Studying vs learning: what’s the difference?

Whether you’re a student looking for ways to study better and improve your grades or you’re a parent considering alternative study methods for your child to see grade improvements, it’s important to consider the distinct difference between studying and learning.

The trick to understanding the material you’re covering more thoroughly is to actually learn it and not just study it. This is especially important when trying to become fluent in a foreign language.

But what does this mean? Most importantly, students shouldn’t just spend time reading about a specific subject but should focus time on actually engaging with the material. When it comes to understanding math – take geometry for example, students should do more than just memorize formulas; rather they should gain insight as to why and how each formula works. (We have a blog post that unpacks a new way to learn math here!)

Anyone can memorize verb conjugations or the periodic table pretty easily — this is called declarative memory. But the important step to really understanding the material is activating the ‘procedural memory’ function of your brain — this happens through application. This is when learning comes in and you move beyond studying.

Studies have shown the difference in the two memory types to have huge effects on learning: many students who study a subject are only using declarative memory — they spend time memorizing and recalling information and facts without actually activating it in any specific way. The ability to comprehend subject material or form a response to a question in another language is determined by procedural memory, the part of your memory that allows you to do something without thinking about it. This is how we successfully perform tasks like ride a bike or knit a scarf (if you’ve learned how to knit, that is!). Procedural memory guides us as we perform and it functions below the level of consciousness.

This means, to really learn how to activate a specific language or subject material, students have to learn how to activate the procedural part of their brain. When it comes time to work with a tutor, students can take advantage of the one-on-one learning atmosphere to ask the questions that they need answered or participate in the learning activities (Q&As, quizzes, situational conversations) in order to move beyond simply studying a subject to really learning it.

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