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Effective learning means working smarter not harder. Professor Czesław Nosal, psychologists from the Wrocław Faculty of Psychology at SWPS University explains how to study to get the best results and pass your exams whether in high-school, university or a driving school.

Information Coding

Your brain includes two information coding systems that are linked with each other. They are called the visual-spatial system and the verbal-abstract system. The visual-spatial system is a primary analog, while the verbal-abstract system is secondary and is based on complex mental representations, such as conceptual networks and relations between them. Therefore, active learning requires frequent changes in coding of information. The best way to remember information is to develop and transform your own semantic maps, i.e. maps of your own meanings. It can be done by drawing, making graphs, tables or lists of key words. This method requires constant shuffling of the source materials. It is important because people learn in different ways, they have different interests and have different knowledge. Understanding of the material is as important as acquiring information. Mechanical memorizing is prone to distortion, but when you understand the subject, you are able to recreate the rule, the formula or the process, because you understand how it works.

Regardless of the individual learning style, the key to active learning is asking questions and shuffling information.

Professor Czesław Nosal

Learning Styles

Your cognitive abilities will determine how you organize your work, avoid distractions and how you formulate your learning strategy. Some people learn best by faithful and systematic repetition. This process is based on attention and the short-term memory. Another learning technique relies on processing of a wide range of information and people who learn in this way have difficulty with detailed and short texts.

The first group of learners displays an analytical and fragmentary approach while the second group learns by understanding and research of many elaborate sources. Regardless of the individual learning style, the key to active learning is asking questions and continuous shuffling of information. If you have a photographic memory, but you do not understand the acquired information then every error will disorganize you.

Energy and Motivation

When you are preparing for an exam or a test, it is good to define your goals as well as the conditions and methods of learning. This will help you to develop a learning plan, select your books and other sources as well as assign the appropriate amount of time for studying. Concentration is as important as the learning plan. Therefore, it is essential to create a learning environment that eliminates most of distractions. Consolidation of the acquired information in your long term memory takes place when you are asleep, so make sure to get enough rest.

Apart from the information shuffle, the learning process also requires the right level of motivation and alertness. Alertness is supported by physiological stimulation, good mental state, sufficient rest and lack of stress. Alertness is easily diminished by too much comfort, e.g. sitting in a lounging position, because it makes you sleepy or even causes you to fall asleep. When your brain is giving you signals that it is bored, you must peek its interest by shuffling the information, presenting a different semantic map or by asking different questions. However, developing motivation is much harder, because it relates to the purpose of learning. Therefore, it is very important to ask yourself how the knowledge that you are gaining now will benefit you in the future.


The so called “forgetting curve” of Hermann Ebbinhause, a German psychologist who studied memory, indicates that people forget the memorized information very quickly (after a few or several minutes). To overcome these limitations, you can use a few simple tactics, such as multiple repetition, grouping sources into thematic sets, highlighting structures, verifying your understanding of the studied material, asking questions, solving problems, and, most of all, remembering to take breaks, rest, and minimize distractions.

Ancient scholars had already discovered that repetition is the mother of all learning. Nearly the whole philosophy of learning can be summarized in four simple rules: repeat what you have just learned, structure the material, change the types of coding and verify your understanding of what you have learned.


About the author

Professor Czesław Nosal - psychologist, Head of the Department of Cognitive Psychology and Psychology of Individual Differences, at SWPS University in Wrocław. His research interests include the theory and application of cognitive psychology and psychology of individual differences in education, management, the mass media and in creative processes. His research topics include intelligence, cognitive abilities, learning styles, impact of media on cognition, management styles, creative thinking and problem solving. He has been the research mentor at the Polish branch of Mensa International, since its inception.