Backed by Science - Alternative Study methods

Although taking notes is arguably the most popular revision method, it is definitely one of the least effective. I've personally fallen for the trap of pastel highlighters, brush lettering and tracing over diagrams which could just as easily be printed/annotated digitally. Through lockdown I've dived into the world of psychology and found some interesting methods are better for understanding/retaining information, as well as becoming more engaged in your learning.

Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition is the process of revisiting a topic - a fairly simple concept. As demonstrated by the forgetting curve (pictured below), in the first 8 hours after learning a topic, you can lose 60%< of content. As well as this, GPA (grade point average – a measure of how well you’ve done over all classes) directly correlates with spaced study (Hartwig & Dunlonsky, 2012). The best intervals for spaced repetition are 1 day, 7 days, 16 days and 35 days (SuperMemo).

Figure 1. Alterations of the forgetting curve through spaced repetition.

A great use of spaced repetition is the Leitner system, a method in which you review flash cards in increasing intervals (ideally everyday, every other day, weekly, bi-weekly and just before the test). When you get a card wrong, you can either move the card back a single pile or all the way to the first depending on your struggle with it. Some great online resources include Quizlet, a platform with thousands of pre-made sets for you to use or Anki, most commonly used by medical students when they have to memorise many terms.

Figure 2. A visual representation of the Leitner system.

Practice Tests

Take practice tests before you learn anything about a topic. A phenomenon known as the generation effect states that information generated by the brain is more likely to be remembered than that which is recalled. Although researchers do not have a precise answer as to why this is, it links with the hypercorrection effect; the finding that your brain is more likely to retain information learnt from a mistake to avoid it from happening again. Taking practice tests throughout your time learning a topic and going through to fully examine your mistakes is another instance where the hypercorrection effect can assist you with retention.

Figure 3. The magnitude of the generation effect in connection with item recognition and cued recall.

Make Connections

Make connections between pieces of information. This can mean physically drawing a mind map and making connections or doing this mentally. Long term memory consists of a series of nodes connected with one another known as the semantic network. These connections can be as abstract as you’d like however the closer the connection, the easier it will be for you to trigger that node causing it to be brought back to your short term (conscious) memory.

Figure 4. A simple example of a semantic network.

Active Recall

Active recall is a technique which ‘actively stimulates’ memory while learning. This stimulation is said to create better connections between the nodes of your semantic network, promoting more streamlined thinking. Practicing the task of answering questions with a specific response allows your brain to ‘set aside’ irrelevant information as well as making that question a trigger cue for the answer.

This is a great explanation from Professor Cal Newport.

Self-explanation is a technique in which you verbally explain concepts to yourself, asking questions like ‘What information do I need in order to solve this problem?’ and ‘Does that sound right?’ to confirm your understanding.

Another method you can use that doesn’t require you to talk to yourself (which might not be ideal in all situations) is the Feynman Notebook method. You get a out a fresh notebook and explain the topic, starting with the basics. They key with this is to use the most basic vocabulary you can (similar to how you might explain something to a young child) and go through said notebook, marking down the gaps in your understanding. Once you’ve filled these gaps, return to the notebook regularly. This technique could potentially even make you a few dollars if you decide to sell your notes on one of the many note marketplaces available online.


cal newport Archives - (2020). Retrieved 17 October 2020, from

Ebbinghaus, H. (1913). Memory (H. A. Ruger & C. E. Bussenius, Trans.). New York, NY: Teachers College, Columbia University. (Original work published 1885)

Hartwig, M. K., & Dunlosky, J. (2012). Study strategies of college students: Are self-testing and scheduling related to achievement? Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

Lula, Paweł & Morajda, Janusz & Paliwoda-Pękosz, Grażyna & Stal, Janusz & Tadeusiewicz, Ryszard & Wilusz, Wojciech. (2014). Computer Methods of Data Analysis and Processing.

McCurdy, M., Leach, R., & Leshikar, E. (2017). The generation effect revisited: Fewer generation constraints enhances item and context memory. Journal Of Memory And Language, 92, 202-216. doi: 10.1016/j.jml.2016.06.007

Schimanke, Florian & Mertens, Robert & Vornberger, Oliver. (2013). WHAT TO LEARN NEXT? CONTENT SELECTION SUPPORT IN MOBILE GAME-BASED LEARNING