Study Strategies: What Really Works?


Amid my exam preparation, I’ve been wondering a lot about my study habits and techniques. There seems to be such an overwhelming amount of material to remember and I want to maximize my learning in the most efficient manner possible. 

With my work schedule, sometimes I question whether I have stretched out my exam prep for too long. I’m curious to know what has been shown to be the most and least effective methods of studying. Since I have these questions, I decided to research study techniques for the most effective exam preparation.

According to an article that cited a January 2013 report called “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques”, 10 study techniques were evaluated for effectiveness by five university researchers.

The report broke up the techniques into high, medium and low utility. The 10 study techniques evaluated were as follows:

•    elaborative interrogation: uses “why” questions to get students to make connections between new and old material
•    self-explanation: provide explanations for problems while learning material
•    summarization
•    highlighting or underlining
•    keyword mnemonic: the use of keywords and mnemonics to help remind students of material
•    imagery use for text learning: creating mental images to remind students of material
•    rereading
•    practice testing: practice questions and flashcards are ways to practice test
•    distributed practice: studying material over a number of short sessions
•    interleaved practice: combining different kinds of topics in one study session

The methods that were shown as having “low utility” were summarization, highlighting, imagery use for text learning, and rereading.

The report stated that these practices were difficult to implement properly and resulted in inconsistent gains among students. While rereading has been cited by 55% of students as their number one study technique, it’s not as effective as other techniques because it does not force a student to recall the information. One might feel like they know the material because it often provides a false sense of familiarity. 

Techniques that were shown to have a moderate utility were elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, and interleaved practice.

The techniques that showed the highest utility were practice testing and distributed practice.

The effectiveness of practice testing has been acknowledged for decades in improving learning and retention rather than simply rereading the material. Completing practice questions improves learning because it creates information linkages that later help with recall. Additionally, practice testing also helps a student to mentally organize the material. Repeated practice questions continue to maximize learning especially when it is spread out over a period of time rather than crammed in a couple of sessions. 

The bottom line for the most effective studying comes from Dr. Doug Van Eaton, CFA: 

•    study in shorter sessions over a longer period of time
•    do as many practice questions as you can
•    space your practice question sessions out over time
•    frequently ask yourself ‘why’ and provide yourself with explanations
•    link new topics to your previous knowledge for enhanced recall

Hopefully this research will help make the most of your CPA study time and maximize your memory retention. Happy studying!

–Shannon Neumeyer, Guest Blogger for Roger CPA Review 

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