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How to use effective learning techniques for arts subjects

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Effective learning techniques help you get better scores, and spend less time studying. Typically they’re associated with subjects where you have to memorise lots of things. But they can be used for arts subjects too. This article goes through how to use five of the best methods, with examples.

Much has been written in recent years on effective learning techniques. A good popular summary is Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel, whilst this helpful review article by Dunlosky et. al. 1 has a thorough evaluation of the relative merits of ten of the most popular techniques.

The Dunlosky paper, which reviewed the results from hundreds of studies, concludes that you’re more likely to get good results if you use the following learning methods: spaced repetition and active recall (rated as ‘high utility’), and elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, and interleaved practice (rated as ‘moderate utility’)2. Other techniques, such as summarization, highlighting, using mnemonics, rereading, and turning text into images are rated as ‘low utility’.

Memory is useful for arts subjects too

However, these learning techniques are mostly talked about with reference to scientific subjects, or areas where rote learning is paramount, such as foreign languages. It’s obvious how learning all the parts of the body will help trainee medics, for example. What’s not as clear is how to apply these effective learning techniques to arts subjects, such as history or philosophy.

This article suggests ways you can do that to improve your learning – and your exam scores. I’ll go through the high and moderate utility learning techniques one-by-one.

It’s worth noting that most of these things methods work on the principle of desirable difficulty. They’re designed to make your study harder – but ultimately more effective. Remember that when it gets tough!

Active Recall for arts subjects

Practice doing questions

Doing practice exam papers is probably the most useful tactic for those studying arts subjects, because it provides a number of benefits at once. Not only does it help consolidate your knowledge, and give you a realistic picture of what more you need to do, but it gets you used to exam conditions. This should be the cornerstone of your improvement strategy.

But there are also ways to use active recall outside of past papers. As well as doing shorter sessions where you answer selected questions from past exam papers, you can make questions for yourself based on your knowledge of the syllabus, then try to answer them. You can also try asking a tutor or course convenor for suggested questions.

Doing these questions, then looking for the answers in textbooks or for model answers online will help you understand where you need to improve, and thus where to focus your learning. Of course, it helps if you can get a teacher or classmate to critique your answers.

Build up a bank of essay chunks

The objective of testing yourself repeatedly isn’t so that you can learn a whole essay to regurgitate in your exam. However, you can break an essay down into chunks that you can re-use for the real thing. You can then tweak your chunks to suit the question, and combine chunks to make your essay.

Consider the following example for an Ethics paper:

One of the main objections to act consequentialism is that it would have us commit acts that contradict most people’s common-sense intuitions about ethics. For example, act consequentialism would say that a doctor would be right to murder one person in order to harvest their organs to save another five people. Indeed, it would be the doctor’s duty to do so. Many people would say this represents a challenge to act consequentialism, as it justifies something that seems completely wrong.

Whenever a question comes up that requires me to discuss objections to consequentialism, I can use this chunk as appropriate. Over time, you can build up these chunks and memorise them so that you have many to draw on in your exam.

Practise making essay plans

Another good skill to develop over the course of your study is how to make an essay plan. While everyone wants to start writing as soon as they get the exam questions, the time pressure of an exam means that if you fail to structure your essay properly, or pick the wrong question, it’ll be too late to change things.

Making an essay plan is a skill you can develop through practice. Like with your practice questions, you can try making them based on the information in your head, then subsequently improve them with whatever resources you have.

Like with essay chunks, you can also build up a bank of essay plans that you can memorise and draw on in your exam.

Practise key concepts

As well as your essay chunks and essay plans, having clear definitions for key concepts is important in any subject. When you learn a language, you need to know certain vocabulary, and it needs to come to you quickly for it to be useful. Similarly, you need to know certain key concepts in order to be able to properly ‘converse’ in particular topics. For example, to be able to critique consequentialist theories of ethics, you need to know what they are:

Consequentialism = whether an act is morally right depends only on consequences (as opposed to the circumstances or the intrinsic nature of the act or anything that happens before the act)3

Whilst having a definition is a good start, it’s not enough on its own. You need to be able to apply the concept correctly. Try to use the concept with at least a couple of examples that resonate with you, and memorise those examples to help strengthen the concept in your mind.

