Passing the GRE with…SCIENCE!

I’m studying for the GRE – again. This time, I’ve actually signed up for the test and will have a use for my scores very soon. A few years ago, when I was studying for it, I didn’t really have a good study method, nor a firm deadline. I planned to go through my Manhattan GRE books and Magoosh from start to finish at a leisurely pace since I had not registered for a test, nor really had firm plan to apply for a PhD. It was not a good plan. This time, however, I feel much “smarter” going into it. It’s not because I am older and wiser, and it’s not because I have mastered difficult math concepts in the meantime. No, it’s because I am going into my study sessions armed with….SCIENCE! Learning science (cognitive science, developmental psychology, etc), that is. As an educator, I have spent a lot of time reading research on how people best learn, and even have a Research Bites post on it (see the summary of Dunlosky et al) going way back. However, what really helped and inspired me to take a smarter approach to studying was the Learning Scientists website. Their articles have given me a deeper look at learning science and its applications, and have some great practical tips. So, now I’m studying with…SCIENCE. It has informed everything from my study routine to the time I chose for my test (9:00 am, when cognitive fatigue has yet to set in). Here are some of the principles I am applying to my study routine.

Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition is probably not a new concept for you. It’s quite common in ELT and is highly recommended for vocabulary learning. Mura Nava has written about it several times on Research Bites, with his latest article being critical of the concept applied to SLA. Luckily, I’m not using it for language learning but rather for advancing my vocabulary and for spacing and reviewing my math practice. Here, I am using two different tools to ensure my practice is spaced and repeated efficiently and as in line with science as I can make it.

  1. I am using Anki to learn a majority of the vocabulary I need. Anki is a flashcard app that has a built in spaced recognition algorithm which recycles cards based on how difficult you rate remembering them. It also introduces a set number of new cards based on your learning and forgetting rate.
  2. I am using an app called “Let’s review“, which is basically a spaced repetition scheduler. It allows you to set alerts based on a spaced repetition interval. This can be customized to your needs. So, for example, I have it remind me to study Anki and Magoosh GRE Vocabulary every day. I will also have it remind me to practice other skills as I input them. They will all follow a 1-3-6-10-15-21 schedule. This schedule is based on Ebbinghaus’ “forgetting curve,” with the dates timed to coincide with optimal periods of review (or where forgetting begins to outpace remembering). So for example, at the beginning of the month, I might have fractions on the 1st, 3rd, 6th, 10th, 15th, 21st, and so on. I might schedule math related to circles on the 2nd, 4th, 7th, 11th, 16th, 22nd, and so on. I might schedule mental math practice on the 3rd, 5th, 8th, 12th, 17th, and 23rd. In this way, I am staggering my studying, but all of it occurs on a pattern of spaced repetition. I add different skills as I study them.

Retrieval

Retrieval practice is the deliberate recall and practice of something you have learned in the past, and it is often done unaided by notes. This is heavily tied to spaced repetition, as constantly reviewing and studying will force retrieval. However, I am also using Magoosh GRE, which offers a lot of practice problems that force me to recall and practice the various math concepts I am learning. Whereas with spaced repetition, I may be reviewing or repeating the same exercises over and over, I will likely be working with new questions and problems that will require me to use retrieval to a greater extent. Some of the research on Learning Scientists shows that retrieval practice leads to transfer, and I really hope this is true, because GRE problems often require a lot of different skills at the same time (evaluation, simplification, algebra, etc.)

To completely use retrieval to my advantage, however, it is probably not enough to simply practice problems. Retrieval is based on the active recall of knowledge. So, for example, when I want to work on integers, I should first recall everything I know about them, including what they are, and, one of my weaknesses, remembering the interactions between positive and negative integers through addition, multiplication, etc. Actively recalling this, through writing or making my own problems, or verbal elaboration, is a major aspect of retrieval.

You can easily see that by constantly bringing these things into your working memory, how easy it is to strengthen them.

Interleaving

I love this concept most of all. Interleaving is the intermixing of study topics rather than studying topics in blocks( simply studying one subject at a time). Mixing it up by switching topics often during a study session has been shown to improve learning. For my own purposes, I typically begin with some vocabulary, review and practice some math based on whatever is scheduled for me that day, do some GRE Verbal problems, and study and practice a new topic (usually math), and end with more vocabulary. One important idea from interleaving is to find connections between different topics. This is quite easy with studying different math topics, as they are bound to relate to each or require each other on some point.

This may sound like a lot or may sound like something overwhelming, but I typically do this in about an hour a day. Mixing it up also keeps the study sessions interesting!

I have also been using this in my own teaching of grammar, what I am considering a fancy form of recycling, but that is a story for another time.

Exercise

I’ve read some conflicting reports about this. Exercise increases the blood flow to the brain, which primes it for better learning, so some theories go. This post in the New York Times discusses two research articles that found light exercise while studying is helpful, but not before, and possibly never with intense exercise. Another study suggests regular aerobic exercise improves our capacity to learn. Another article found that high-intensity exercise after studying can increase memory. Another article found that it did not help in immediate recall but learning was better retained after 24 hours.

So, what should I do, according to…SCIENCE?  Here, I am at a loss for a decision. I do high-intensity exercise (kickboxing) twice a week. I should probably get some studying in before this (maybe some flashcards), although it seems like the jury is still out here. In general, I will believe that exercising, in general, is helping keep my brain sharp and it doesn’t matter how I time my study periods to coincide with my gym time, as long as I don’t take too many headshots.

Coffee

Yes, coffee does keep you awake during those long study hours, but, those long and late-night study hours are detrimental to learning – sleep is important. So, what role does coffee play? According to this summary by Scientific American, results from a Johns Hopkins study indicate consuming caffeine (~200mg, about 1 cup of coffee) after studying can consolidate learning and aid retrieval.

I love coffee. In fact, whenever I travel somewhere, I always purchase locally roasted beans. It’s the souvenir I typically take home. I typically drink a cup a day, so now I’ve started drinking it strategically, not to abate the effects of lack of sleep or general fatigue but to help my memory. Everything helps!

Sleep

Sleep is the backstabbing best friend of learning, especially studying. You need sleep, but it also reduces the time you can study. From what I understand, good REM sleep is crucial for the consolidation of learning. Conversely, lack of sleep is obviously bad for learning. You really don’t need science for this. But, the facts do serve as a good reminder that I sleep is essential to the whole process – the glue that holds everything together. Without sleep, all the exercise, timing, and topic mixing amount to very little. And with that….off to bed.


Here’s the big caveat. With all that science above, none of it comes without hard work, motivation, time, and stick-to-itiveness. Without personal agency, all the research and methods are for naught. So, while I can inform my study plans with…SCIENCE!, this science cannot actually make me sit down and study. Only self-discipline can help me do that.

I have only been studying for the past two weeks. I plan to study every night. I have probably studied 11 or 12 nights of the last 14. Of those nights, I have probably done 90% of the tasks I said I would do (retrieval, intermixing, learning new information, self-testing, flashcards). Sometimes, the spaced repetition of certain topics has stacked up so much for one date that it has become too onerous to do. Still, I have a deadline (Nov 11), and I work well with deadlines, so I feel I can stick to this schedule with some success and decent self-discipline.

Will this all work? Well, I’ll find out soon.