21 Mar

  • By kristianstill

A paper published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest evaluated ten techniques for improving learning, ranging from mnemonics to highlighting and came to some surprising conclusions.

The report is quite a heavy document so I’ve summarised the techniques for you. Be aware that everyone thinks they have their own style of learning (they don’t, according to the latest research), and the evidence suggests that just because a technique works or does not work for other people does not necessarily mean it will or won’t work well for you. If you want to know how to learn and then how to revise most effectively, you are going to have to experiment on yourself a little with each technique before promoting them or writing any of them off.

Elaborative Interrogation (Rating = moderate)

A method involving creating explanations for why stated facts are true. The method involves concentrating on why questions rather than what questions and creating questions for yourself as you are working through a task. To do this yourself, after reading a few paragraphs of text ask yourself to explain “why does x = y?” and use your answers to form your notes. This is a good method because it is simple, so anyone can apply it easily. It does however require enough prior knowledge to enable you to generate good questions for yourself, so this method may be best for learners with experience in a subject. The technique is particularly efficient with regard to time, one study found that elaborative learning took 32 mins as opposed to 28 mins simply reading.

An example of elaborative interrogation for the above paragraph could be:

Elaborative learning is useful for proficient learners because it allows them to apply their prior knowledge effectively to process new information. It is rated as effective because it is time efficient and relatively easy to perform.

“The current evidence base for elaborative learning is positive but lacking”

Self Explanation (Rating = moderate)

A technique that is useful for abstract learning. The technique involves explaining and recording how one solves or understands problems as they work and giving reasons for choices that are made. This was found to be more effective if done while learning as opposed to after learning. Self explanation has been found to be effective with learners ranging from children in Primary to older students working on algebraic formulas and geometric theorems.  Like elaborative explanation, self explanation benefits from its simplicity. Unlike elaborative learning, self explanation was found to double the amount of time spent on a task in comparison to a reading control group.

“The core component of self-explanation involves having students explain some aspect of their processing during learning”

Summarisation (Rating = low)

An old staple, tested by having participants summarise every page of text in to a few short lines. Summarising and note taking were found to be beneficial for preparing for written exams but less useful for types of tests that do not require students to generate information – such as multiple choice tests. Summarising was rated as being likely less beneficial than other methods available but more useful than the most common methods students use – highlighting, underlining and rereading.

“It can be an effective learning strategy for learners who are already skilled at summarizing”

Highlighting and underlining (Rating = low)

The runaway favourite technique of students was found to perform spectacularly poorly when done on its own under controlled conditions. It seems pretty intuitive that highlighting alone is ineffective for the same reasons it is so popular – it requires no training, it takes practically no additional time and crucially, it involves very little thought above the effort taken to simply read a piece of text.

It’s worth remembering that this study only assessed research examining highlighting / underlining as a stand-alone technique. I’d be interested to discover how effective highlighting is when paired with other techniques.

The keyword mnemonic (Rating = low)

A technique for memorising information involving linking words to meanings through associations based on how a word sounds and creating imagery for specific words. Much research has found that mnemonics are useful for memorising information in the short term in a range of situations including learning foreign language, learning people’s names and occupations, learning scientific terms etc. However, it seems the keyword mnemonic is only effective in instances where keywords are important and the material includes keywords which are inherently easy to memorise. The review cites one study for example that required students to use mnemonics to memorise English definitions that were not well suited to keyword generation – the study found that the control group outperformed the group using mnemonics. More worrying – it seems that though the keyword mnemonic has been found effective for aiding short term recall, it has been demonstrated to actually have a negative effect when compared to rote learning in the long term. So, the mnemonic might be useful for remembering definitions the week before an exam but it doesn’t seem to be much use when used in any scale as a long term memory aid.

Imagery for Text Learning (Rating = low)

Experiments asking students to simply imagine clear visual images as they are reading texts have found advantages when memorising sentences, but these advantages seem much less pronounced when longer pieces of text are involved. Interestingly, visualisation was found to be more effective when students listened to a text than when they read text themselves, implying the act of reading may make it harder to focus on visualising. A major problem with imagery research is that most researchers instructed one group to visualise but did not follow up to see if they actually did. One experiment that checked afterwards found that some participants instructed to imagine did not, while some participants in the control group reported using visualisation on their own accord. It is therefore likely that imagery could be a more useful technique than this evaluation currently demonstrates – it is certainly an easy technique to use, so there is little harm in trying. Perhaps more interestingly, imagery research has found that drawing does not seem to improve comprehension and may indeed actually reverse the benefits of imagery. Finally, though imagery is reported to be more versatile than the keyword mnemonic, it has also been found useful only for certain situations. For example, imagery was not been found to be effective to help students answer questions that required inferences to be made from the text, nor was it been found useful for answering questions about a passage on the human heart.


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 DOI: 10.1177/1529100612453266