The Best Study Strategies for Students

A photograph of a student, waist down, with a tennis racket laid across their lap, typing on a laptop computer in their lap.

Students may do well on an exam by cramming, but after the exam they don’t remember what they studied. Rereading text, highlighting, underlining, massed practice (rapid repetition) of a skill or new knowledge, and sustained poring over notes and texts are study strategies most used by students and are what students think work best, but they are the least productive (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014). Learning is about acquiring knowledge, having the information available for use at a later date, and being able to recall and apply it. Successful learning requires effective learning and assessment practices. The following evidence-based practices work best for both teaching and learning.

Spaced Repetition or Distributed Practice

The best way for students to strengthen the memory of what they learn is to review material on a regular basis over an extended period. Psychologists call this the “distributed practice effect” (Anderson & Pavlik, 2008). Acquired knowledge and skills become more permanent in long term memory with practice, and thus can be available to a student when the student needs it, even if the student has not needed the knowledge and/or skills for long periods of time. Spaced out practice “produces longer lasting learning and enables more versatile application of it in later settings” (Doyle & Zakrajsek, 2013, p. 4). Research shows that one practice test in a class “can produce a large improvement in final exam scores, and gains in learning continue to increase as the number of tests increases” (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014, p. 41).

Questions, Self-Quizzing, & Reflection

Questions can improve learning and performance significantly (Thalheimer, 2014). Questions for learning can be asked during class or online, before or after instruction or assignments, and by the instructor or the student. Prior questions focus students’ attention on what will be covered during instruction and engages students. Post questions focus students’ attention on what has been learned and prompts them to retrieve knowledge from memory which strengthens the memory. Self-quizzing helps students recalibrate understanding of what they do and do not know. Research by Brownet al. found that “students who don’t quiz themselves (and most do not) tend to overestimate how well they have mastered class material” (2014, p. 17). Reflection can work as a form of self-quizzing because it requires memory retrieval and thus is a form of retrieval practice. Reflection is about retrieving knowledge from memory, connecting to new experiences, and figuring out what to do differently the next time (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014).

Formative Assessment

Students should take full advantage of formative tests. Cognitive science research shows that formative tests given after reading a text or hearing a lecture produces better learning and remembering than rereading the text or reviewing lecture notes (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014). Students recalling what they have learned causes their brains to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens the memory’s connections to previous knowledge and makes it easier for recall in the future. Gains in learning increase as the number of formative tests increases. These benefits accrue whether instruction is delivered online or in the classroom. Further, giving feedback via formative assessment strengthens retention more than testing alone does (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014).

Multisensory Learning

Students should take advantage of videos on the web because they present a multisensory approach to learning in which visual and auditory material is presented simultaneously, which is better for learning than a uni-sensory approach. Using pictures and images are powerful ways to retain learning. This process of creating multiple paths to information is called “elaboration.” Shams & Seitz (2008) found that multisensory learning is essential to increasing the probability that the human brain will retain information from a particular event. Their research found that people generally remember little of what they either read or hear (as little as 10-20%), but they retain 50% of what they both see and hear.

Flash Cards

Flash cards have been popular with students for many years. The best flash card method is the Leitner system, where cards that the student knows are moved up to the next box, and any incorrectly answered cards are returned to the first box. This method works because it requires spaced retrieval practice when the same card is reviewed again in a different box, which makes learning the material much more efficient and effective.

Interleaved Practice

Interleaving means combining different things so that parts of one thing are put between parts of another thing. An example would be putting a layer of paper towels between pages of a book that got wet in order to dry out the wet pages. In teaching and learning, an example would be mixing up practice problems in such a way that a set of problems would not all be solved with the same strategy. For example, a set of problems for solving areas of shapes would mix in (interleave) some problems for interpreting chart data. The reasoning behind interleaved practice is that students need to learn how to choose the right strategy and also how to use the strategy. In blocked practice, all the problems are related to the same concept and require the same strategy, which means that the students know the strategy before they read the problem. Studies suggest that at least a third of practice problems should be interleaved (Rohrer, Dedrick, & Agarwal, 2017).

References

Anderson, J. R., & Pavlik, P. I. (2008). Using a model to compute the optimal schedule of practice. Journal   of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 14(2), 101-117.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Doyle, T., & Zakrajsek, T. (2013). The new science of learning: How to learn in harmony with your brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Rohrer, Dedrick, & Agarwal (2017). Interleaved Mathematics Practice: Giving Students a Chance to Learn What They Need to Know. Retrieved from http://pdf.retrievalpractice.org/InterleavingGuide.pdf

Schacter, D. L. (2001). The seven sins of memory: How the mind forgets and remembers. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Shams, L., & Seitz, A. (2008). Benefits of multisensory learning. Trends in Cognitive Science, 12(11), 411-417.

Thalheimer, W. (2014). The Learning Benefits of Questions. Somerville, MA: Work-Learning Research.