion of competence. You recognise the words, which feels like knowing the material… right up until someone quizzes you on it. Then, puff, the illusion shatters in a horrible realisation.
If you are spending hours studying and getting poor results, this is probably why. The good news is that there are simple ways to fix this. The problem isn’t you, it’s in the technique. And if this is not what’s holding you back, one of these other flawed techniques will be.
Selecting the key words, phrases or ideas from a body of text is important. But, by itself, it is not enough. Noticing those words doesn’t do anything. It’s Step One of a process involving a lot more work (we’ll hear more about this later). The problem is that it feels effective. It’s like rereading, only worse because there’s a physical action involved. You are engaging the eyes and the hand – that makes learning more effective… right?
Well, it would, but what is your hand doing? It’s simply brushing from left to right. You could be highlighting a key phrase or adding a moustache to a photo – either way, the gesture is the same. The physical action is irrelevant to the content and so is irrelevant to the learning.
That’s not to say that highlighting isn’t useful. It does nothing by itself, but cracking an egg by itself doesn’t get you an omelette. This is why knowing about how the mind works is useful – you stop confusing a key step with the end result.
(Only) Studying in Your Study
Hang on, what? Where else are you going to study? And how could using your study to study be bad?
It’s not but, like a lot of these things, there’s a trap. I remember trying to learn something to do with computer science. I learned the material in my study and I could recall it there with no effort. But, elsewhere, it was like the content wasn’t in my mind.
What I later realised was that I had associated this concept with the corner of my desk. There was no logic to that – I happened to be looking there while thinking about it. My unconscious mind associated the two things together. When I needed to recall the idea, looking at the corner prompted the memory.
This tells you a little of how the mind works. You never learn in a vacuum – every new idea associates itself to one you currently understand. This can be useful when used deliberately; a trap, if not.
You can’t take your study into the exam, so make sure you aren’t using anything in the room to anchor ideas or facts. The best way to guard against this is to study the same material in a range of locations. Even swivelling in my chair and facing the other wall would have stopped this association but other things – like smell – are harder to escape.
You already know this one but I have to mention it. If you “cram” (study all the material only on the night before the exam), you will run into problems. Apart from some obvious concerns (what if some material takes a few days to understand? What if you need help? What if you are sick the day before?), there are neurological arguments against it too.
Memories that you revisit often must be important. Each time you activate a memory, connections to it strengthen. The flip side of this is that if you have a memory you don’t return to, connections weaken and it fades. This is why you can remember your breakfast today but (probably) not a week ago – if a meal is unremarkable, you never think of it again so the memory evaporates.
Cramming produces memories that are only reviewed a couple of times over a short period. This is a sign to your brain that they were important but not anymore, so get rid of them. A bit of a problem if you need these ideas, facts or skills later.
This trap ensnares organised people at higher rates. If you have two subjects – say, Maths and English – and two hours to study, most people would spend an hour on Maths then an hour on English. After all, you get on a roll, switching between subjects is mentally taxing and it’s good to tick off one subject before starting another.
This sounds sensible because it’s based on some good advice. Multitasking makes you less efficient; doing things one at a time is better in the long run. Except when it comes to learning. Learning is a special case, and we will see why later in the guide.
Blocked practice – studying subjects in isolation – leads to mental silos of sorts, where the ideas from one subject don’t mingle with the others. This sounds like it reduces confusion – in reality, it reduces understanding, recall and creativity. Interleaved practice is the better alternative, as it ties diverse concepts into a stronger whole.
 Note that the lesson has stuck with me while the content has not. Interesting, wouldn’t you say?