If you're killing yourself reading, outlining and writing up your notes, stop the madness. Practising at what you're actually going to do at the end — namely, taking a test — can be much more effective at making information sink in, a new study shows.
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Researchers, led by a Purdue University psychology professor, asked 200 students to read a few paragraphs about a scientific matter they likely didn't know beforehand, such as different types of muscle tissue. Everybody involved read the material for five minutes. One group then read the text again for four five-minute sessions, and another group was asked to map the information into a diagram of linked bubbles. One group did nothing more than the five-minute read, and the last was tested to write what they could remember in an essay for 10 minutes, then read the passage again and try to write a better version. That final method is called retrieval practice, and it has been studied as the "testing effect".
One week later, everyone was brought back in, and those who took the retrieval tests seemed to retain about 50 per cent more knowledge than even their concept-mapping peers. As if to rub salt in the wound, they did better at mapping that science information than those who had already mapped it out before.
One more note from the testing that rings true, at least for anyone who's felt like they were mugged by a test for which they studied so hard. The students were polled after their initial exposure, and those who took the immediate tests were less confident in how they thought they'd perform a week later. As one psychologist explained, re-reading material gets your brain thinking "Yeah, yeah, I know this"; testing yourself provides a realistic, if less reassuring, view of what your brain still needs to get itself around.