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Effective study techniques

Acronyms for effective learning

This post is about effective learning. How can you learn stuff more effectively?

I’ve never been keen on acronyms and jargon-based abbreviations. Maybe I just don’t remember them very well. Maybe a lot of them just wrap up the latest management technique in some flash nonense word. But here are some acronyms I do remember, because they’re about how to learn effectively.

Effective learning is learning that involves, and supports, critical thinking: questioning evidence, assessing its strength, comparing and contrasting arguments to identify strengths and weaknesses, etc. The methods below are intended to help you think critically. If you’re read my previous post about learning styles, bear in mind that the strategies below will work with all learning styles and most kinds of material.

The strategies were developed for studying written material but should work with anything – if you’re looking at a DVD or PowerPoint presentation, remember DVDs usually have chapters in the menu (and if not, use the fast-forward button) while PowerPoint enables you to scroll through, scroll back, look at all the pages on one screen, etc. to get a sense of the material as a whole.

PQ4R

PQ4R summarises the steps people typically take in learning effectively. It comes from Thomas and Robinson (1972). It stands for:

  • Preview – with any learning materials, start with the highest-level headings and any text that is emphasised – e.g. bullet points or bold text. These should give you an idea of structure and key topics or concepts. They might be chapter headings, introductory material, lists of key points, executive summaries, etc. People who start this way understand the structure and organisation of what they’re reading and tend to have better recall of it later.
  • Question – the preview will (or should) raise questions in your mind. These might be technical (‘how did they define this concept?’ or ‘what is the difference between a Type 212 valve and a Type 312 valve?’), or more general (‘how do EU fishing policies affect the price of fish?’). Or maybe you’re reading something because you already have questions in your mind. A random example of a question might be this: a book on my desk has a section headed ‘Rough sleepers and the hidden homeless’. What do these terms mean? Do ‘rough sleepers’ and the ‘hidden homeless’ between them include all types of homelesness? You get the idea. In general terms, reading with questions in mind is claimed to roughly double the amount of material you will be able to recall after reading a report, book or other text. Useful questions tend to be ones that ask who, what, why, how, where.
  • Read – when you read,  look for answers to your questions. Also make notes of anything you regard as key points, concepts, phrases, quotes etc. Writing notes improves the amount of information you retain. More notes does not equal better notes – try to capture what you see as the essential details in as clear a way as possible.
  • Reflect – spend time thinking about the material. Does it relate to other knowledge you have? Transform the way you think about a topic? Can you use the information in a practical way?
  • Recite – try to put key points and arguments in your own words. Writing about what you’ve read, or discussing it with others, will make you do that.
  • Review – this is a form of self-testing. Invent questions and try to answer them. Have other people ask you questions about the topic you’ve been reading about and see if you can remember points that answer their questions.

Reference:

Thomas, E. L. and Robinson, H. A. (1972) Improving Reading in Every Class: A sourcebook for teachers.  Boston: Allyn & Bacon

More info:

Susan Bovair at Mindspring

SQ3R

You can think of SQ3R as the forerunner to PQ4R. It was developed in 1946 by Francis Pleasant Robinson and based on earlier, 1930s, research on school students. His book, Effective Study, went through four editions of which the last was in 1970.

The difference between PQ4R and SQ3R is that while the four Rs in the former are ‘read, reflect, recite, review’, there were only three Rs in SQ3R – ‘read, recite, review’, though the ‘recite’ stage arguably covers more ground.

  • Survey (or Skim) – look at major topics and structure of the material through headings, sub-headings and any other outstanding features in the text. The same as ‘Preview’ in PQ4R.
  • Question – this is a little more content-focused than PQ4R since the questions Robinson suggests are along the lines of ‘What is chapter X about?’ and ‘What question does this chapter answer?’, though he also mentions questions that relate the material to your personal experience – e.g. ‘How can this material help me?’ Again, this stage includes the technique of turning headings and other emphasised material into questions as discussed above with PQ4R.
  • Read – reading is done only once you have acquainted yourself with the major topics and organisation of the material and identified questions (S and Q above).
  • Recite (also wRite and/or Recall) – identify answers to the questions raised in the Q step above. Again, note-taking and discussion is important to aid recall.
  • Review – self-test in relation to the questions and notes from earlier stages. Recalling key phrases and revising any that have been forgotten is highly recommended.

Reference:

Robinson, F. P. (1970). Effective Study (4th edition). New York: Harper & Row.

PQRST

Perhaps the easiest acronym to remember, because the letters are sequential in the alphabet, this method varies slightly from the others in that it is designed to be used as a revision aid when the material studied will be examined in a test. If the test concerns a number of large topics – which would be the case in, say, criminology where many exams address quite large and wide-ranging topics or policy issues – you may need to repeat the sequence over several times, once for each of the topic areas.

  • Preview – look at the selected topic; the major heads and subheads in your materials, bullet point lists, etc.
  • Question – identify the ‘key’ question areas, debates and issues within the topic. Develop questions based on these.
  • Read – read through reference materials, study guides, your notes etc. on the topic and identify what information best relates to each question you have chosen.
  • Summary – summarize the available information. Preferably this is done through developing your own summary methods. These might be bullet point lists, perhaps using a mnemonic that aids memory; for example functionalist approaches in sociology can often be reduced to GAIL – Goal setting, Adaptation, Integration, Latency). Equally importantly information can be summarised in diagrams (spider, flowchart, matrix, pyramid, Venn…). Some sources suggest saying the summaries out loud, maybe to another person. Some people find audio helpful, e.g. recording summaries for later playback.
  • Test – answer the questions from the question step above as fully as possible, perhaps in the form of a self-set mock exam that can be reviewed later. This can also help avoid diversions, irrelevant material, inadvertent changes of subject, ‘blind alleys’ etc.

KWL

This is a simple table that enables you to identify where you are and what next steps you need to take in learning. It is often useful for brainstorming in small groups, or to address specific problems. It is also useful when starting a new reading, usually at the point that you have completed the P stage of PQ4R or the S stage of SQ3R, when it becomes an aid to developing questions in the Q stage of either model. It was first developed by Donna Ogle (1986).

  • Know – what do you know? Just list keywords, tags, topic areas, questions that have been answered. This is intended to cerate some engagement with the topic and develop ideas about how the new material might be relevant to prior learning, motivations etc.
  • What (or Want) – what do you want to know? Based on the K part of the cycle, what are the next steps to tackle? This set of points is essentially an agenda for what questions to tackle next.
  • Learned – what have you learned? Complete this step to summarise what you found out from working through the questions in the W stage.

Teachers, trainers and tutors can use this model to drive how they tackle each stage of a training course or educational programme and modify their approach to address questions students want to cover.

Reference:

Ogle, D.M. (1986). K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository text. Reading Teacher, 39, 564-570

WTF

An abbreviation you might see in your notes – often with a question mark or exclamation mark after it – against material you haven’t understood. Following the PQ4R, SQ3R, PQRST or KWL strategies will minimise the likelihood of you writing WTF in your notes!

More info on all strategies discussed is at the Study Guides and Strategies website.

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