So what are the best learning techniques?

We’ve looked at (some of) the evidence for different learning techniques, but which ones are the most effective? The clear winners are active retrieval and distributed practice (click on each technique for the evidence and a more in-depth analysis), so definitely try and make them a part of your learning/revision schedule. After that, it seems that summarisation has limited utility if you know how to do it properly (if you don’t it appears to be a bit of a waste of time). Self explanation may be useful, but there’s not really enough evidence to conclusively say that either way. Rereading and highlighting are very ineffective ways of learning so I would encourage you not to use them, especially if it stops you from using far more effective techniques. They may also install a false sense of understanding because you are more familiar with them, rather than actually understanding the material.

So if you want to be as effective as possible with your learning and give yourself the best chance of doing well, do these things: test yourself on the material; spread out your revision sessions and don’t just highlight or reread your notes!

PsychologyBrief. (2014). Active Retrieval. Available: Last accessed 19/02/2015.
PsychologyBrief. (2014). Highlighting. Available: Last accessed 19/02/2015.
PsychologyBrief. (2014). Rereading. Available: Last accessed 19/02/2015.
PsychologyBrief. (2014). Self-explanation. Available: Last accessed 19/02/2015.
PsychologyBrief. (2014). Summarising. Available: Last accessed 19/02/2015.
PsychologyBrief. (2015). Distributed Practice. Available: Last accessed 19/02/2015. (function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i[‘GoogleAnalyticsObject’]=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,’script’,’//’,’ga’); ga(‘create’, ‘UA-63654510-1’, ‘auto’); ga(‘send’, ‘pageview’); read more

Active Retrieval

Active retrieval is the method of looking at some information and then testing yourself (either through free-recall or guided recall) to see how much you can remember. But the key aspect of this method is that it isn’t used just to see how much someone has learnt or if there are any gaps in their knowledge. Rather it is to actually help them learn and remember the information (by consolidating it in their mind).

The utility of active retrieval is well documented. They have found that students who used practice testing showed greater retention of information compared to: creating mind maps (Karpicke & Blunt, 2011); increased exposure to the materials or restudying (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006; Pyc & Rawson, 2010).

This effect is also seen across age groups, from kindergartners (Fritz, Morris, Nolan & Singleton, 2007) to university medical students (Kromann, Jensen & Ringsted, 2009).

There is evidence to suggest that testing can help transfer information; when tested in a different format to the the one they had learnt the original information in, participants remembered more and performed better if they had employed active retrieval learning techniques (Carpenter, 2012 for a review).

After a thorough review, Dunlosky et al. (2013) rated practice retrieval’s utility as a learning technique as “high” and it is easy to see why, given how effective it is and how easy it is to implement.

Carpenter, S.K. (2012). Testing Enhances the Transfer of Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21 (5), 279-283.
Dunlosky, J.; Rawson, K.; Marsh, E.; Nathan, M. & Willingham, D. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 14 (1), 4-58.
Fritz, C.O.; Morris, P.E.; Nolan, D. & Singleton, J. (2007). Expanding Retrieval Practice: an effective aid to preschool children’s learning. The Quarterly Journal of Educational Psychology, 60 (7), 991-1004.
Karpicke, J.D. & Blunt, J.R. (2011). Retrieval Practice produces more learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping. Sciece, 331 (6018), 772-775.
Kromann, C.B.; Jensen, M.L. & Ringstead, C. (2009). The effect of testing on skills learning. Medical Education, 43, 21-27.
Pyc, M.A. & Rawson, K.A. (2010). Why Testing Improves Memory: Mediator Effectiveness Hypothesis. Science, 330 (6002), 335.
Roediger, H.L. & Karpicke, J.D. (2006). Test Enhanced Learning: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-term Retention. Association for Psychological Science, 17 (3), 249-255. (function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i[‘GoogleAnalyticsObject’]=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,’script’,’//’,’ga’); ga(‘create’, ‘UA-63654510-1’, ‘auto’); ga(‘send’, ‘pageview’); read more


Summarising is taking a large block of text or a large number of ideas and cutting it down to the most important points. It’s the skill of understanding what you’ve just read and picking out the relevant points. It can be used to help initial learning of the material or as a revision technique.

