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Students should be taught how to study

April 5, 2012

Students should be taught how to study. 03/26/2012
Every year I teach an introductory course on cognitive psychology to about 350 students. Every year I ask my students how they study and I find that they are much like students at Purdue, Washington University in St. Louis, UCLA, and Kent State–universities at which surveys have been conducted on student study strategies.

Like students at those schools, my students tend to take notes in class, color the readings with a highlighter, and later reread the notes and the highlighted bits of the text.

This Table show the results of a study by Jeff Karpicke and his colleagues (2009)  on the study strategies of students at Washington University in St. Louis. (For other studies leading to similar conclusions see Hartwig & Dunlosky, 2012; Kornell & Bjork, 2007).

Rereading is a terribly ineffective strategy. The best strategy–by far–is to self-test–which is the 9th most popular strategy out of 11 in this study.  Self-testing leads to better memory even compared to concept mapping (Karpicke & Blunt, 2011).

The table shows that students rarely self-test as a learning strategy. Other data show that they more often self-test as a check to be sure that they have studied enough.

There is much discussion these days of how much time students ought to spend studying text for later tests of factual recall. Whatever  your answer to this question, if students are going to do it, we might as well give them the tools to do a good job.

This article on the website of the American Psychological Association is a good start.

Hartwig, M. K. & Dunlosky, J. (2012). Study strategies of college students: Are self-testing and scheduling related to achievement? Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 19,  126-134.

Karpicke, J. D. & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 331, 772-775.

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

Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2007). The promise and perils of self regulated study. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14, 219–224.


03/26/2012 1:38pm

I am a returning college student. The first time around I didn’t study much and what I did was mostly reading notes and some practice problems.
This time around my text books have come with online access to study areas/online text. It has really changed my study habits (though I have also changed my study habits because of following blogs like this). The study areas have chapter quizes and tests. It is much easier to self-test. I also can get immediate feedback, I know right away if I am wrong.

Bonnie Daley
03/26/2012 2:10pm

I teach eighth grade science and am forced to give quite a few tests since my students are tested in science on their standardized test at the end of the year. I’ve tried every study method to help them do better. This is a great list and I think it helps to give students a choice and class time to practice their study habits. Many of eighth graders simply won’t take time outside of class. I do have a few very motivated students who use some of these techniques on their own.

03/27/2012 12:34pm

We should be using formative assessments regularly or provide students with formative assessment tools (like self-tests). I often ask my students to create surveys or formative interactive quizzes using Hot Potatoes modules so they understand the strategies behind and application of the concepts. As most educators know, knowledge recall is the most basic of cognitive levels. Educators should apply higher-level activities.

Bonnie Daley
03/28/2012 11:32am

Thanks for this tip Leanna. Yes, formative assessments are helpful, the Paige, Keely books are used frequently at my school.

03/27/2012 6:23pm

I give students ungraded quizzes at the opening and at the end of my college classes. I read their responses and give them feedback by the next class. This strategy tells me IMMEDIATELY what the next class needs to concentrate on. Thanks Dan for the gloss and links.

03/28/2012 10:53am

Wet noodle time for not reading Karpicke and Blunt (2011) carefully. What you (and many newspaper reporters) described as “self test” is clearly described as “retrieval practice” by the authors — i.e., after reading the material, students were shown a blank text box and asked to write EVERYTHING they remembered about the reading. That’s not a self-test, and what it suggests is that paraphrasing practice is more effective than rereading or concept mapping. “Self test” was not a condition in the two experiments reported.

03/28/2012 11:15am

@Sherman noodle accepted, but for different reasons than you suggest. “Retrieval practice” is a term that Roediger started using because he thought that “self test” evokes the idea of formal testing, whereas data from his lab (and others) indicates that it’s trying to retrieve memories that produces the boost to learning. but you’re right, I should have used the term the researchers used!

03/28/2012 11:17am

And Roediger is right! The news reporting of the study clearly implied this was about formal testing, and the earlier comments on this entry strongly suggest my fellow readers of your blog interpreted the term in the same way.

03/28/2012 11:24am

@Sherman Ah, got you now. Everyone, SHERMAN IS RIGHT–if you understood this point, but it was despite my blog entry, not because of it. Thanks for the clarification. Doesn’t mean, of course, that Genevieve, Bonnie, Leanna, and Gary’s methods aren’t working–just means that there could be other methods that would work too!

Bonnie Daley
03/28/2012 11:39am

Yes, paraphrasing is great when you have students who are articulate. I think it does not work as well with English language learners. They have to look up every word and simply cannot put it into their own words because they don’t have the language! Especially with topics such as physics, you may not want students to put it into their own words; sometimes the gray areas that arise are incorrect. I like the self-testing. I also like classroom games such as jeopardy, bingo, cranium.

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