New findings on teaching material back

Study skills are not a one-size-fits-all science. From the style of note-taking, to the length of time dedicated to studying, to the choice of starting early or waiting until the last minute, what works flawlessly for one successful student may completely fall apart with another. But in the nine years of occasionally offering study skills recommendations on this blog, I’ve seen two consistent themes recur from both experts and from studies around learning.

First, distractions chip away at your cognitive abilities. You might think you can get plenty done while responding to text messages and checking social media and taking breaks every 10 minutes, but if so you’d be an anomaly according to seemingly every notable study of effective learning. And second, the best way to learn something is to teach it, often referred to as the “Feynman Technique” after Richard Feynman, Caltech’s Nobel Prize-winning physicist. New information just might help you hone how well that technique works for you.

The latest study of the teach-it-to-learn-it’s effectiveness showed what on the surface may seem a pretty obvious finding: the technique works best when you can teach the subject without using notes. It might not seem groundbreaking, but it is a crucial distinction. With notes in front of you, you don’t have to use the portion of your brain that recalls information. The notes jog your memory, which gives you an assist that won’t be available to you when you have to showcase the new knowledge in practice or on an exam. Put the notes away, and your mind has to first recall and then explain the information.

So close the notes and your books, then try to teach the material back, just as if you were standing in front of a class. If you can get through your lesson without relying on your notes, chances are you’ve just made a Nobel Prize winner’s learning technique your own.