I’m in a course. This is how I am studying.

I am currently enrolled in an online course for cognitive psychology, which culminates in a good ol’ fashioned exam. So, in this post, I am going to demonstrate how I am practicing what I preach and employing effective study techniques.

First, I already read the textbook. Like, a year ago. Which does make it easier for me to use these techniques, such as spreading out studying over time. But I’ve used spaced retrieval practice to study for an English Literature exam before, for a course I completed over a couple months, so it is still a realistic strategy.


While I read the textbook, I took notes. Cornell style. Yes, I dragged myself through Cornell notes. They are more work, and require more thinking, but something that requires less thinking results in less learning. Certainly worth the effort. The version I do has bullet point notes in the biggest box, a summary at the bottom of the page, vocabulary in the little space in the corner, and study questions in the lefthand column. I must say, grid paper is a great medium for doing this on.


The study questions are a mix of my own and those from the textbook. (The textbook also practices what it preaches, and includes questions for self-quizzing at regular intervals.) I typed those up in a Google Doc.

study questions

Then I printed them out and cut them up. Little slips of paper, folded up, and stored in an old take-out container. About 200 study questions total.


About once a week, I take five questions out, answer them from memory as best I can, then review those topics in the textbook and correct my work. Purple ink for the question, black ink for my initial response from memory, turquoise for my corrections. Because, if I am going to do this, I might as well use pretty colours.


Five questions a week is currently too slow of a rate (exam is in two months), so I plan on increasing it. However, I will do so through more frequent study sessions, not through more questions per study session. I find five to be very reasonable to complete in a single sitting.

So, why do I think this is an effective way to approach studying? Because it combines several different effective study strategies, without demanding too much time. Their effectiveness is supported by research studies. Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan and Willingham (2013) provides a great synthesis, and is my go-to reference for these strategies; Roediger and Pic (2012) also provides a good overview, and I have talked about these strategies previously on my blog as well.  I include more specific citations for each of these below. Point being, there is mountains of evidence.

  • Retrieval practice: By recalling the information from memory, I am consolidating and reorganizing the semantic memory, resulting in stronger encoding (Karpicke & Grimaldi, 2012).
  • Interleaving: Because I am randomly pulling out study questions, a given study session will contain a mix of topics from different chapters, which is more effective than focusing on just one topic per study session (Rohrer, 2012).
  • Spaced practice: My studying is spread out over time, in this case months, as opposed to cramming over a few days (Carpenter, Cepeda, Rohrer, Kang, & Pashler, 2012).
  • Elaboration: All of the study questions require explanation and elaboration (Endres, Carpenter, Martin, & Renkl, 2017).
  • Concrete examples: I try to reference examples or studies when possible for my answers, and add them in when I do my corrections. Examples help with understanding of abstract concepts, and multiple examples can help with application and transfer (Siler & Khlar, 2016). I’ve blogged before about how abstract concepts are inseparable from concrete features.

This approach worked for the English Literature course; I scored well on the exam. Time will tell for this course, but I am feeling confident. In a future post, I’ll talk about how I used this same research to design a syllabus for an AP Microeconomic course.

Finally, to wrap up, here are some posts from The Learning Scientists blog by others who have applied these strategies: passing a doctoral exam, studying pharmaceuticals, preparing for a dressage exam.


Carpenter, S., Cepeda, N., Rohrer, D., Kang, S., & Pashler, H. (2012). Using Spacing to Enhance Diverse Forms of Learning: Review of Recent Research and Implications for Instruction. Educational Psychology Review (24), 369-378.

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.

Endres, T., Carpenter, S., Martin, A., & Renkl, A. (2017). Enhancing learning through retrieval: Enriching free recall through elaborative prompting. Learning and Instruction (49), 13-20.

Karpicke, J., & Grimaldi, P. (2012). Retrieval-Based Learning: A Perspective for Enhancing Meaningful Learning. Educational Psychology Review (24), 401-418.

Roediger, H., & Pic., M. (2012). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition (1), 242-248.

Rohrer, D. (2012). Interleaving Helps Students Distinguish Among Similar Concepts. Educational Psychology Review (24), 355-367.

Siler, S., & Khlar, D. (2016). Effects of Terminological Concreteness on Middle-School Students’ Learning of Experimental Design. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108 (4), 547-562.



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