By: Ryan Vu
We’ve all been there. You’re sitting in the middle of an exam, looking at the question, and can’t seem to remember the answer. But you distinctly remember studying it just last night. You can even see where it was in the textbook or on your study guide.
The situation described above is known as the tip-of-the-tongue effect. This is where you know you’ve studied the material, but you do not know or understand it well enough for you to be able to recall it. The information is available in your brain, but not accessible. It’s like the information is sitting there waiting to be retrieved, but ultimately can not be.
I remember coming to Elon as a chemistry major with aspirations to go to medical school. I would study for hours every night doing practice problems. For my other courses, I would read the textbook and essentially transcribe it into my notes. I remember experimenting with several different study strategies, wondering if one was more effective than the other.
It’s now my junior year at Elon and through my cognitive psychology course I found two articles where researchers studied this topic. I was curious as to what study techniques are popular for Elon students, and how they align with the established research. I sent out an informal survey to as many group chats as I was a part of. I received a total of 25 responses coming from sophomores, juniors, and seniors. While this is a small sample, it captures a broad set of Elon students: a total of 17 majors were represented. Some strategies were clear favorites compared to others, and I think it’s worth talking about which ones are backed by experimental studies.
I found that just under half (48%) of students wait until just 1 or 2 days before an exam to start preparing. One method that is highly recommended is known as distributed practice. This is a method where study time is broken up into intervals over time. You study a little bit at a time several days before an exam. Ideally, you would actually study as you learned the content over the course of the unit.
Written by the four Bahrick’s in 1993, Maintenance of Foreign Language Vocabulary and the Spacing Effect was published in Psychological Science. This research took 9 years to complete and tested the effect of distributed practice (also known as ‘not waiting until the night before to study’). The study involved four participants (the authors of this article), who studied 300 foreign language words once a day at different intervals: 14 days, 28 days, and 56 days. The results found that participants recalled the most words when they were studied at the widest possible interval: once every 56 days.
The reason distributed practice works at large intervals is still being studied. However, one theory suggests that studying at wide intervals prevents the brain from becoming “uninterested” in the material. The take home message of this research is to start studying as early as you possibly can and continue studying at intervals up until the exam.
Cramming may get you through the exam but is unlikely to make you proficient in the material for much longer. Moreover, the research doesn’t necessarily state that cramming is ineffective. In fact, learning does happen when it’s cram time. But it is much less likely that you will recall the material after you take the exam. Therefore, you likely won’t be able to recall information for future classes. The “cram” method should be used as a last resort option.
Another article published in 2013 by Dunlosky et al. is titled Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. This article compiled several pieces of scientific research on the effectiveness of popular study strategies including practice testing, rereading, and highlighting.
68% of students in my survey reported that they quiz themselves during their preparation. Practice testing has been a proven method of studying across many experiments. In one study authored by Runquist in 1983, the effectiveness of practice tests was measured. The study had participants study word pairs. One group had a practice test after studying, while the other did not. Results found that on the final test given one week later, those who had a practice test remembered 35% of the word pairs compared to only 4% in the other group.
If you’re not practicing retrieving the information you’re studying, it will eventually be inaccessible, leading to the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon described at the beginning of this article. You may not be able to remember it when it counts.
My survey also found that everyone (100%) who took the survey re-read their course materials as part of their preparation. This is one of the most popular reported study habits as it is a simple method that does not require much effort. Studies have reported mixed results with the effectiveness of re-reading. Overall, Dunlosky and colleagues concluded that re-reading is not as effective as other study techniques, and that re-reading should be combined with another method.
40% of responses in my survey identified highlighting as one of their strategies. In one study, participants were separated into three groups. All groups read a chapter from a textbook: two groups underlined/highlighted the chapter and one was just allowed to read it. After two months, participants were given a test on it. All groups performed similarly with questions that asked about the facts. However, the “underlining” groups performed worse on questions that required inferences. The study concluded that highlighting has shown to do little to boost performance, and may even be detrimental to tasks requiring high levels of analysis.
Junior elementary education major, Catherine Courtney, says that her go-to methods include “re-reading the class materials and quizzing [herself] about 1-2 days before the exam”. When asked if she’d be willing to try studying a little at a time to make it easier, she said that she “prefer[s] to just get it all done in one go.” While many Elon students may already have their own system when it comes to studying, it may be worth reflecting on just how effective their own study strategies are after learning about the scientifically proven methods mentioned above. For anyone looking to study smarter and not harder, give these techniques a shot.