Summarising can help with organisational processing as you are structure the material in your mind before writing it down. It also facilitates extraction of meaning (a useful skill) because you are engaging and thinking about the material, taking out the relevant points.

But is there evidence supporting its efficacy? Bednall & Kehoe (2011) found that there was a significant correlation between the quality of the summarisation (number of correct definitions and the number of links to prior knowledge) and their scores on subsequent tests. However, summarisation had no significant effect on students scores compared to a control condition and participants in this condition scored significantly lower than explanation (participants were asked to write a paragraph explaining the information) and explanation+summarisation.

Bretzing & Kulhavy (1979) divided participants into groups, two of which were participants wrote 3 sentence summarises  of different pages of a book (either whilst they were reading or at the end of the page). They found these groups performed better on a test about the information than those who wrote out 3 verbatim sentences or just read it. These results were seen a week later in a delayed test. The study had low power as it only had 18 participants per cell. Despite it’s lower power, it is further evidence suggesting that writing about the text in your own words has greater benefit than just copying out the text (as you are actively considering the text and understanding it).

Summarisation appears to be most effective for those who already know how to do it, so it’s efficacy for younger students may be limited. However, there have been studies that show when younger students are taught how to summarise properly then it can have a positive impact on later tests (Armbruster, Anderson & Ostertag, 1986; Nelson, Smith & Dodd, 1992).

However, Annis (1985) found that summarisation didn’t have an effect on recall when asked basic comprehension questions about a passage they had read. Not only did summarisation not have a positive effect on comprehension of the text, it actually had a negative impact on student’s ability to answer questions involving evaluation and synthesis of the information.

Overall, it would appear that summarisation is a useful learning tool for those who already know how to use it effectively. Proper summarisation techniques can be taught to those who do not know how to do it but I think their time would be better spent using more effective learning techniques e.g. active retrieval, than learning a new technique that is only moderately effective.

Annis, L.F. (1985). Student-generated Paragraph Summaries and the Information Processing-theory of Prose Learning. Journal of Experimental Education, 51, 4-10.
Armbruster, B.B.; Anderson, T.H. & Ostertag, J. (1987). Does text structure/summarisation instruction facilitate learning from expository text? Reading Research Quarterly, 22, 33-346.
Bednall, T.C. & Kelhoe, E.J. (2011). Effects of self-regulatory instructional aids on self-directed learning. Instructional Science, 39, 205-226.
Bretzing, B.H. & Kulhavy, R.W. (1979). Notetaking and depth of processing. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 4 (1),145-153.
Dunlosky, J.; Rawson, K.; Marsh, E.; Nathan, M. & Willingham, D. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 14 (1), 4-58.
Nelson, J.R.; Smith, D.J. & Dodd, J.M. (1992). The effects of teaching a summary skills strategy to students identified as learning disabled on their comprehension of science text. Education and Treatment of Children, 15, (3), 228-243. (function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i[‘GoogleAnalyticsObject’]=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,’script’,’//’,’ga’); ga(‘create’, ‘UA-63654510-1’, ‘auto’); ga(‘send’, ‘pageview’); read more

Distributed practice

Distributed practice is the idea of delaying retrieval of information that you want to remember, as opposed to trying to learn the same thing for an extended period of time. Is it better to break up learning sessions about that topic over several days or work at one segment of information for a long period of time? Distributed practice versus cramming?

