How to study effectively

Paul Penn:

Another routine approach to study is to repeatedly reread sources. It’s not difficult to explain why students rely on this approach. If you read a piece of text repeatedly, that text will start to feel familiar. You will likely interpret this feeling of familiarity as progress. Unfortunately, this perception of progress is often illusory. It reflects a failure to consider a vital difference between study and exam conditions: things always seem easy when you have the answers in front of you. Inconveniently, most exams don’t allow you that luxury.

A reliance on passively rereading material when studying also reflects a more fundamental misconception about the nature of memory. We often view memory as being akin to a somewhat unreliable camera; not so much an SLR, more one of those Victorian jobbies – the kind that required 30 minutes of exposure to capture a portrait, during which time the subjects had to remain utterly still or else the photo would be ruined. This reproductive notion of memory lulls us into thinking that successfully remembering a source boils down to the amount of exposure we give it and that interacting with that source will likely only ‘interfere with the shot’. However, thinking of memory as if it worked like a recalcitrant camera is misleading and really unhelpful when you’re studying.