college student studying May 5

Ten Study Strategies for Students and Their Teachers

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Here’s one of those articles that really shouldn’t be missed, particularly for those with interest in making teaching and learning more evidence-based. Current thinking about evidence-based teaching and learning tends to be more generic than specific. Use any active learning strategy intermittently or even regularly, and some would call the teaching evidence-based. That’s a superficial understanding of what it means to use practices that have been proven to promote learning. This article leads to a deeper level of understanding.

It’s a review of mostly cognitive psychology research that explores 10 learning techniques. The cognitive psychologist authors provide the background. “Psychologists have been developing and evaluating the efficacy of techniques for study and instruction for more than 100 years. Nevertheless, some effective techniques are underutilized—many teachers do not learn about them, and hence many students do not use them, despite evidence suggesting that the techniques could benefit student achievement and with little added effort. Also, some learning techniques that are popular and often used by students are relatively ineffective.” (p. 5)

Here are brief descriptions of the 10 learning strategies reviewed in the article.

  • Elaborative interrogation—generating an explanation for why some fact or concept is true
  • Self-explanation—explaining how new information is related to what is already known, or explaining steps taken during problem solving
  • Summarization—writing summaries of text content to expedite learning the material
  • Highlighting/underlining—marking potentially important text passages while reading
  • Keyword mnemonic—using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials
  • Imagery for text—attempting to form mental images of text material while reading or listening
  • Rereading—reading text material again after having read it initially
  • Practice testing—self-testing or taking practice tests on the material to be learned
  • Distributed practice—scheduling practice so that it spreads study activities over time
  • Interleaved practice—mixing different kinds of problems or materials within a single study session

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male college student with stack of books April 10

Study Strategies for Before, During, and After Class

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For 10 years, I’ve been teaching study skills to college students, both individually and in the classroom. The vantage from my office offers me a clear view of students devouring information during tutoring appointments and focusing intently on the strategies shared during study skills counseling sessions. The effort and time they pour into comprehending their course material is irrefutable. However, when I ask students what they know about the lecture’s content before arriving at class, the answer is almost always the same: “Nothing.”


Female college student studying April 6

Student-Led Advice on How to Study

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Most of the advice students hear on how to study comes from teachers. We offer it verbally in class before and after exams, in online communications, and on the syllabus. We talk about study strategies during office hours, especially when we meet with students who aren’t doing well in the course. The problem is students don’t always follow our wise advice.

I was once observing a physics class and, at the end of the session, the teacher reminded students that there was a test next week. Students went about packing up and preparing to leave, but then he said he had a handout with some advice on how to study for the exam. As he began distributing it, the packing up stopped. Book bags were put down; students began reading the handout.

When a copy of the handout came to me, I saw why students were so interested. The handout contained study recommendations from students who had taken the class previously. They were identified by name and beside their name was the grade they’d received in the class (not something to be done without student permission, which this professor did get).

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students studying in library March 21

A Study-for-an-Exam Assignment

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To remediate the exam preparation study skills that beginning (and other) students are missing, most of us respond by telling students about those skills that make for good exam performance. “Come to class.” “Take notes.” “Keep up with reading.” “See me during office hours if you need help.” And most of us have discovered that this approach isn’t particularly effective. It doesn’t always work well for two reasons. First, students tend not to listen all that closely to advice on how to study when it’s offered by people who sound and often look like their parents, and second, it’s not enough to know what they should be doing. Students need to work to develop and refine those skills.

Consider an approach that might succeed where how-to-study admonitions fail. It starts with a first-year seminar program. A first-year seminar provides a perfect structure for this assignment, but it could be used in a variety of courses. In this first-year seminar course students get the usual instruction on learning strategies, but more importantly they complete an assignment in the seminar called a Strategy Project Assignment. It’s a “multistep project requiring students to plan, monitor, and evaluate their newly learned strategies as they prepare for a test in a course in which they are currently enrolled.” (pp. 272-3)

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students in lecture hall January 18

Interleaving: An Evidence-Based Study Strategy

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Interleaving is not a well-known term among those who teach, and it’s not a moniker whose meaning can be surmised, but it’s a well-researched study strategy with positive effects on learning. Interleaving involves incorporating material from multiple class presentations, assigned readings, or problems in a single study session. It’s related to distributed practice—studying more often for shorter intervals (i.e., not cramming). But it is not the same thing. Typically, when students study and when teachers review, they go over what was most recently covered, or they deal with one kind of problem at a time.


students studying January 12

How Do You Study? A Questionnaire for Students

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Good instructional decision-making rests on accurate information. And in the case of tests and exams, we should be seeking student input more often than we do. No, we aren’t asking whether they want exams or what kind of exams they like. We need to know more about their learning experiences associated with the exams.

We’re making decisions about exams mostly based on suppositions—how we think they’re studying. We rely on feedback provided by their performance. Those with poor exam scores didn’t study, or they didn’t use good study strategies, or were so stressed by the exam they couldn’t think clearly. Those reasons aren’t all the same—they have different instructional implications. Exam performance feedback is after-the-fact input. Feedback collected at other times can provide details that enable us to better use exams and the events that surround them to promote learning and improve performance.

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students studying in the library December 7, 2016

A Memo to Students about Studying for Finals

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To: My Students
From: Your Professor
Re: Studying for Finals

The end of the semester is rarely pretty. You’re tired; I’m tired. You’ve got a zillion things to get done—ditto for me. You’ve also got grades hanging in the balance to be decided by how you perform on the final exam. The pressure is on, and it’s not just this course. It’s all of them.


study group September 21, 2016

What Happens When Students Study Together?

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I’m a strong believer in the benefits of students studying together, even though students don’t always understand or even experience the benefits. Oftentimes the potential gains of group study sessions are compromised by student behaviors. Students will saunter into study sessions, mostly not on time, sit around, check their phones, and socialize. When they finally start reviewing their notes, the text, or the homework problems, it’s all pretty superficial. There are very few questions, explanations, or confessions of confusion. The most intense conversation takes place over what they’ve heard from others about the exam and their hopes that it will be easy.


yellow highlighted text May 6, 2015

Lost in a Sea of Yellow: Teaching Students a Better Way to Highlight

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A lot of students are in love with their highlighters, especially those bright, fluorescent-colored ones. They use them to highlight course materials, sometimes underlining whole pages of text. When I first saw a text so fluorescent that it all but glowed, I wondered why in the world somebody would spend that much time underlining. Later I understood it was really a cry for help. “I can’t tell what’s important, so I’ll just highlight the entire section so I don’t miss something.” Highlighting can be a useful way of interacting with text, but it needs to be done in a thoughtful way.