Recognition vs. Recollection: How My Appointment with a Learning Strategist Showed Me How to Study Smarter, not Harder

Edited by Tasmiyah Randeree

Earlier this week, right in the middle of the exam season, I went to see a learning strategist, taking advantage of one of the many resources offered by the University of Toronto’s Student Success Centre. I had been curious about any advice I might receive from a professional regarding my studies, so I decided to shoot my shot—although most of my exams were finished, I figured I could gather some useful tips and tricks to apply to the upcoming new semester.

The appointment was easy to book, and the learning strategist was friendly and easy to talk to. He started off by asking me what I wanted to focus on—general learning methods, mnemonics strategies, study schedules—and so we spent some time discussing how I had felt about this past semester, as a first-year student in the Life Sciences program. I told him that my main issue came from feeling like there wasn’t enough time; in each of my classes, my frustration stemmed from feeling like I knew exactly how much work I needed to put in, but simply not having enough hours in the day to carry it out. I wanted to improve my efficiency.

In response, he drew me a graph with percent of data retention on the y-axis and time on the x-axis. He showed me that the majority of information learned from a lecture is lost within twenty-four hours, and that by a month, around 95% of that data is gone. As a result, attempting to recall everything from lectures over a month ago turns into an agonizing, time-consuming task. I learned that in fact, sectioning off time to “check-in”, or review lecture material regularly in the time between each lecture may make that mid-term cramming session a lot less stressful.

Another tip he gave me was to section off my notes using symbols that indicated if certain areas were important, confusing, or comprised of nitty-gritty detail that just had to be memorized. Then, at the end of each chapter or unit, to give a short, focused, and concise summary using my own words; this would allow me to think critically about the previously learned material and combine it in a way that makes sense to me, not just the authors or publishers of the textbook.

Finally, when reviewing those details that are pure memorization, he reminded me to be aware of the difference between recollection and recognition. Studying from cue cards or reading over notes has the terrible side effect of creating a false sense of confidence when we confuse familiarity with understanding. A method to avoid this is to create an aid sheet comprised solely of information that is difficult or uncomfortable. Doing practice tests or making quizzes for yourself can help to identify these problem areas. This method bypasses the misleading good feeling we get from studying the content we already know, which tends to allow us to avoid the sections we need to target.

Although the next semester seems far away in most of our minds, it’s never a bad time to see how we can save time, and study smarter, not harder. Good luck with the rest of your exams!