Let’s cut through the noise: there are dozens of slightly different approaches to studying effectively. You’ve probably discovered many already, thanks to viral Tiktok videos, endless study guides and YouTuber’s detailed pitches.
Perhaps you’re a little confused about what the best and most effective learning methods actually are. Or you’re just tired of trying new things …
… and maybe a little intrigued by my claim that there really are only THREE ways to study effectively.
So, we’re diving straight in, right to the heart of the matter.
And I can promise to teach you everything you need to know: what these three study methods are, and when to use them for maximum effect.
Prefer to listen? You can find this article in podcast form, perfect for absorbing on the go – simply click right here:
- There are really only THREE effective study techniques?
- The foundations: spaced retrieval practice
- Methods 1 and 2: “Cued recall” and “free recall”
- Is everything else really just a variation on cued or free recall?
- Method 3: Practice questions and past papers
- When to use the THREE methods for maximum effect
- In summary: the ONLY three learning methods you need to study effectively
There are really only THREE effective study techniques?
Over the years I’ve been working as an expert study coach, my take on effective learning methods has become clearer and simpler.
I’ve done plenty of reading and research, surveyed 40,000 students’ actual study techniques and worked with thousands of students through coaching and workshops, to help them perfect their study strategy.
So you might say, the topic of how to study effectively has always been on my mind.
And I’ve come to believe that, yes: there are only threeproven, effective approaches to learning.
Everything else – every study strategy you’ve ready about or watched a viral video on – is just a variation on one of these core three themes.
When it comes to how to get content to stick in your memory, whether that’s facts and concepts in sciences, critical approaches in English or arts subjects, or formulas and procedures in maths and quantitative subjects …
Three is the magic number.
Let’s face it: anyone can (and often does) make effective studying into a complicated subject that takes up far too much headspace.
So we’re going to use my expertise to make it simple, easy to remember, and effortless to apply.
The foundations: spaced retrieval practice
Before I share the three approaches, let me cover the foundations you need to understand first.
When it comes to learning effectively for exams, everything rests on the principle of spaced retrieval practice.
I’ve talked about this a lot before, whether on the Exam Study Expert podcast (see, for example Episode 66 or Episode 46 for a great intro), or in my comprehensive guides to retrieval practice and spaced learning.
But in a nutshell:
- Retrieval practice (which you may know as “active recall”) equals testing or quizzing yourself, pulling knowledge OUT of your memory
- “Spaced” means spread out over time, the core concept of the spaced learning method
- For example: repeating the test or quiz multiple times, with a time delay of days or weeks in between
Spaced retrieval practice is the principle that underpins any effective learning method.
I used to think there were LOADS of ways to do spaced retrieval practice:
- Practice questions
- “Smart notes” (Q&A notes)
- Quiz apps / digital flashcard tools
- Getting a friend to test you (pair testing)
- Blank page retrieval / blurting / brain dumps
(You can find out more about all of these strategies, and how to use them, in my book: Outsmart Your Studies.)
I wasn’t wrong, these are all ways to do spaced retrieval practice.
But the clearer I get on the topic of the most effective learning (and study) methods, I find that everything ultimately boils down to just two core approaches: cued recall and free recall.
Methods 1 and 2: “Cued recall” and “free recall”
Now, you’ve probably noticed I mentioned THREE as the magic number – but we’re going to start with these first two core approaches to learning, memory and knowledge retention:
Cued recall and free recall are at heart of any effective learning strategy because they are both ways of testing yourself, based on spaced retrieval practice, of course.
First up is “cued recall”:
Cued recall means answering narrow, closed-ended questions that require quite short, defined answers. For example, the question: “what is the word equation for photosynthesis?”
There tends to a specific answer – a term, a definition, a list of steps in a process – your answer is either accurate or not, and if not, it’s because you either got something wrong or you missed out an essential part of the answer.
Next, we have “free recall”:
Free recall means answering wider, more open-ended questions, such as “write out everything you know about photosynthesis”.
Free recall questions encourage you to recall a much wider volume of knowledge, potentially several classes worth of material – a lot!
I’ll be honest: free recall isn’t about right or wrong. Yes, you can make errors in your free recall – you might inaccurately recall an term or concept – but there’s no such thing as a perfect bit of free recall.
It’s worth noting that there are weaker attempts, which are light on detail and full of mistakes, and stronger attempts, which are generally accurate and full of detail. But you’ll find you can always add yet more detail to even quite a strong attempt at free recall, especially as you become more advanced in your studies.
Is everything else really just a variation on cued or free recall?
Now, I’ve claimed that every other study method you’ve encountered is a variation on one of these learning approaches.
By which I mean: there are plenty of ways to do your cued recall or free recall effectively. (Which is great news as there are methods to suit everyone).
