Those who work in the field of learning, regardless of the specific profession, will inevitably have found themselves reflecting on which is the best method to study or, at least, the most suitable method for a specific student.

The answer is never easy because it intertwines with many variables: effectiveness of the technique itself, characteristics of the student (age, any cognitive difficulties, learning style), type of information to be learned, context in which it is required to learn ...

Fortunately, cognitive and educational psychologists have developed and evaluated many easy-to-use study techniques that could help students learn better according to their needs. However, the scientific literature on the subject is very vast and it is really a challenge to get to grips with it. Then it is appropriate to thank Dunlosky[8] and collaborators who a few years ago made a monograph that will be very useful for all of us: in their work they reviewed 10 different techniques describing in detail their degree of effectiveness in different contexts, with different types of information to learn and in according to the different characteristics of the student. In summary, they have done an enormous amount of work that allows us to evaluate the usefulness of each of these 10 study methods.

The result of their work, albeit synthetic with respect to the vastness of the research being reviewed, is a rather long monograph[8] (albeit very useful and we advise you to read it); we then decided to summarize it further by listing the techniques with a brief description and relative degree of utility.

Let's start with a summary table followed by a slightly more extensive description:

Underline / highlight

FOR THOSE WHO CAN BE USEFUL: students independent in the study and with good ability to identify the relevant information in the text.

FOR WHAT MATERIALS IT CAN BE USEFUL: texts that are difficult to understand and / or texts for which you already have previous knowledge.

It is perhaps the most widespread approach to study among students, at least those of high school or university level. Probably its wide use is favored by the simplicity in the application of this method and by the little additional time compared to that already required by learning the material to be studied.
In spite of everything, the evidence is against this method and the authors of the monograph[8] they categorize it as a little use for several reasons: in many situations slightly improves the mnemonic performance. It could be useful for those students with ability to underline or highlight efficiently or when the text is particularly difficult, but in many cases actually it can even worsen performance in high-level tasks, especially when the tests to be faced are inferential.

Keyword mnemonics

FOR THOSE WHO CAN BE USEFUL: children aged 7 and over and children with learning problems.

FOR WHAT MATERIALS IT CAN BE USEFUL: words to learn (foreign, obsolete, scientific) and easily imaginable.

It is an ancient technique, based on mental images. Summarizing to the maximum, it consists in creating an image that has a name as similar as possible to the word or information to remember.
Imagine having to memorize the translation of the English word horse; you could imagine a bear chasing a horse and label everything with the keyword bear, given the assonance with this Italian term.
Although in some circumstances it appears to give favorable results, the authors of the study[8] they place it among those of little use. It seems to give good results only when it comes to learning words that lend themselves easily to being imagined (we could say "concrete"), but it is not easy to use (requires specific training); when they are present, the effects may not be long lasting. In addition, in a search[9] has produced results equal to or inferior to the technique ofrepeated self-test (see below), with the difference that the latter is much simpler in its application.

Use of images for learning texts

FOR THOSE WHO CAN BE USEFUL: children aged 8 or over.

FOR WHAT MATERIALS IT CAN BE USEFUL: texts to be learned in a mnemonic way and "viewable" information.

This seemingly simple technique consists of visually imagining what the student hears or reads. Creating visual mental representations should help him better understand and remember what he is learning.
For example, if we were listening to a lesson on the differences between the African elephant and the Asian elephant, rather than just memorizing the list of characteristics, we could create visual images that represent them. Let's try to do it: let's imagine we see two elephants close together, one much taller (African) than the other; the larger one has two slots visible at the end of the trunk, the other only one; We see the larger one with a flat back while the smaller one is more hunchbacked; "Observing" the largest we also notice much larger ears in relation to its size while the Asian elephant imagines it with smaller and rounded ears.
I bet you can already remember these features without the need to reread!
Unfortunately, when it comes to learning new knowledge it's not all that simple. Indeed, Dunlosky and colleagues[8] they catalog this technique among those of little use. Let's see why: despite being more easily applicable than the mnemonic keyword, the benefits are always limited to words with meaning easily materialized in an image and texts to be learned in a mnemonic way, while there are no positive effects on the understanding of the text; although some benefits can already be seen with third-grade children[14] (but no longer young[11]) the benefits seem limited to already "predisposed" children to the use of mental images or to higher functioning students[13].


FOR THOSE WHO CAN BE USEFUL: almost for every type of student (high and low intelligence[1], with and without reading problems[5], with and without working memory problems[14]) but students with higher skills seem to benefit most[3].

FOR WHAT MATERIALS IT CAN BE USEFUL: for practically any type of text (narrative, newspaper articles, book chapters, physics, jurisprudence, biology, technology, geography and psychology texts).

As in the case of highlight / reread, this technique is also among the most used by students who seek to learn better. Not many explanations are needed: it is a matter of rereading the text several times so that it is better understood.
Contrary to what many might expect[8], the authors report one little use of the technique. Research on this study modality took place focused almost exclusively on university level students mentre little or nothing is known of how much other variables, such as the student's skills and previous knowledge, affect its effectiveness. We know they are there positive effects regarding the ability to recall information (after short time intervals) but there is no evidence regarding the effects on understanding. Finally, although it is easy and quick to use, learning improvements appear poor when compared to other techniques such as processing queries, autospiegazioni and l 'repeated self-assessment (see below).