For example, a consequentialist would say that it is morally right to push a person off a bridge to stop a train that was about to kill five people standing on the track, because in the world where that act is undertaken, only one person dies rather than five.

Practise as you learn

Active recall has been shown to improve results even with material you’ve only encountered once 4. You can use this to improve the quality of learning you do as you’re doing it, rather than afterwards.

For example, before you start reading a chapter from a textbook, you can try writing down everything you already know on that topic on a blank sheet of paper (or screen). You then read the chapter and repeat the process. On the third pass round, you can add notes from the textbook to what you already knew. When it comes to revising at a later date, you can repeat this ‘topic vomit’ process.

Another popular active recall technique is the Feynman Technique, which consists of trying to teach the subject to someone who is not familiar with it, then filling in the gaps in your knowledge based on where you struggled and where they had questions you couldn’t answer.

The Cornell Note Taking Method also incorporates an element of active recall. This system involves writing questions alongside your notes, then covering your notes and trying to answer the questions at the end of the note-taking session. It can also incorporate elements of self explanation and elaborative interrogation, which I’ll cover later. There’s a fuller description of the method here.

Spaced Repetition for arts subjects

Make a deck of things you need to remember

Even for arts subjects, there are some things you just have to know. Things like dates of historical events, the names of laws, citations, and famous arguments. The best way to get these into your head is to use spaced repetition and active recall.

There are various methods for doing this, but the easiest is to use software. Anki is a free spaced repetition tool you can use to remember things in various different formats. The programme gives you a series of flashcards each day for you to review. You try to remember the answer, and rate how hard it was each time. The system then serves it back to you at a later time, depending on how hard it was to remember. Ideally you do your reviews around the same time each day, to take proper advantage of the spacing effect.

You can use existing flashcard decks, or make your own (which is probably going to be key for this purpose). Depending on how you set up your cards, Anki will not only space things out properly for you, but will also force you to do active recall (usually ‘cued recall’, where you are prompted for an answer).

Over the course of your studies, you should build up a deck of all the things you need to know for your exams. You can also add in the essay chunks, essay plans, examples, and concept definitions you have made through your practice testing.

Start ‘revising’ as soon as you start learning

Even if you know that cramming the night before an exam isn’t the right way to study, it might not occur to you to start ‘revising’ as soon as you start studying the relevant material. The sooner you get dates, facts, concepts, essay chunks and so on into your spaced repetition system, the stronger they’ll be come the exam.

It’s also good to start practising questions as soon as possible, so that you develop the skill of answering, as well as remembering the content. Starting early means you have ample time to get feedback on your answers, so that you can hone them before focusing on the memorisation.

Ideally, you should build practice and memorisation sessions into your studying schedule from the moment you start your course. Not only does this mean your memories will be strong come the exam, but you’ll feel more comfortable answering questions.

Make the right kind of revision timetable

Once you get near enough to focus on revising as your primary activity, you should also make a revision timetable. However, you shouldn’t assume you need the same amount of time for each subject, or that you should study them in the order of your exams.

A better framework is Ali Abdaal’s Retrospective Revision Timetable, whereby you start with the most difficult topic, and move to the easier ones. Each time you complete a session, you assess how difficult it was and then schedule the next session accordingly. This way, you spend more time on the areas that can benefit most from additional study, and waste less time going over stuff you already know. It also has the benefit of tending to space out the subjects (spaced repetition), and interleaving them, which I’ll come onto next.

Interleaving for arts subjects

Study various topics in the same day

Interleaving is a technique whereby you study different topics side by side, rather than separating them out. So instead of studying all of ‘Ethics’ on one day, I might do an hour on Moral Realism before switching to The Role of the Supreme Court in ‘US Politics’, before revising Perception in ‘Philosophy of Mind’, before going over The Thatcher Period in ‘British Politics’. Studies show this is harder than concentrating on the same thing for a prolonged period, but that it improves results.

