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  • Dr Paul Penn

Why the most common method of studying is also the least effective.

Updated: Mar 24, 2020

“We must form our minds by reading deep rather than wide” – Marcus Fabius Quintilianus

You’ll most likely have heard the expression that you read for a degree (or to learn, generally). However, the question is: what is the best way to go about doing this? Research indicates that most people rely on rereading content repeatedly as their “go-to” study strategy (e.g. Karpicke, Butler & Roediger, 2009). Unfortunately, about nine decades worth of research into cognitive psychology suggests that rereading is an ineffective way of committing material to memory. The reason rereading doesn’t work is that your memory doesn’t function like a camera i.e. by simply reproducing information. Therefore, hoping you will faithfully be able to remember the material you’re looking at by virtue of just repeated exposure to it is likely to result in tiredness, boredom and frustration. Yes, exactly the kind you experience when you cram for an exam! *winks*

To illustrate how your memory functions, consider the game ‘Chinese Whispers’. If you’re not familiar with this game (or you know it by a different name), here’s how it works. You start with a simple message at one end of a line of people and instruct the first person to relay that message verbatim to the next person in the line. Everyone in the line has the same task. When the last person in the line recites the message, you compare their version to the original message. Upon doing this, what you’ll tend to find is that the message got progressively distorted as it passed down the line by little changes that each person made to it as they passed it on. This demonstrates the most basic principle of memory in action: it doesn’t just reproduce information; it reconstructs it.

The seminal study of the reconstructive nature of memory was conducted by Bartlett (1932). His experiment involved inviting people to read a piece of obscure Canadian-Indian folklore. If you’re interested, you can read this short story yourself, here. Following a short period of time, the participants were then asked to recall as much of the work as possible. Not surprisingly, Bartlett found that participants frequently made errors in their recall of the story. However, he also found that these errors were not random; they all served a purpose. For example, participants would often: change the aspects of the story that were unfamiliar to them to something more meaningful; disregard aspects of the story that seemed unimportant; and elaborate on features of the tale that seemed more familiar. In other words, the participants were using their memory to reconstruct what they read in a way that made it most meaningful for them. That’s why simply rereading material is not an effective way to study: it doesn’t promote thinking about the meaning of what you read and therefore doesn’t take advantage of the way your memory works.

If rereading only promotes a superficial engagement with a source, then what is the alternative? What can you do to get beneath the surface of text you’re reading to the meaning that lies beneath? I’ll give you a hint, I just did it … twice! I asked you questions that required explanations. To use what you read to explain something you must engage with the meaning of the text. In a nutshell: asking questions about what you read as you’re reading it is a great catalyst to promote thinking about its meaning. This process is called elaborative interrogation (Pressley et al., 1987). Ozgungor and Guthrie (2004) provided a nice example of it in action. They asked students to read a long passage of writing on Phantom limb pain. Some students read a version of the text interspersed with elaborative interrogation questions such as: ‘How does the evidence support this assertion?’ Other students simply read the plain text. Students who read the text featuring the elaborative interrogation prompts outperformed their peers on tests of recall, inference formation and their ability to generate links between concepts. You might worry that this method would mainly benefit those who know more about the topic to start with or who are particularly keen on the subject matter. However, Ozgungor and Guthrie found that the beneficial effects of elaborative interrogation were even more pronounced for students who had less prior knowledge of the topic and those who reported being less interested in it.

The take home message for you is that you need to focus on reconstructing what you read into your own understanding of the text, NOT simply aim to be able to recall what someone else has written verbatim. A great way to do this is to ask questions of the material you read that require you to respond with an explanation. Questions are catalysts for thinking about a topic (i.e. actively engaging with it). This is, ultimately, what determines the likelihood that you will remember what you read.

You can learn more about academic reading in chapter three of my book: ‘The Psychology of Effective Studying: How to Succeed in Your Degree’. available direct from the publishers here (this link also features an order inspection copy facility for tutors/librarians). The book can also be purchased from or


Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering: An experimental and social study. Cambridge

University Press.

Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C. & Roediger III, H. L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practise retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17(4), 471–479.

Ozgungor, S. & Guthrie, J. T. (2004). Interactions among elaborative interrogation,

knowledge, and interest in the process of constructing knowledge from text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(3), 437–443.

Pressley, M., McDaniel, M. A., Turnure, J. E., Wood, E. & Ahmad, M. (1987). Generation and precision of elaboration: Effects on intentional and incidental learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 13(2), 291–300.

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