To summarise

FOR THOSE WHO CAN BE USEFUL: students with good synthesis skills.

FOR WHAT MATERIALS IT CAN BE USEFUL: especially when you already have knowledge on the subject.

Summarizing a text has the purpose, in front of a large amount of information, to identify the most important, connect them together in order to learn them better. This is also a very popular technique and certainly no examples are needed to understand what we are talking about.
Although the ability to summarize information is constantly encouraged in a person's formal education, the evidence points for one little use of this technique[8] if used for the purpose of learning better. The reason is that it appears to be really effective only with students who have good ability to summarize a text (which is not at all obvious) therefore, if we were in the presence of children, students of upper secondary school (and sometimes even university level!), the application of this method requires long training and this makes it difficult to apply quickly. Consistent evidence is lacking regarding the ability to improve learning, understanding of the text and maintenance of the information learned over time. Furthermore, there is not a sufficient number of studies that test its effectiveness in the school environment.

Interleaved practice

FOR THOSE WHO CAN BE USEFUL: mainly university level students.

FOR WHAT MATERIALS IT CAN BE USEFUL: especially for mathematical learning.

This technique[15] it consists in alternating the practice of different types of activities and has been studied above all in the context of mathematical learning.
Here is, briefly, how it works: after a type of problem (or topic) has been introduced, practice should focus on that same type of problem. Subsequently, upon introduction of each new type of problem, the exercises should first focus on the latter type of problem and then additional exercises should begin to alternate the last type of problem with those previously treated.
Let's take an example: a student who is studying how the volume of solids is calculated, may find himself having to exercise with problems concerning cubes, pyramids and cylinders; rather than solving it first all the problems on the cubes, then passing on the pyramids and only at the end deal with the exercises on the prisms, the practice interleaved requires the student to practice altering un cubic problem, a on the pyramids and a on prisms (and then start again).
The idea that mixing exercises of different types helps to learn better, rather than practicing different subjects by learning them more sequentially, may seem counterintuitive. However, it is possible that this will happen because the constant change of type of exercise would promote organizational and topic-specific mental processes, allowing students to learn first to compare different types of problems.
This type of approach seems, in certain circumstances, to lower performance in the immediate future and then to bear fruit in the longer term with more stable learning and with a greater ability to apply what has been studied.
In the face of the evidence gathered in scientific literature, the authors of the review classify this technique as of moderate utility. The usefulness lies in the fact that it has proven itself effective in mathematical learning; the cons are in the contradictory data from the scientific literature (sometimes favorable, sometimes null and in some cases even unfavorable) that make the mechanisms of operation of this technique are unclear and in what way it can be more useful; for example, in some cases students may not have enough instructions to benefit from this practice. You have to take into account that the interleaved practice it takes more time than traditional study.


FOR THOSE WHO CAN BE USEFUL: from kindergarten children onwards, especially if with good skills and / or previous knowledge.

FOR WHAT MATERIALS IT CAN BE USEFUL: mainly logical problems, math problems, algebraic operations.

In a very generic way, we can say that this technique consists in explaining one's own reasonings and thoughts with which one comes to answer a question or the solution to a particular problem.
Let's take an example: faced with the following problem 'a square has a 4 cm long side; how much does the perimeter measure? ', the answer could be simply "16 cm" or, in the case of self-explanation, a child could say "since the square has 4 equal sides, and I know the length of one side, I can do 4 x 4 which is 16 ".
In the review[7] this technique is cataloged by moderate utility. Its strength lies in the proven utility in relation to a wide range of content, activities and evaluation methods (mnemonics, understanding and ability to use the information learned). It also appears to have proven itself useful in many age groups, although it is not yet clear whether its usefulness is linked more to the student's previous knowledge or skills. However, it remains unclear how long the effects last of this technique (compared to the retention times of the learning required in the school environment). Applying this technique requires long additional time (30% - 100% more). It is also possible that a period of training is required to be adequately effective.

Elaboration questions

FOR THOSE WHO CAN BE USEFUL: from children of fourth primary class onwards, especially if with good previous knowledge on the topic to be studied.

FOR WHAT MATERIALS IT CAN BE USEFUL: mainly factual and limited knowledge.

The main feature of the processing queries it consists in urging the student to generate an explicit explanation of a statement made. For example, it may concern asking "why do you think it makes sense to say that ...", "Why is this true?" or even, more simply "Why?"[8].
The basic idea is that the processing queries favor the integration of the new information with the existing ones. In order for this to happen as much as possible, it seems appropriate to encourage the student to elaborate as precisely as possible, favoring the comparison of similarities and differences between the different contents.[16], and carried out as independently as possible[12].
This technique is believed by the authors of the study[8] di moderate utility. Its effectiveness has been proven in learning many factual knowledge but stay doubtful the applicability of the processing queries regarding content of greater length or complexity compared to a short list of facts. While appearing useful already in the last years of primary school, children with little prior knowledge seem to benefit little on the topic to be learned.
Research agrees witheffectiveness measured with short-term associative learning tests ma there is not enough evidence regarding the increase in understanding of what has been studied and the ability to maintain learning for a long time.