So let’s dive in, prove that claim and talk about some of the variations you probably know or use to study effectively:
Variations of cued recall
We’ve established that cued recall means answering narrow questions with short specific answers.
Therefore, all study methods based on cued recall involve testing your memory of specific knowledge. You see or hear a question, try to remember the answer, then reveal the answer to see if you were right.
You can use various tools to show you the question “cues” and test yourself on the answers.
- Putting your short question-and-answer pairs on two sides of small pieces of paper. That’s flashcards.
- Using a digital tool to store and test yourself on your question-and-answer pairs (fsuch as Quizlet, Anki or Brainscape) – “digital” flashcards.
- Putting your question-and-answer pairs in two adjacent columns on paper: questions in the left-hand column, answers in the right-hand column. This is what I call “Smart Notes” (you may remember I previously called them Q&A Notes)
- Having a friend quiz you on questions from a book or other resource. That’s pair testing.
To set yourself up to do cued recall, there are typically two stages:
- Writing out your question and answer cues (keep them short and sweet!), for example, writing a set of flashcards
- Then testing yourself on them, or getting a friend to test you
Have you used some of these study methods before? Congratulations: you’ve been doing cued recall – that’s one of the only three effective learning methods down already!
Let’s get creative:
You can even get creative with your question-and-answer cued recall study methods:
If you spend a lot of time in the car, how about recording question and answer pairs as an audio track you can listen to. When you record, leave a good length pause after each question before recording the answer. Then when you listen back later, you can test yourself by trying to answer in that gap.
Some people like to put sticky notes up around the bathroom mirror or by the kettle so they see key information every single day as part of their morning routine. I say go one better, and do lift-the-flap style sticky notes. Put a question on the front, then write the answer upside down on the reverse, so that it reads the right way up when you lift the flap. Then you can test yourself on those all-important nuggets as you’re making a cup of tea or brushing your teeth.
Some neurodiverse learners I know even like to write their questions and answers on two sides of jumbo-size lolly sticks and pop them in a jar, pulling them out at random for a quick quiz. The tactile, physical nature of that format can be a nice plus if you find learning from a piece of paper a little hard to engage with.
So, that’s the world of cued recall – and all it’s variations: all great, effective study methods.
Variations of free recall
Let’s turn to the alternative approach: free recall.
Remember, this means answering more open-ended questions, which could require a lot of information, with no clear-cut right answers.
There are several variations open to you in the world of free recall, in terms of WHAT you’re recalling, WHERE you’re recalling it, and HOW you’re setting out the material you recall.
WHAT you’re recalling could be a range of different things:
- You could simply scribble out everything you remember about a topic or subtopic, from memory. This is great way to practice questions like the example I used above: “write out everything you know about photosynthesis”
- Or you might do your free recall based on more specific exam-style questions (more on exam questions in a moment)
There are various options for WHERE you recall the information:
- You could write on a blank piece of paper
- Writing on mini-whiteboard can be a great free recall option (as being neat isn’t important when you’ll be wiping it clean soon!)
- You might free type your thoughts into a word processor
- Or even use an online mind-mapping tool
Finally, let’s talk about HOW you’re setting out the material. This could take a range of forms:
- You might simply free-style over the page or whiteboard, putting down stuff anywhere. That’s blurting or brain dumps.
- You might lay it out with some kind of visual structure, such as in a spider diagram, mindmap, or, my new favourite, a tree diagram.
- You might even write it up in full sentences and paragraphs as for an exam-style essay.
- Technically, I’d probably consider free recall to be the essay planning part of the process. Writing up the sentences and paragraphs is an additional step beyond free recall to practice your essay craft, but it’s a fairly hazy distinction.
With any of these free recall methods, you want to:
- First recall everything you can from memory
- Then check what you got right or wrong: and add in any corrections or important missing points perhaps in a second colour
Verbal free recall
There are also some great verbal free recall methods: explaining to or teaching someone else about a topic or question, recording yourself explaining it, or simply explaining to an empty room or stuffed animal.
These methods are like the verbal equivalent of blurting or brain-dumping.
Verbal free recall can work very well as an effective learning method. It can be a little more challenging to correct any mistakes or missing points because you might not remember what you said or didn’t say (unless you revisit a recording), so watch out for that potential issue.
Have you already tried using blurting, diagrams or teaching your favourite teddy as a study method? Well, congratulations: you’ve been doing free – that’s two of the three effective learning categories in your arsenal already!
Method 3: Practice questions and past papers
Which leads me to the final area we need to talk about today.
I’ve claimed that there are only THREE effective learning methods, and that’s true.
But I should note that the third approach is a little different because it’s not exactly a distinct category, but actually builds on the previous two methods: cued recall and free recall.
The third and last method you need for truly effective learning is practice exam questions.
That could be questions from your textbook, past assignments, or real past exam papers.
