Teaching Tip: Better Student Study Skills

An article about the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) in the November 17 Inside Higher Education grabbed my attention with a table showing the use of a variety of learning strategies among freshman and senior respondents.  I think the results provide some insight into student study patterns and some useful guidance for instructors.

Not surprisingly, the most commonly endorsed strategy was “taking careful notes in class” which was endorsed by 88% of freshmen and 86% of seniors.  Unfortunately, many students were not doing much with those notes after taking them (and many of us may wonder how careful those notes really are).  Only about two-thirds of each group said they reviewed their notes after class, and only about three-quarters of either group went back and organized their notes to make them more meaningful.

When it came to completing reading assignments, around 80% of both groups reported that they “identified key information” in their reading.   However only two-thirds reported that they stayed focused while reading course and avoided distractions during studying. Sixty percent or fewer of the students who responded took notes while reading.   How effectively can they be identifying key information if they are distracted, unfocused and not taking notes?

More active strategies were used by even fewer students.  Only about half of those responding said they created their own examples to help them study, or outlined major topics or ideas from their study materials.

Finally, while three-quarters of the students surveyed said that they “set goals before starting academic tasks”, fewer sought help when they did not understand, and only about half of freshmen and fewer than half of seniors ever discussed effective study strategies with anyone.  The only other strategy that was chosen by 80% or more of both groups was “connected to learning things you already knew”.  This is an excellent strategy, but one wonders at what level this is happening given some of the other responses.

The clear implication of these findings is that our students really don’t know what it means to study effectively and efficiently.  For decades, research in cognitive psychology and education has demonstrated the need for learners to actively engage with material if they are going to truly learn and remember it.  If students are not spontaneously adopting active study strategies, we can help them by building these strategies into our course requirements.  Most of us do try to help students link new knowledge to prior knowledge, but there are more concrete things we can also do.  For example, requiring some kind of written response to readings such as notes, response logs or responses to questions based on course readings helps students learn to identify what is important and to concentrate while reading. Asking them to create study guides that involve outlining, organizing and/or summarizing their class notes and readings will promote the kind of higher level thinking that we are trying to foster. When students create case examples or problems, write potential exam questions, or otherwise actively use course material, they are more likely to develop habits of deep studying that lead to deeper learning.

Fine for freshmen, perhaps, but shouldn’t upper level or graduate students be able to do this on their own?  At least according to these NSSE results, the differences in responses between freshmen and seniors was minimal, which suggests that students are not internalizing effective study strategies as they progress through undergraduate education.  It also suggests that beginning graduate students are unlikely to have highly developed study skills.  Some schools have attempted to address the issue by requiring study skills, orientation and/or critical thinking courses or workshops, but these tend to be ineffective unless the skills are somehow embedded into a larger topic or them.  Robert Leamson quotes the response of a failing student when asked why he was not using the success strategies that he had learned in a freshman orientation course.  “You mean we were supposed to actually do all the stuff in that book?”  (Leamson, 1999, p. 41)    I think that by working these skills into many of our course requirements we are likely to reach a much broader audience as well as ensure that they “actually do” what we know works.

What strategies do you use to help students develop better learning habits?

To read the entire article Major Engagement (which addresses a number of other interesting findings and issues from the NSSE) go to


Leamson, R. (1999) Thinking about teaching and learning.  Sterling, VA:Stylus.