Distributed practice

FOR THOSE WHO CAN BE USEFUL: effective from 2 to 3 years of age [7][19] forward, in various pathological conditions (primary speech disorders, multiple sclerosis, cranio-brain trauma and amnesia[6][10]).

FOR WHAT MATERIALS IT CAN BE USEFUL: applicable to the study of any subject.

It has been known for a long time that, for the same amount of time spent, it is more useful to distribute the study of a topic over time than to learn it all at once[4]. With the words'distributed practice we refer to both spacing effect (i.e. the advantage observed in dividing the study into several sessions rather than concentrating it) al lag effect (i.e. the advantage that is observed by increasing the distance between the intervals between the study sessions rather than by shortening them).
This technique leads to very interesting results: comparing it with the study concentrated in one or a few sessions, learning in the short term appears slower and sometimes never reaches the level observed in the intensive study with sessions without intervals or time intervals minimum. This disadvantage is especially noticeable if the intervals between study sessions are very wide. The question then arises where the advantages lie. The answer lies in the solidity of the learning. What is studied with very close sessions tends to be forgotten much faster than what is studied by increasing the time between one study session and another.
Given the evidence in the scientific literature, the authors of the review[8] believe that the distributed practice both of high utility. It turns out practically effective in all age groups e in different pathological conditions, is tested on a wide range of different learning school and tested in many ways, also showing long lasting effects in time. It also appears useful for learning both simple and complex content.

Verification practice

FOR THOSE WHO CAN BE USEFUL: effective from preschool (kindergarten) onwards, and in various pathological conditions (for example Alzheimer's disease[2] and multiple sclerosis[18]).

FOR WHAT MATERIALS IT CAN BE USEFUL: applicable to the study of any subject.

Being tested for school and university learning is usually experienced by students as a source of frustration. However, it is good to know that testing what has been studied is in turn a way to increase and consolidate the knowledge acquired.
However, we should not think of checking knowledge only as something external by a teacher or professor who judges the student's performance. This technique also includes forms of self-verification, for example the recovery of information learned from one's memory, perhaps by answering the questions often present at the end of educational books, or by using flashcards, or even by doing exercises that require the re-enactment of information studied.
Essentially, two mechanisms are proposed to explain the functioning of this technique[8]: direct effects and mediated effects. The direct effects foresee that repeated checks favor information re-processing mechanisms since, by trying to recall the target information, other memory traces connected to them are also activated, forming an elaborate trace that allows multiple paths to facilitate subsequent access to this information. . Compared to the effects of mediation, repeated verification of learning would facilitate the coding of more effective mediators (for example, elaborative information that relates target concepts to related concepts).
Whatever the most important mechanism, the evidence[8] indicate this technique as of high utility. The reason is his simplicity of application, extendable to many contexts, ages and contents to be learned.
It has proved useful in mnemonic learning, translations, synonyms, encyclopedic knowledge, notions of science, history and psychology, in the learning of multiplications, in the study of texts of different length and genre ...
However, the characteristics of the students who can benefit most from it should be investigated.
For the same amount of time, for example, this technique seems more effective than going back over the information studied.
In general, this technique appears all the more useful when applied: the more frequent the tests, the more you learn; better more exams and shorter than fewer and more full-bodied exams.
Another useful aspect to better implement this technique is the use of feedback during the verification phases: while being effective even without feedback, their presence guarantees better results.

Two words to explain the difference between the vaccine (which generally requires only one administration or periodic administrations, such as every XNUMX years (as with the hepatitis B vaccine) and the antiviral drug (such as the cocktail for HIV-positive patients, who ingest molecules through daily pills that attack parts of the virus, to directly destroy it). The vaccine consists of the administration of molecules that mimick parts of the virus without being infectious, so that our immune system can develop a memory to recognize those parts (that particular type of antigen) when the virus comes back on the doorstep...this memory in some cases lasts all the life, in other cases (like hepatitis B) a decade or so. Once this immune memory has been developed in our body, the pathogen will have to deal with an extremely powerful arsenal of anti-viral mechanisms (orchestrated by our immune cells) that will kill it in no time (in fact, after we get vaccinated, if we get the flu, we get rid of it without even realizing it...our (memory) immune cells know what to do at that point). Another way to develop this memory is by letting ourselves to be infected — as we've done with lots of infections, with low mortality and low morbidity. The antiviral drug is a molecule that acts against the pathogen too, but it does so on its own — the basic problem of an antiviral is that it doesn't last forever, because everything we eat (the pills) is excreted from our body, in a few hours or few days — but there are also molecules that can float, once you put them into the circle, for quite a few days ...(or techniques that modern pharmacology has been studying for a decade or so, aimed to transform molecules with the objective of extending their permanence in the tissues after being administered, see above: nanotechnology therapy). Bibliography

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