Study tip #1: Relate what you’re learning to what you already know


This is the first blog in a three-part series of proven study tips based on science.

by Kristen DiCerbo, Khan Academy chief learning officer

Have you ever spent a bunch of time studying but still haven’t done as well as you’d like on the test? Have you ever wondered,  “Is there a better way to study?” For most of us, no one has ever actually taught us how to study, but there is a whole lot of education research about the best ways to learn new things. Yes, there are better ways to study!

People who are successful in school are often people who monitor their own learning, use successful learning strategies, and believe they are capable of learning. So what are these strategies? I’ll talk about one in this post and follow up with more throughout this series.

When we want to learn new things, we need to find ways to shift information from our working memory (where we are able to hold information for a short period of time) to long-term memory, (where it will be available for us at a later time). We don’t really understand how information is organized in long-term memory, but it is clear that memories are related to each other and memories are prevented from fading (forgetting) when the relationships between them are strengthened. 

Given this, one thing we want to do when we are learning is to relate the new information to things we already know. You can imagine a network of items in your long-term memory. The new thing you are learning is a new item. If it doesn’t connect to anything else, that new information will be forgotten more quickly. You want to make connections to items already in your network.

Here’s one strategy  you can use to connect new information to what you already know. 

Pause after reading or watching a portion of a video.

  1. List the concepts you’re supposed to learn.
  2. Explain each concept to yourself in as much detail as possible — including details expands the number of ideas you may link this new concept to.
  3. Go back and check your learning materials to see if you got anything wrong or missed anything.

Relate the new information to other concepts by asking, “How is this similar to something I already know? How is it different from that thing? Does this relate to an experience I’ve had? How?”

Here’s how the pausing strategy might look in real life. Let’s say you’re learning about medians in statistics class. You have already learned about means.

  1. List concepts: median
  2. Explain the concepts: The median is one way to summarize a group of data. It is the middle of a group of scores. It works because if you pick the middle number, you know half the numbers are above it and half are below it. If you are calculating it, you need to remember to put the numbers in numerical order first. 
  3. Check your notes on median.
  4. Relate the new information to existing knowledge: Median is similar to the mean because both of them are a way to use one number to summarize a bunch of numbers. They are different because the mean or the average is the number that is the actual “center” of all the data points. This is usually a good thing, but it means that if there is one value that is much higher or lower, it will pull the center in that direction. Rather than the center of the data, the median is the number at which half the data are above and half below. This means it will not be “pulled” strongly by one or a few very high or very low numbers. On the news the other night, they reported how many hours the average student played video games. If I think of my friends, most of us play two to three hours a week, but one of my friends plays 20 hours a week. If we take the mean, her number is going to make it look like my friends spend a lot of time playing video games. If we take the median, it will look more like the amount of time most of us spend playing games. When there are one or two numbers really different from the others, the median is a good measure. 

As you can see in this example, we’ve connected the idea of a median to details about what it is and how it works. We’ve also connected it to the idea of mean and average, playing video games, and friends. All of that is going to help us remember it.

Continue reading my next two blog posts for more study tips based on the science of learning.

Study tip #2: Use your own words and pictures to reinforce what you’re learning. 

Study tip #3: Practice remembering things. (Yes, remembering does take practice!)



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