The evidence is unequivocally in favour of distributed practice. Large-scale meta-analyses (Cepeda et al., 2006; Delaney, Verkoeijen & Spirgel, 2010) have shown the positive effects of distributed practice as opposed to massed practice (where there is no gap between successive rehearsals). This has also been found by Benjamin & Tullis (2010) and Toppino & Gerbier (2014). It has even been found for children as young as 4 years old for free recall (Toppino, 1991). This phenomenon has been called the “spacing effect”. There is evidence to suggest that the longer you want to learn something for, the longer gap you should have between each session (Cepeda et al., 2008). They found that the best time lag to have between sessions was 10-20% of the time you wanted to remember it for. So if you want to learn something for 1 week, the learning sessions should be spaced 12-24 hours apart; to remember something for 5 years, space the sessions 6-12 months apart (Dunlosky et al., 2013).

So we know that distributed practice is better than cramming. But what type of distributed practice should you use? If you are trying to learn a series of topics or concepts that are very similar e.g. different models for explaining mental illness, then it has been repeatedly shown that by mixing up which topic you learn about (interleaved study) helps with recall and understanding (Taylor & Rohrer, 2010; Rohrer & Taylor, 2007). So first you could study the disease model, then the integrated model, the social model and finally the psycho-dynamic model (Tyrer, 2013) in one session. This is opposed to dedicating one session to each of the different models (blocked learning). We should note that the improvement in learning with interleaved study is not even due to the spacing effect (as this method usually incurs there being a delay between sessions), but because of the cross-category comparisons that can be made using interleaved study (Carvalho & Goldstone, 2014c). On the flip side, if the categories to be learnt have low similarity then using blocked learning has been found to be more effective (Zulkiply & Burt, 2013; Carvalho & Goldstone, 2014a).

In conclusion, it seems clear that distributed practice is far more effective for learning than cramming is. It’s easy to implement as the thing it requires is that you plan your learning sessions in advance (but seeing as most students do not plan their learning months in advance, this might be easier said than done).

Benjamin, A.S. & Tullis, J. (2010). What makes distributed practice effective? Cognitive Psychology, 61, 228-247.
Cepeda, N.J.; Pashler, H.; Vul, E.; Wixted, J.,T. & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 354-380.
Cepeda, N.J.; Vul, E.; Rohrer, D.; Wixted, J.T. & Pashler, H. (2008). Spacing effects in learning: A temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. Psychological Science, 19, 1095-1102.
Carvalho, P.F. & Goldstone, R.L. (2014a). Putting category learning in order: Category structure and temporal arrangement affect the benefit of interleaved over blocked study. Memory and Cognition, 42, 481-495.
Carvalho, P.F. & Goldstone, R.L. (2014c). Effects of interleaved and blocked study on delayed test of category learning generalisation. Frontiers in Prsychology, 5 (936), 1-11.
Delaney, P.F.; Verkoeijen, P.P.J.L & Spirgel, A. (2010). Spacing and the testing effects: A deeply critical, lengthy, and at times discursive review of the literature. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 53, 63-147.
Dunlosky, J.; Rawson, K.; Marsh, E.; Nathan, M. & Willingham, D. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 14 (1), 4-58.
Rohrer, D. & Taylor, K. (2007). The shuffling of mathematics problems improves learning. Instructional Science, 35, 481-498.
Taylor, K. & Rohrer, D. (2010). The effects of interleaved practice. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24, 837-848.
Toppino, T.C. (1991). The spacing effect in young children’s free recall: Support for automatic-process explanations. Memory and Cognition, 19 (2), 159-167.
Toppino, T.C. & Gerbier, E. (2014). About Practice: Repetition, Spacing, and Abstraction. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 60, 113-189.
Tyrer, P. (2013). Models for Mental Disorders: Conceptual Models in Psychiatry. 5th ed. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell. 1-123.
Zulkiply, N, & Burt, J.S. (2013). The exemplar interleaving effect in inductive learning: Moderation by the difficulty of category discriminations. Memory and Cognitions, 41, 16-27. (function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i[‘GoogleAnalyticsObject’]=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,’script’,’//’,’ga’); ga(‘create’, ‘UA-63654510-1’, ‘auto’); ga(‘send’, ‘pageview’); read more