Research on how people learn demonstrates that some study methods are more effective than others. For example, one educational study analyzed over 700 research articles on commonly used learning strategies (Dunlosky et al.). The researchers identified two study strategies that work consistently with different age groups, levels of learning and types of courses:
Self-testing: Students practice taking tests and quizzes on their own to improve learning and remember information from reading assignments and other course activities.
Distributed practice: Students study in multiple short sessions spread out over time with space between each session (instead of cramming or studying for a long period of time in one sitting).
The same research study also identified three additional strategies that seem to be effective for some types of learning:
Elaborative interrogation: looking for explanations and asking “why” questions;
Self-explanation: explaining new learning and connecting it to prior learning;
Interleaved practice: alternating between different types of information or problems in the same study session.
Other research shows that frequent practice with test taking and retrieving information from memory can improve test taking (Roediger and Karpicke). Another study suggests that pretesting—taking a test before studying—can enhance learning (Little and Bork). These study methods are examples of effective learning strategies that are based on research. College students can apply and adapt them to many different courses.
Students sometimes use study methods that aren’t based on research about effective learning, or they might use strategies that don’t work well for a particular course or academic task. Students may start using less effective study strategies after seeing others use them, receiving suggestions from friends or family members, or even learning about them in a class.
Using study methods that aren’t based on research about effective learning.
Some less effective study methods include a) underlining and highlighting while reading without taking notes, b) simply rereading previously studied material, and c) creating mental images as a way to enhance memory (Dunlosky et al.). Less effective study techniques take time to do, but they aren’t as consistently useful in helping students learn and remember the content of what they read in comparison to strategies that are based on research about how people learn.
Selecting methods that are difficult to do effectively or that take too much time.
Summarizing is an example of a strategy that can work in some situations but not in others. When used effectively, summarizing might improve reading comprehension and help students with academic tasks that require them to write about research or reading. However, summarizing is a time-consuming study strategy for students to do on their own while studying for exams. Most students also need intensive instruction to learn how to summarize before they can do it effectively as a study strategy (Dunlosky; Mulcahy-Ernt and Caverly).
Basing learning strategies on myths or unproven theories about learning.
One common belief about learning that isn’t supported by evidence is the idea that students have specific learning styles—in other words, “the concept that individuals differ in regard to what mode of instruction or study is most effective for them” (Pashler, et al.). Students don’t need to use strategies based on whether they are visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners. They also don’t need to base their study methods on whether they are left-brained or right-brained learners.
By understanding the difference between strategies that are based on evidence (that they work) versus unproven techniques (that might not work or that don’t work for some situations), you can learn how to identify study methods that will help you increase your academic success while also avoiding time-consuming study activities that are less effective.
Some students use the word studying to refer to any kind of reading that they do for a course. However, studying often means doing deliberate and intensive reading to learn course content, memorize course material, and then recall (remember) concepts for an exam. Studying is typically a much slower type of reading than reading for pleasure or even reading to prepare for a class discussion or writing assignment. Experienced college readers know how to adjust their reading rate (or speed) based on the difficulty level and purpose of the texts that they read while preparing for exams.
Typically, it’s more effective to complete reading assignments on time and spread study sessions throughout a semester instead of attempting to study for an exam in a single session (Dunlosky; Kornell et al.).
You can strengthen the processes that you use to prepare for exams while reading with a few basic strategies:
- Start with reading comprehension strategies. You must first understand course material before memorizing concepts and faculty information to prepare for a test.
- Identify what to memorize in a reading assignment. Experienced readers know how to distinguish between important and less important (or irrelevant) information in a written text. Instead of trying to memorize everything that you read or learn in class, select key information to focus on and memorize. Developing the ability to identify what to study and memorize is one of the most challenging parts of preparing for college tests. What is and is not important depends heavily on the academic discipline or field of study for a course, how an instructor structures a course, and the instructor’s expectations.
- Organize information from reading in a meaningful way before memorizing it. Organizing information makes it easier to study and remember. Examples of common methods for organizing information include creating test review sheets, labeling notes by writing key words in the margins of a notebook, and using tables or other types of visual organizers to arrange information into categories. As you work on reading assignments, ask yourself: What’s the best way to organize this specific information for this course so that I can understand and remember it?
- Practice recalling what you have read. Use notes and test-review sheets to give yourself practice quizzes on completed reading assignments. You can also practice self-quizzing while you read by asking questions and making predictions about what might be on an exam. Most of the research-based study strategies mentioned in this article can help students practice recalling concepts and factual information to prepare for an exam.
The strategies in this article focus on techniques that can be adapted to different types of courses that require reading for memorization and test taking. Studying for exams also requires students to prepare for the types of exams that an instructor uses to evaluate whether students have achieved the learning goals of a course. You can usually find clues about the types of studying that you will need to do for a course by reading the syllabus. Early in a course, you can also talk with your professors about their expectations for test taking and their recommendations for study strategies that will help you prepare for exams in their fields of study.
- Identify a study strategy that you might use this semester in one of your courses as you study reading assignments to prepare for quizzes or exams. How might you adapt that strategy to the types of exams or other learning activities that you need to complete for that course?
- What types of strategies have you used in the past to study for exams? Where did you learn those strategies? Which strategies were most effective in helping you understand and remember what you read when preparing for an exam?
[Continue to the next section: “Adapting to Disciplinary Literacy Conventions.”]
Resources for Further Study
To learn more about how to develop and apply research-based study strategies, see the following readings:
- Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger, and Mark A. McDaniel. Make It Stick : The Science of Successful Learning. Harvard University Press, 2014
- Carey, Benedict. “Forget What You Know about Good Study Habits.” New York Times, 6 September 2010.
- Carey, Benedict. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why It Happens. Random House, 2014.
- Dunlosky, John, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Nathan J. Mitchell, and Daniel T. Willingham. “What Works, What Doesn’t.” Scientific American Mind, vol. 24, no. 4, 2013, pp. 46–53.
- Roedigger, Henry L. “How Tests Make Us Smarter.” New York Times, 28 July 2014.
- Willingham, Daniel T. Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. Jossey-Bass, 2010.
Dunlosky, John, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Nathan J. Mitchell, and Daniel T. Willingham. “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol. 14, no. 1, 2013, p. 4–58.
Kornell, Nate, Alan D. Castel, Teal S. Eich, and Robert A. Bjork. “Spacing as the Friend of Both Memory and Induction in Young and Older Adults.” Psychology and Aging, vol. 25, no. 2, 2010, pp. 498–503.
Little, Jeri L, and Elizabeth Lignon Bjork. “Multiple-Choice Pretesting Potentiates Learning of Related Information.” Memory & Cognition, vol. 44, 2016, pp. 1085–1101.
Mulcahy-Ernt, Patricia, and David C. Caverly. “Strategic Study-Reading.” Handbook of College Reading and Study Strategy Research, edited by Rona F. Flippo and David C. Caverly. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2000, pp. 177–198.
Pashler, Harold, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork. “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol. 9, no. 3, 2009, pp. 105–119.
Roediger, Henry L. III, and Jeffrey D. Karpicke. “Test-Enhanced Learning Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention.” Psychological Science, vol. 17, no. 3, 2006, pp. 249–255.