Last updated on June 7th, 2023
Whether preparing for an exam related to maintenance of certification, a primary exam of certification, or some other type of important exam, you undoubtedly have many reading materials at your disposal. In these scenarios, our effort is likely devoted to reading and re-reading material again and again. Unfortunately, though, scientific literature actually indicates that this sort of process of learning is not optimal, and may actually take a fair bit more time than a much simpler process—trying to recall the material you just finished reading.
In a study published in 2011 in Science, Dr. Jeff Karpicke had students study a scientific article and then try to demonstrate comprehension of the salient points of the article by recalling as much of the information as they could. After this initial read, the students re-studied the article and recalled it again (that is, they went through the same process twice).
The results were impressive; students learned far more and at a much deeper level than any other student group (other groups included “reading and re-reading” and “concept mapping/highlighting/note-taking”) in the same amount of time. The knowledge gap persisted whether or not the students were given a formal exam or simply tested themselves informally. Dr. Karpicke theorizes that going through the process of retrieving information in the form of testing (and then re-reading and re-testing) acts to help us solidify the information in our brain. And, assuming the text/component fits with a larger concept that we are likely to learn, the recall process helps build the foundation for future knowledge acquisition.
So how does this impact or help us? We all know that we have a limited amount of time for studying, so it is important that we get the most “bang for the buck” in our studying time. By using the process outlined above, an active process of mental retrieval of the key ideas rather than a more passive process of re-reading, we can do just that—get the most bang for the buck, the most juice per squeeze, [insert your own efficiency analogy here…].
Imagine ten cars driving into a small parking lot with ten spaces, at the same time. Mass chaos, right? Eventually, the cars will find a space to park, but not without some near misses and a lot of dysfunction and wasted time. This is what happens in our brain when we read about multiple topics over an extended period without moments for recall on single topics embedded in the process. Rather than ambushing the parking lot all at once, each individual car should park as it comes in, leaving obvious available spots for the subsequent cars. When we go through the process of recalling an individual concept, the topic neatly fits in a “parking spot” in working memory that can make connections to subsequent topics that will occupy other spots.
Ideally, you can set a timer on your phone for 25 minutes, turn off Outlook or Gmail from your computer, and put your phone in airplane mode as to avoid any distractions. Open up your reading or studying material and make sure that you are actively studying the concepts. Immediately follow the reading with some questions, either those that might be included in your study material or questions you create for yourself, to ensure competence. After the 25 minutes are up, take a short break to help consolidate that learning into its respective “parking spot”. Set the timer again—no distractions—wash, rinse, and repeat a second time.
We all have limited time, so it is important that our study be intense and effective. Hopefully, this evidence-based process of focused reading and recall will help make your studying efforts more high-yielding, efficient, and enjoyable. Okay, maybe not enjoyable, but two out of three isn’t bad!
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