Researchers aren’t entirely sure why interleaving is effective, but suspect that it improves the independence of your knowledge. In other words, it’s harder to remember the key bits of Margaret Thatcher’s ideology if you’ve spent the last hour focusing on Rene Descartes’s philosophy of mind, rather than British Labour politics of the 1970s. But that extra difficulty might make you remember better, which will help you come crunch time.

Another way interleaving might work is by making you think of the similarities and differences in the topics you’re studying. For instance, reading about different theories of knowledge, then studying the role of the media in US Politics, might just give you an insight you hadn’t considered before. If nothing else, interleaving might alleviate the boredom of studying on topic all day, and burning out.

How to do interleaving

Another thing to consider with interleaving is how you use any spaced repetition software. Although it would seem neater to have separate decks of flashcard for separate topics, having one giant deck for all your work is probably better in the long run – even if it makes it harder to do your flashcards each day.

It’s important not to take interleaving too far. If you’re switching subjects every five minutes, you’re not going to be able to do meaningful work on any of them. An hour per topic is probably enough, or you could try focusing for one or two Pomodoros before switching.

Elaborative Interrogation and Self Explanation for arts subjects

Elaborative Interrogation is basically asking the question ‘why?’, when presented with new information. The idea is that thinking about and writing down the answers to why or how something is the case helps integrate the new information with your own prior knowledge. Similarly, self explanation seeks to connect new information to existing knowledge. You can directly try to answer the question of how something fits with what you already know, or try to explicitly state the underlying rule behind a phenomenon. For example:

All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal. – what is the reasoning process going on here?

Studies5 suggest that having more developed prior information for a given topic enhances the effectiveness of memory, and this is likely to be especially true of these techniques. You could try to build it into your revision schedule further on in your course.

A tool I like to use for these techniques is the bi-directional linking feature in Notion. Whenever I make a new note, I try to link it to a note I’ve already created.

Key Takeaways

  • Effective learning techniques like spaced repetition and active recall are most commonly associated with ‘fact-based’ learning. However, you can also use them for arts subjects 👩‍🎓
  • You can build in active recall by trying to answer questions without your notes – past exam papers, questions from textbooks and your own questions can all help❓
  • Breaking essays down into plans, chunks, key concepts, facts, and citations gives you a body of knowledge to learn and draw on in exams 👍
  • Making a deck of flashcards for spaced repetition can help you memorise these things 🂱
  • Starting ‘revision’ earlier will give time for your memories to strengthen ⏰
  • Studying multiple topics side-by-side tends to be better than doing them one at a time 📚
  • Integrating new information with what you already know can help improve your memory 🌐

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  1. Dunlosky J, Rawson KA, Marsh EJ, Nathan MJ, Willingham DT. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychol Sci Public Interest. 2013 Jan;14(1):4-58. doi: 10.1177/1529100612453266. PMID: 26173288.
  2. spaced repetition = spreading your study out over increasing intervals, rather than ‘cramming’

    active recall = testing your knowledge without looking at reference material

    elaborative interrogation = linking facts to explanations, usually via ‘why’ questions

    self-explanation = explaining how you got to an answer, often by explaining a rule

    interleaved practice = studying different topics side-by-side, rather than doing them sequentially

  3. Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, “Consequentialism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), accessed 15 February 2022
  4. Runquist, W. N. (1983). Some effects of remembering on forgetting.
    Memory & Cognition, 11, 641–650.
  5. Rawson, K. A., & Van Overschelde, J. P. (2008). How does knowledge promote memory? The distinctiveness theory of skilled memory. Journal of Memory and Language, 58, 646–668. Woloshyn, V. E., Pressley, M., & Schneider, W. (1992). Elaborative-interrogation and prior-knowledge effects on learning of facts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84 , 115–124.