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How To Study: An Effective Learning Framework To 'STIC' With

Ali Abdaal
Ali Abdaal

With spring just around the corner and winter fading away, thoughts are starting to turn towards a different season – that of exams. Being able to study in a way which is both efficient, effective and successful is the dream of all students and it’s an area that I’ve researched quite widely.

I'm sure we've all wondered at some point during our studies that we’ve been approaching studying wrong. Or at least not optimally. But what is optimal?

There are, indeed, many ways to answer this depending who you ask but, in fact, there are only a handful of principles that are backed up by rigorous evidence. One of the answers, which we’re going to talk about today, is the STIC framework for effective learning.

So what’s this method all about? It comprises four of the most important principles into a nice, easy mnemonic that you can apply to whatever you’re trying to learn or study. The four principles are:

  • (S)pacing
  • (T)esting
  • (I)nterleaving
  • (C)ategorising

If you can apply these four principles to your studying, it should become more efficient, effective and rewarding. Although the acronym works nicely as STIC, for the purposes of this article I’m going to look at Testing and Spacing first and then Categorising and Interleaving – the problem is, TSCI just isn’t quite as memorable!

Testing

Testing is probably the single most important factor to help boost your exam performance and results. This might not sound particularly appealing – why would we want to test ourselves even more to prepare for an exam?

However, testing or ‘active recall’, which I've explored elsewhere, are key components of achieving efficiency with your revision and success in exams.

It’s hard to overstate how important testing is. All the evidence appears to show that the more you test yourself, the more likely it is that the information will stic(k) – pun intended. The theory being that every time we test ourselves, we’re forcing our brains to build connections between different areas and, in turn, the information gets encoded more strongly.

In the book “Make it Stick” by Brown, Roediger and Mcdaniel, the authors mention that students don’t perform as well as they want in their exams for the simple reason that they don’t test themselves enough. The authors also reference a study that found that testing yourself once is better than re-reading the same passage four times.

But how can you test yourself when you haven’t learnt all the content first? This is probably the question I get asked most frequently and whilst it makes sense intuitively, testing is actually integral to the learning process. You should even be testing yourself before you learn a topic. As David Epstein explains:

“Testing before you have had a chance to learn primes your brain for when you then hear an answer to retain it – especially if you get stuff wrong. There is something called the hypercorrection effect where if you are quite confident about an answer and it turns out you are wrong, you are more likely to remember the right one when you get it".

Spacing

Spacing, or spaced repetition, is the technique to literally ‘space out' your study sessions on the same topic. Whilst studying the same thing repeatedly leads to short-term progress, it doesn’t result in sustainable recall over time.

This relates to a phenomenon in memory research known as The Forgetting Curve. Our brains are wired such that over time our memory deteriorates - unless you revisit that information after a period of time, re-encode it and reinforce what you’ve learnt.

A study conducted with two groups of people who were learning Spanish vocabulary demonstrated this idea famously. The first group got 8 hours of intensive learning for one day whilst the second group were given the exact same lists but had their time split – 4 hours on one day and then another 4 hours one month later.

When the participants were re-tested 8 years later, the group that had spaced practice remembered 250% more.

Whilst you may not want to be leaving one month between study sessions if you have upcoming exams, the evidence across the literature illustrates that spacing your study sessions, and combining this with active recall testing, is far more efficient than ‘cramming’ everything at once!

Categorising

Categorising is one of my favourite studying techniques and one which I wish I had used throughout my studies. The theory behind this is that if we’re learning a large amount of information, it’s far more effective to build a categorisation system and a structure which helps to breakdown the material rather than simply trying to learn the information as one large unit – which is probably the default strategy.

There have been studies which illustrate this point whereby one group of students gets told to memorise a list of words whilst the other group have the same words but are told to categorise the words appropriately. The second group of students nearly always outperforms the first group in terms of the amount that the information sticks in the short and longer term.

This method is particularly effective when ‘scoping’ a subject and breaking down the information to provide a structure which you can then work from systematically.

It’s useful to visualise this body of knowledge as a tree, with every branch extending off into smaller branches. Each small branch holds a number of leaves (topics) and each big branch holds a number of small branches. This works well with the human brain’s natural tendency to compartmentalise and categorise information.

In the video that accompanies this article, I refer to how I used this method to help improve my understanding of haematology – the study of the blood – which, at the time, I found quite overwhelming.

Interleaving

As opposed to the time you leave between revision sessions, interleaving is about what you do with your time WITHIN revision sessions.

Interleaving is the idea that we should try to mix up our practice as we go along. If we get to a point where we find stuff too easy, it means we’re not learning anymore.

It’s quite easy when planning a revision timetable to commit certain subjects to a few solid days then move on to the next – this is known as ‘blocking’ and it comes easily to us because it's how we're always taught through textbooks.

Interleaving is a process whereby you aim to mix up subjects and topics and, unlike ‘blocking’ which holds information in your short-term memory, interleaving can help to strengthen your memory associations over a longer period of time.

When interleaving rather than blocking practice, different skills are intermixed rather than grouped by type - in other words, abcbcacab instead of aaabbbccc.

There is evidence that has shown that if you interleave different concepts together – i.e by following a question on one topic with a question on a different topic which requires a different technique to answer it - this can produce better test scores.

In essence, with traditional blocked practice, we don’t often need to identify the strategy because every problem can be solved in the same way with the same strategy – interleaving changes this by forcing us to consider and choose the appropriate strategy for different questions.

Consequently, interleaving can feel more difficult. But, as we have already discussed, it is when we are finding studying difficult that our time is being spent most productively. Learning should be mentally taxing and interleaving introduces variety which produces difficulty as well as forces your brain to adapt, work with different techniques and make connections which will make your studying more effective and efficient.

Research into the effectiveness of interleaving in a study from 2010 found that although “interleaving practice impaired practice session performance" [i.e it made the actual study session more difficult] "it doubled scores on a test given one day later" [i.e it improved exam performance in the long term].

An additional benefit of interleaving is that it inadvertently ensures that practice of any particular skill is distributed, or spaced, because any two opportunities to practice the same task are not consecutive!

It turns out that variety is not just the spice of life but the spice of studying too!


Key Points:

  • Test yourself before, during and after studying topics.
  • Space out your revision sessions on particular topics.
  • Break down larger topics into a more structured, categorised system.
  • Don’t resort to ‘blocking’ – keep your revision varied.
  • Although we might not like to hear it, learning should be mentally taxing.

  • If you want more information about how you can apply testing to your studying then please see this video.
  • If you want to know more about spacing, check out this video where I go into more details about how you can apply it to your studying or this video where I discuss one of my favourite techniques – the retrospective timetable.

Recommended Books:

  • The Sports Gene – David Epstein
  • Range – David Epstein
  • Make It Stick - McDaneil & Brown

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Ali Abdaal

Junior doctor, YouTuber, web designer, aspiring musician. Trying out this blogging thing.