May 14th, 2014

Is Rereading the Material a Good Study Strategy?


Lots of good writing on the science of learning is coming out now and it’s needed. For too long we have known too little about learning—I won’t digress into the reasons why. We need to take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about this science.

Here’s a case in point. Most students (about 80% according to survey data) “study” textbooks and other assigned reading materials by rereading them. Yes, I know. It’s a huge struggle to get some students to do any reading. We have addressed that problem here previously and you’ll find another good way to get students reading in the June/July issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter. But for this post, let’s consider those students who’ve done the reading and are now “studying” it to prepare for an exam. Most students do that by simply rereading the material.

“Rereading has three strikes against it. It is time consuming. It doesn’t result in durable memory. And it often involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the material.” (p. 10) I was a bit taken back when I first read that. But part of the argument made sense immediately. I remembered all those earnest students who’d done poorly on an exam and were upset because they’d spent so much time studying. They’d open their texts and the extensive (often glowing) highlighting bore witness to the fact they had read and reread the material. But their exam scores told another story: they did not understand what they’d read.

I also recalled that when I asked students how they planned to study, most announced that they’d “go over” their notes.” I glibly suggested that “getting into” notes might be a more productive approach. Students want studying to be easy. As one writer noted, they think they’re doing the reading if their eyes touch the words in their books or notes, repeatedly touching eyes and words, means they’re really studying hard.

Cognitive scientists say that rereading isn’t a particularly good study strategy if it doesn’t involve retrieval, what they call the testing effect. “We’ve long known that the act of retrieving knowledge from memory has the effect of making that knowledge easier to call up again in the future.” (p. 28) Scores of studies document that if students read material and then take a test on it, they recall way more on the second test than students who prepare by simply rereading the material.

So, instead of rereading the material, students need to be testing themselves on it. Can you imagine the enthusiasm that would greet that recommendation? I wish those writing about the testing effect would come up with a different name. For students, tests are high-stakes, high-stress assessments, and the last thing they want is more of them. But the kind of retrieval that enhances long-term memory and understanding involves asking questions and coming up with answers. Think flashcards with a question that must be answered before checking the back of the card. Yes, answers to flashcards can be memorized and yet still not understood. But testing for understanding can come with more questions: And why is this answer important? What does it relate to? How does this answer connect with what I already know? Can I elaborate this answer? Can I illustrate it with an example?

You can see why a touch-and-go reread is the preferred option for students. Interrogating the text to test for understanding is hard work. It takes effort and persistence. “We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier, but the research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, learning sticks better. The greater the effort to retrieve learning, provided that you succeed, the more that learning is strengthened by retrieval.” (p. 43)

I expect disavowing students of the rereading strategy will not be easy. But do most students study effectively? If they don’t, we need to start asking questions and suggesting alternatives.

Reference: Here’s another new, well written book on the science of learning—great for summer reading. It makes the case against rereading in chapters one and two.

Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., and McDaniel, M. A. Making it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.

© Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.

  • David Morgan

    The "testing effect" has another name. It's called programmed instruction, and it's been around since the late 1950s. One of the first lessons that any faculty member needs to learn about the science of human learning is that it was not founded recently by neuroscientists or cognitive scientists. We know a great deal about fluent, proficient academic learning, and the instructional practices that produce it. Moreover, we've been in possession of these data for nearly half a century. But psychology and the behavioral sciences love to "reinvent" the wheel, feeling that they are discovering something new and innovative. Shame on those who continue to promulgate this myth.

    • Fred Fuller

      Fred Fuller, MFT

      I am a psychotherapist and must say that I agree with David about my colleagues re-inventing the wheel. Mostly, I see re-labeling discoveries that are 50 or more years old in effort to look original. I suspect it has to do with publishing revenue. I dislike sounding so cynical, but the shoe seems to fit. Thanks for the astute obvservation, David.

  • Bill Goffe

    Maybe one can do an in-class demonstration with the class that demonstrates that rereading is not very effective? I have in mind
    "Improving Classroom Performance by Challenging Student Misconceptions About Learning"… by Steve Chew (a cognitive scientist and former U.S. Professor of the Year (4 are given annually for teaching)). I think I'll modify it a bit for the content of my course, however.

  • Suzette Scheuermann

    Very interesting article. My only comment is that re-reading does have its place and maybe should not be discounted for those students that are pursuing degrees that lead to licensure. In many cases, licensure exams are developed from current, evidence based literature, which when applied in a job related perspective is used to identify competence by licensing examinations.

    Using faculty notes, power points etc. or even notes created on the subject will not provide the preciseness needed to increase or maintain their knowledge and comprehension as that acquired directly from the textbook, evidence based literature, resource or guideline/standard. Irregardless of the learning style, I think learning to pursue an evidence based approach that includes reading the literature is the basis for all professionals that are pursuing a degree that leads to licensure.
    Suzette Scheuermann PHD RN

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  • A. Frankfater, Ph.D.

    The real issue is how a student reads and not how frequently he or she re-reads the same material. Active readers often read difficult material in short chunks. They may stop frequently to think about what they have read, to test their understanding of the content by using their own words to describe it, and to examine how the information fits within an existing conceptual framework created by their prior knowledge and experiences. If the content is complicated, a student may need to re-read that chunk several times before gaining some level of understanding. Simply reading, taking copious notes and/or underlining passages is ineffective in the absence an intellectual investment in the content.

    We record lectures at out institution and students have the ability to replaying them. We can track how often a student accesses a recorded lecture. Students who replay the same lectures over and over again tend to do poorly on a subsequent exam, because replaying the lecture without engaging the material has little value.

    The students that do the poorest

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  • JNovack

    Re-reading a textbook can be useful if the student is not just "cruising" through the material. I suggest re-reading material with specific questions: How does this apply to X? Compare this piece of information with X. Why is this important and how would it be applied? If a student has a study guide that directs the focus on these questions – re-reading is not just a passive activity – but can involve reading for initial reference material, synthesis and then the "aha" moment when the student realizes the significance of the re-read portion. I like to design worksheets and study guides that allow/force the student to go back over the material to gain a greater understanding – rather than just try to re-memorize it.

  • Farah Najam

    I suggest Instead of reading the article straight through from beginning to end, pause periodically to think back on what you've just read. In particular, you should pause and reflect when you've just read an important passage that you know you'll want to retain. By reflecting, you're essentially taking in the information twice, and that helps to commit it to memory. When reading an article, taking notes might seem like a strange thing to do. However, writing down information utilizes a different area of your brain than reading does, which means that you'll be reinforcing the concepts a second time. This aids tremendously with retention and memory.

  • Nicola Winstanley

    Encourage your students to use Quizlet–it's pretty fun. Creating the questions, after all, is just as useful as learning them. They can then test each other.

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