“Break learning into shorter sessions with manageable gaps between each session.”

How do you learn best? What medium should you use to retain the most information? Are we getting better at learning? Is there any one “best practice” when it comes to, well, practice?

Today is a prime era for learning. Students and teachers have free access to more valid data sources at their fingertips than ever. Stanford University, an innovator in online learning, made courses available for free nearly as quickly as the Internet became a household utility. Likewise, a decade ago, Salman Khan started recording and posting videos of himself teaching math techniques on YouTube for his children and their cousins. Word quickly got out; thousands started watching the videos; and Khan Academy was born. Hundreds of videos later, it’s one of the most recognizable online learning tools available. Now, Stanford and Khan are among hundreds of similar offerings.

In my 20+ years as an educator and instructor, I’ve seen students excel at reading academic texts and attaining near perfect retention. Others read the same passages a handful of times and forget what’s on the page within minutes, yet watch a video on the subject and instantly commit to memory the dialogue, actions or instruction. So, what then is “best”?

Among the majority of students, learning spread over time is identified as the most effective strategy for increasing knowledge and mastery of a subject. Thus, the ideal is “distributed practice,” where students break learning into shorter sessions with manageable gaps between each session. This will make sense for anyone who has ever picked up a musical instrument or started a sport for the first time. The same applies to math, history, and SAT prep.

“…supported through research published by a Duke professor of psychology and neuroscience.”

Don’t simply take my word for it. This is supported through research published a few years ago by a Duke professor of psychology and neuroscience, along with four other psychology professors from leading universities. And, even those professors weren’t truly breaking new ground. Their conclusions validated what experts on human learning have observed and purported since early in the last century.

But, what’s best for you? Ultimately you need to make that assessment. Though, I highly recommend starting with a distributed learning approach. And, while I don’t dislike Khan Academy or other of the more structured online educational offerings, they do have shortcomings. Just like solely listening to a lecture in class probably won’t lead to expert understanding, neither will using a video series as a sole learning tool.

Interactivity is a critical component of learning that cannot be overlooked. Dialogue with instructors and other students help develop more than just a base understanding of the topics. It also helps to generate debate and generate ideas and assessments of the facts and findings that go hand-in-hand with learning. As a well-balanced meal includes vegetables, protein, starches and dairy, a successful learning environment similarly will include balance. And, when spaced properly over time, your study routine can lead to great academic success.