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Ranking Learning Techniques: Low Efficiency

Let’s continue our rediscovery of efficiency of learning methods.

Low Efficiency Study Methods

Summarization, highlighting/underlining/marking, mnemonics, imagery use for text learning, and rereading all received low efficiency grade in the meta-study.  The reason for their low utility grade differs; the studies into the methods show mixed results, it is not generalized, has narrow applications, and/or its efficiency is limited.

Highlighting, underlining, and marking materials (low)

Highlighting is one of the most popular methods for students in college.  Although an extremely popular method of learning, highlighting ranked rather low on this study’s utility scale.  This technique is popular because it is very easy to implement and require very little training.  Most studies analyzed in the meta-analysis showed no noticeable improvement in test scores by highlighting over simply reading the information. Although highlighting, underlining, and marking materials is often paired with other methodologies of learning, the study evaluated highlighting on its own merit.  Thus the reason that highlighting does score a higher utility score on this meta-analysis is because its effectiveness and applicability is limited to certain information and tasks.

Tips for highlighting: Although highlighting alone has shown to be no more effective than simply reading the material, the combination of highlighting with other methods in the study will prove to be effective in retaining information for testing.  For instance, employing the use of highlighting with recall/self-testing can prove to be effective in internalizing the material.

Summarization (low)

Summarization is pretty self-explanatory; it is the process of summarizing a section of chapter you are trying to learn.  In theory this method should work because it involves extracting the gist and higher-level meaning of learned text, which is important to understanding concepts.

Results from multiple studies seem to indicate that summarization helps with performance on generative measures (e.g. free recall or essays) but do not help when it comes to multiple-choice questions or other questions that do not require the student to produce information.  Thus, it is better suited for tests that involved in the production of information rather than tests that rely on recognition of concepts.

Although some studies have shown promise in summarization, others failed to find benefit. Consider the study in 1986 by Wong, Wong, Perry, & Sawatsky.  The study found that those who were tasked to summarize textbook passages about earthquakes performed no better (overall) than the control group when tested a week after.  Also, the study concluded that students benefited from the technique when the questions required the application or analysis of knowledge, but summarization led to decreased performance when the questions required evaluation or analysis of knowledge.

Summarizing was found to be effective for those already adept at summarizing.  The quality of the summary matters.  Summaries that included more information and were linked to prior knowledge were shown to do better.

Thus, summarization is ranked low in this meta-analysis because the effectiveness of summarizing was not general; the nature of the material and the test matters quite a bit when it comes to how effective summarization is.  The quality of the summary had a huge effect on the effectiveness of the summarization, from no effect to highly effective.  Therefore, summarizing was found to be more beneficial than rereading, highlighting, and underlining.

Tips for summarization: If you are summarizing, it is important to get the core concepts and the overall concepts correct as it is the basis of your knowledge.  Additionally, summarize using shorthand notations that you develop as it will allow you to summarize more of the material.  Also, combine summarization with practice testing will allow you to really get down the material, without having a false sense of competence.


Rereading is another popular technique used by students. However being quite time consuming, it also turns out (and there is a scientific basis for it) it’s not that efficient.

Theoretically, rereading improves learning because it increases the total amount of information encoded, regardless of the kind or level of information contained within the text.  However, when rereading was compared to other methods of learning, it did not fare well.  Although rereading requires no training, the amount of time spent reading does not give a favorable return on investment.  The meta-study showed that there is in fact a diminishing return on investment after the first rereading as students gain very little after the first rereading.

Tips for rereading: If you are going to reread, doing so by leaving a little bit of time (but not too much) between the initial reading and the rereading. In a study by Verkoeijen, Rikers, and Ozsoy in 2008, learners did best when they let 4 days pass between the initial rereading and the rereading.  In between those 4 days, you can move on with the next topic, and reread after 4 days.  So with this method, you are reading new material as well as rereading old material every day.

Keyword Mnemonics

This ranked surprisingly low in the meta-study but I imagine the reason it is low is because it does require some training and can only be applied to specific types of tests/tasks that require memorization.  For instance, it may not help as much when you are attempting to use this method to solving a linear algebra problem.  The idea of a mnemonic device is to develop mental images and associations with a word or term.  The study’s authors acknowledge that there is a tremendous amount of evidence that shows mental imagery is a powerful form of learning, positing that mental imagery is great for things such as

  • learning new foreign vocabulary,
  • medical terminology,
  • definition of words,
  • minerals and their attributes,
  • scientific definitions.

However, the authors found that the method was lacking when it came less concrete ideas/words. The limited applicability of the method is the main reason for its low utility.

Tips for mnemonics: Don’t let the low utility grade fool you, keyword mnemonics is a very valuable learning tool for memorizing many ideas/words.  In order to create more durable knowledge, the mental imagery needs to be more memorable, and needs to be revisited a few times in spaced intervals.  It may also be a good idea to use a memory palace to store your imagery.  For more information about using memory palaces, check out Josh Foer’s fascinating book Moonwalking With Einstein.  

Imagery Use for Text Learning

This method is different from keyword mnemonics as this method forms a mental image of a whole sentence/concept, instead of a single keyword. However, the research suggests that the method is rather limited in nature.  Like the keyword mnemonics method above, this method does require some training to do effectively. Studies of imagery use has only been limited to text that are rather easy to imagine, and not abstract concepts, such as topics that are more mathematical and scientific in nature. But even studies with image-friendly reading shows that the results are a mixed bag. Some studies show students benefited, while others did not.

Though there is evidence of benefit when imagery is used for just one sentence, a study of this method using long text found that imagery use in text learning had no noticeable benefit on high school students.

Overall imagery use for text learning receives a low utility score because of its variability in result, and the fact that it only works for short image-friendly text.  Additionally, a large amount of training is required to use the method.

Imagery of text material tips: To make the most of imagery, make sure that the images are extremely memorable.  It can help to draw out the concept on paper and then visually taking a picture with your head.

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