Some questions may be quite short and closed-ended, and therefore involve cued recall; while others may be much more open-ended, longer essay-style questions, and be a form of free recall.
I believe that working with practice questions is an important area, in its own right, for any subject or exam. It deserves its own distinct category to underscore the value of realistic exam-style questions as part of every overall learning system.
To explain that statement a little better, let’s turn to the matter of:
When to use the THREE methods for maximum effect
Given that THREE is the magic number for learning methods, it might not surprise you to discover that there are also THREE layers of learning.
These three layers form a pyramid that leads the way to exam success:
The foundation level is all about knowing your stuff: facts, figures, concepts, the basic knowledge. You need to have that information locked away in long term memory.
The middle tier is all about being able to apply and answer questions on that knowledge, once you’ve mastered it.
The final top point of the pyramid is exam technique and scoring marks: that’s all about being able to structure your answers well and manage timings in your exams.
Can you see some parallels already?
The roles of the three learning methods
So, our three approaches to learning and studying effectively – cued recall, free recall and practice questions – have different, but equally important roles as part of your overall study strategy.
When we put together our three methods for studying effectively AND our layers of learning, we can work out WHEN to use each method for maximum effect:
- Cued recall is fantastic for just learning the knowledge – it sets up the foundation layer of your learning. Without it, you won’t have the knowledge base for free recall or practice exam questions.
- Free recall is great for developing both of the bottom two layers: practicing both knowing your stuff and being able to apply and synthesise your knowledge across different areas. This is particularly true for larger, more synoptic questions that ask you to write about a large topic area all at once.
At this stage we can divide Method 3 into its two parts: practice questions and full past papers.
- Answering individual practice questions is great for helping you with the first two layers. Practice questions are perfect both for applying the knowledge and also practicing important skills: problem solving, analysis, writing and exam technique
- But in order to develop all three layers of learning – including that peak of exam technique – you need to be doing full past papers, especially when timed. This allows you to practice in exam conditions, whilst also doing the first two layers and building on your cued and free recall.
Finding balance: the key to learning effectively
My final note on the topic of WHEN to use these three study methods to maximum effect is all about balance, in order to make them the most effective.
Essentially, finding balance means working strategically: there’s nothing to be gained by prioritising just one method. Instead, you need to build and strengthen your learning pyramid with an appropriate set of study methods.
You’ve learnt which skills each method – cued recall, free recall and past papers – are developing. So now you need to consider HOW to apply them to different exam challenges.
Here are two examples:
When you have knowledge intensive exam, such as a multiple choice paper:
- The foundation layer, “Knowing Your Stuff”, is most the intensive. Layers 2 & 3 are more straightforward with this kind of exam.
- Therefore, your focus should be practising cued recall with lots of flashcards or smartnotes
- But don’t forget to practice past papers under timed conditions to work on applying your knowledge and exam technique!
When you’re facing an exam full of long-answer, conceptual essay style questions:
- There will be some content to memorise at the foundation. But Layers 2 and 3 are most important: being able to apply your knowledge, and the skill of responding to specific questions under timed exam conditions
- Therefore, your focus should be practicing free recall with heavy use of blank page retrieval and practice questions
- But don’t forget to use a sprinkle of flashcards to be sure of important content, and use past papers to practice putting it all together
In summary: the ONLY three learning methods you need to study effectively
That’s a lot of information I’ve just given you, so let’s recap to make sure you can supercharge the effectiveness of your learning immediately:
The only THREE methods you need to study effectively are all forms of spaced retrieval practice:
- Cued recall: that’s practicing short pairs of narrow questions and specific answers
- Great for: building up your knowledge base and practising for knowledge intensive exams
- Free recall: that’s answering open-ended questions by recalling lots of information
- Great for: applying your knowledge and preparing for essay-based exams
- Practice questions and past papers: that’s applying cued or free recall whilst simulating exam-style questions (and questions)
- Important for: all exam prep!
There are plenty of variations of cued and free recall: so whether you prefer flashcards or pair testing, blurting or tree diagrams – these are the only three learning methods to you need to study effectively and ace your exams!
I wish you every success in your studies.
Want to dive into some more of my best advice on the most effective study methods?
Now, if that’s whetted your appetite to upgrade YOUR learning system to the best possible techniques, you’ve got a couple of options.
The first is to try out the How To Learn Effectively series on the Exam Study Expert Podcast (episode 66 onwards), which explore exactly how you can get the core practical techniques to work for you, effectively.
Alternatively, you can scroll through all 37 proven strategies that I know will help you stream-line your studies and ace your exams: hopefully, armed with your new-found knowledge, you’ll be able to spot which of the three methods above are at work!
Or there’s now a new way to learn everything I have to teach about effective learning strategies: my new signature course, Total Memory Mastery.