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There IS a Correct Way to Study
Part 2: How NOT to Study

Welcome to Part 2 of our short “Correct Way to Study” series. In Part 1 - Fundamentals First, we described two fundamentals: (1) how memory acquisition, storage, and recall occur, and (2) how we forget over time. Let’s look today at how not to study. The reason I’m approaching this part of the topic first – before coming to some of the best ways to successfully study – is that most of us study the wrong way. As I mentioned last week, very few students receive formal education in how to study, and we often get through our education by hard work and grit rather than efficiency. If the idea of learning how to learn is a new topic for you, I think you might be surprised at some of the methods that are considered ineffective. Let’s get to it.

Most of us study the wrong way. Very few students receive formal education in how to study, and we often get through our education by hard work and grit rather than efficiency

What should you NOT do when studying?

Passive Studying
The fundamental error most students make is passively studying. This type of studying is done without much mental effort. A few examples of passive studying include reading and rereading text, listening to/watching a lecture, and observing someone doing an action. In all these examples the passive learner is simply letting the content wash over them without doing anything to synthesize the information. This is in direct contradistinction to active studying, which we’ll discuss next week. For now, remember that any study that doesn’t have you actively engaging with your learning material in some way is, simply, the wrong way to study.

Any study that doesn’t have you actively engaging with your learning material in some way is, the wrong way to study

The Illusion of Knowing
The other problem with passive studying is that it contributes to a problem called the illusion of knowing. As it turns out, humans are poor judges of our own learning, and we easily fall prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Dunning and Kruger, two cognitive psychologists, found that novices tended to overestimate their knowledge and abilities, while experienced people tended to underestimate themselves. When one passively studies, they become familiar with the material, memorizing what’s on the page or the slide, confusing that familiarity with a deeper knowledge. I’ve repeatedly had failing students tell me, “I didn’t feel the exam adequately tested what I knew.” Wrong, my friend. You thought you knew the material but fell prey to the illusion of knowing and the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Want to Fail? Then Cram
We’ve all done this at one time or another. For whatever reason we attempt to learn and remember everything in a very short period and it’s usually right before an exam. This might help you remember facts for a short period of time, but that information will go right out the window of the mind after the test. Cramming, termed “massed practice” in the education literature, creates excessive cognitive overload in the mind, eliminating its ability to encode and store knowledge. Cognitive overload is the idea that our minds are only able to send limited amounts and types of information through the 3-stage memory system that I described last time. Most of that information is quickly lost.
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What’s My Learning Style? – It Doesn’t Matter
Most of us have heard of the idea of learning styles. As in “I’m a visual/auditory/read-write/kinesthetic learner.” People adhering to this idea will focus their studying on a way to maximize their supposed style. For example, a read/write learner may take copious notes thinking it must go through their hand and onto a page before entering the mind. I made this exact mistake when going through college and podiatric medical school. I can’t even guess how many hours of my life I blew writing notes.

It is more accurate to describe these as learning preferences, and the idea that targeting specific styles to learners has been well debunked in the cognitive psychological literature. We now know that presenting educational information in a variety of forms is most effective for longer term and deeper learning.

Receiving educational information in a variety of forms, even via different media, is most effective for longer term and deeper learning. Think text, video, images, charts and graphs, via discussion with other learners, in the clinic, in the classroom, etc. Mix it up and you’ll learn it better.

It Should Be Effortless, Right? Wrong!
People often think that learning something new should be easy. The information should just flow like water into our minds. As it turns out, this is the opposite of the way we learn deeply and retain information for longer periods of time. In fact, deeper and longer-lasting learning takes hard work and effort. Learning something should not feel comfortable. You should be thinking hard while learning. In fact, some learning coaches recommend using your perceived level of effort as a guide to determine if you’re learning. If you’re studying, and it seems easy, you’re no longer learning. If you’re yawning, spacing out, and thinking of other things then you can’t be learning. We are at our best when we’re focused, eyebrows knitted, trying hard to understand something. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Then you’re ready to learn.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Then you’re ready to learn as effectively as possible

Studying More = Better. Wrong!
For all of us who spent countless hours studying (I averaged 16 hours per day in medical school, thinking more was better), I’m sorry to have to disabuse you of this fallacy. Fortunately, more does not equate to better studying. Ten hours of passively reading or rewatching lectures repeatedly are ten hours of wasted time, as is highlighting (yes, highlighting has not been shown to improve outcomes and is not suggested).

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So, if you do these things when you study then you’re doing it wrong. Stop. Desist. Cease. And wait for the conclusion of our series to find out the best ways to study for efficient, long-term, deeper knowledge.

Best wishes.

Jarrod Shapiro, DPM
PRESENT Practice Perfect Editor
[email protected]

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