Last year, the New York Times published an interesting article: Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits. At Manhattan GMAT, we’ve been discussing it since it came out and I wanted to share this discussion with you.
Get up and move
According to the article, multiple studies support the hypothesis that altering our physical study environment helps us to retain material better. Our brains are apparently making connections based on what we see and hear while we study, even when the sights and sounds are unrelated to the subject matter and noticed only subconsciously. The more connections your brain makes with regard to a specific piece of knowledge, the easier it is for you to retrieve that information when you need it.
What this means for you: don’t study in just one place. Have two or three locations that differ at least somewhat. Do still pay attention to what environments work best for you. For example, I study poorly when music is playing or a lot of people are talking, so I stick to quieter study environments.
Train like an athlete: mix it up
The New York Times article also talks about varying your activities when learning new material. Multiple studies have demonstrated the benefit of such an approach. While you’re learning new material, it’s okay to devote today’s study session to, say, geometry, though we also need to do mixed review (for example, geometry, algebra, and number properties). The later you get in your study, the more mixed up your problem sets and quizzes should be.
Absorb. Start by reading or watching a particular lesson. If you have the opportunity, ask questions.
Do. Try some practice problems immediately afterward to test your understanding of the new material. If the material is fact-based (say, math formulas or grammar rules), start with problems that are more academic in nature and simply test you on those rules. Then move to GMAT-format questions and make sure to time yourself; this adds several layers of complexity.
Analyze. When you’re done trying a problem, analyze it. (Use this article to learn how to analyze GMAT-format problems). Use any necessary sources to conduct your analysis: return to your books or lessons, ask your teacher questions, discuss with study partners or forum experts, make flash cards to review in future, and so on.
Quiz and Review. After a few study sessions (at least once a week), quiz yourself. Put together a mixed set of questions drawn from areas that you’ve studied for the past several weeks (not just the past week!). Do the set (timed!) and analyze your results. Based on those results, decide what to review for the rest of that session and, again, use any necessary resources to conduct that review.
Test. When you feel you’ve made significant progress since your last practice test, test yourself again. Make sure to take the test under full official conditions (including essays!). Use this article to analyze your results and use those results to help you decide what to add to your I need to review or repeat this lesson list. If you still have material to learn for the first time (for example, if you’re only halfway through a class), then do new material on some days and review material on others. If you have already finished your first pass through your material, then use your quiz and practice test results to drive the structure and content of your review sessions going forward.
Here’s your ultimate goal: when your brain makes any kind of connection, follow it! Does this problem remind you of one you saw last week? Look up that other one right now and compare the two. Remind yourself of the best approach to the old one and see whether the new one is best done in that same way or whether a different approach is better, and why. If you feel somewhat shaky on a rule or concept, don’t just read the explanation to the problem; return to the book or source where you first learned it and re-read or re-watch the relevant part of the lesson. Make a flash card and add this item to your review list for later this week. Discuss it with your study partner. Ask a question in class or on the forums. Make more connections and make those connections stronger!
Know what works for you (and what doesn’t)
The New York Times article is more vague on the issue of learning styles; it says that a recent review of research found almost zero support for the concept of different learning styles. This is not the same thing as saying that research disproved these ideas (indeed, almost zero means some support was actually found). Possibly some of the research studies were not constructed in the optimal way or were not examining the right questions. Possibly the right research studies haven’t been conducted yet.
I do agree that the general idea of learning styles has often been too simplified. I’ve never worked with a student who is always better at, say, visual learning (and I’ve worked with thousands of students). However, it has been my experience, personally as well as professionally, that people do tend to learn certain things better in certain ways; the important thing is to figure out what those different ways are for you.
I’ll give you an anecdotal example to illustrate (though, again, I’ve worked with thousands of students and the general principle tends to hold true). I recently took a French language immersion course. When we reviewed vocabulary orally, I didn’t retain anywhere near as much as I did when the teacher gave us a hand-out or I looked up the word myself. It was mostly new information and I personally make much better connections when I see new info written down. When I’m trying to think of the word again later, I’m much more likely to remember if I can pull up the visual memory. In a nice overlap with our physical location discussion above, I’ll even remember where I was when I first saw it and how I first saw it “ in the dictionary, in my own handwriting, on a printed hand-out with a certain font or color, and so on. (Interestingly, I’m studying with someone who can pick up new words very easily just by hearing them; he doesn’t have to bother with writing them down, making me a bit jealous!)
On the other hand, because I know English grammar so well, I am able to base my French grammar connections on similarities and differences between the two languages. Here, I benefit much more from an oral discussion because I can ask immediate questions to clarify my understanding and take notes in my own words. The key to both of these examples is that I know how I am most likely to make the best connections when engaging in different types of learning.
Know how you tend to learn best and do what you need to do in order to make the best possible connections. If that means writing things down in your own words, do so. If you need to record yourself saying certain grammar rules and then listen every day on your way to work, do so. If you benefit from actively discussing concepts, rules, and solving techniques, get yourself a study group of like-minded students.
- Vary your study locations, though make sure that you aren’t too distracted in any particular setting.
- Mix up your activities in a study session: try problems, analyze those problems, make connections to other problems, read or watch some lessons that touch on the same areas, create or review flashcards, quiz or test yourself, and so on. When your brain makes any kind of connection, follow it and solidify it!
- Know how you tend to make the best (and the worst) connections and do what you need to do in order to make the best possible connections.