Teaching Tip: Studying that works

Those beginning of the semester flutters have subsided for most of us; add-drop is over, rosters are correct (for now anyway), expectations clarified and routines established. This part of the semester always seems to me like the calm before the storm. Students also settle into their routines, but are they good ones for learning? For example, most students will tell you that they are studying, but how does their definition of “study” compare to yours? You won’t be surprised to find out that for many students “study” equals skim over the text, notes or handouts occasionally. Some go so far as to apply highlighters to the page quite liberally. And that’s about it. So, this might be an opportunity to help them get a better understanding of good study routines before the crunch hits.

Just like active learning helps students learn more effectively in class, active studying helps them learn more effectively on their own. Here are some suggestions you can share with your students. For less experienced students, you might want to help them create a sample study schedule using the specific requirements of your course. Or you could ask students to share their study habits and tips with each other and generate a short class discussion on effective studying.

Here are the techniques most supported by research:

  • Study in different places and at different times. We used to think that the most effective way to study was at a desk in a quiet area with few distractions. Generations of dusty desks filled with unopened office supplies support what research now tells us – studying the same material in different environments is better than studying in the same room. Why? Apparently, studying under varied environmental conditions encourages the brain to make multiple associations between the content and external cues, which strengthens the memory. So go ahead and study at Starbucks, but study somewhere else too.
  • Don’t study just one thing at a time. For example, students who switch between quizzing themselves on vocabulary words, outlining or summarizing material in their own words and then checking these against the text or notes and/or solving different types of problems all during the same study session learn more effectively. This type of studying promotes not just deeper learning but also cognitive flexibility. Students must figure out how to choose and switch between different strategies, a skill that will help them on the actual test (not to mention in “real life” situations).
  • Use spaced practice not massed practice. It’s true, it’s true, it’s true! Students who study for less time per session over a longer time period remember more than those who cram. For writing assignments, writing every day is more effective than writing all at once.  This is a hard one to get students to adopt, since it seems less efficient to them than massed practice for hours the night before the test or assignment due date. Maybe you can get a few of them to try it once and see what they think. You can point out that spaced practice also tends to lead to less anxiety, and that students will be more prepared for finals since they will remember material longer. Spaced practice also gives students time to discover what they still don’t understand and get some clarification from you, which is difficult to do at 3 a.m. the night before the exam.
  • Test before the test. Developing and answering questions that might be on the exam, writing paraphrases of concepts in their own words and checking these against the reading or to another student’s interpretation to ensure that the paraphrase captures the intended meaning correctly. Simply reading and re-reading is probably the least efficient method they could use. So just from a time management perspective, using active methods wins out.
  • Form an effective study group – research suggests that good study groups are highly effective (and can be fun). Group members can adopt all of the suggestions above: quiz each other, trade class notes, practice explaining concepts in their own words to each other and/or talk through problems. Groups don’t have to be large – even a partnership is better than studying alone. Good study groups recognize the need to set expectations about focus and concentration e.g. we’ll study for one hour and then socialize. Otherwise all that’s learned is the latest gossip.

Here’s to productive studying!

Material for this tip was drawn from two sources:

Carey, B. (2010). Forget what you know about good study habits. New York    Times, September 6. Retrieved online from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/07/health/views/07mind.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&ref=science

Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger, III, H. L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practice retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17, 471-479.


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