What are the most effective study techniques students can use to help increase their learning?
A team of cognitive and educational psychologists recently reviewed all the evidence on 10 popular study techniques to answer this question. According to the study in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, students and teachers often use study techniques that are not very effective and should make far greater use of study techniques that have a greater impact on learning.
The 10 techniques reviewed in this study are: Summarization, highlighting, keyword mnemonic, practice testing, imagery use for text learning, rereading, distributed practice, elaborative interrogation, self-explanation and interleaved practice.
The most effective study techniques across a range of learning conditions were practice testing and distributed practice, the researchers report.
Students often cram before a test, but the research shows distributed practice, studying over many sessions, results in better long-term retention, the researchers write. And, while most students see testing as an undesirable necessity of education, the fact is that testing also improves learning. Practice testing may work through a number of mechanisms. When students retrieve target information their related knowledge is activated. Practice testing may also help students organize information.
“One concern here is that students who do well in earlier grades, in which learning is largely supervised, may struggle later, when they are expected to regulate much of their own learning, such as in high school or college,” write the researchers.
“Teaching students to use these techniques would not take much time away from teaching content and would likely be most beneficial if the use of the techniques was consistently taught across multiple content areas, so that students could broadly experience their effects on learning and class grades.”
Practice testing with feedback consistently outperformed practice testing alone, according to the researchers. Providing feedback when students respond incorrectly prevents perseveration of errors. Fortunately, students do not need to get immediate feedback for this corrective effect. In one study, final test performance was actually better when feedback was delayed.
Many textbooks do not encourage distributed learning. Related material is often grouped together and subsequent units do not review previously covered material. Educators can encourage distributed learning and discourage cramming with more frequent testing. Students often will not engage in distributed study unless the situation forces them to do so. Teachers can also better educate students about the reasons for and benefits of distributed practice.
What are the ideal lags between study sessions? Most studies have used relatively short intervals, less than a day. However, according to the study, the answer is not just longer intervals. One study of people’s learning of trivia facts on the Internet found that the ideal lag between study sessions was approximately 10-20% of the desired retention interval. For example, to remember something for 1 week, learning episodes should be spaced 12-24 hours apart and to remember something for 5 years, they should be spaced 6-12 months apart.
Of course, when students are preparing for exams, they can’t space their learning sessions that far apart, but the longest intervals possible (e.g. intervals of 1 month or more) may be ideal for studying content that needs to be retained for a long time.
For this study, researchers reviewed the evidence for each of the 10 learning techniques and considered generalizability of results based on the learning conditions, materials, student characteristics and criterion tasks in the studies. The researchers then rated utility of each learning technique as low, moderate or high.
Five techniques in the study were rated as low utility: summarization, highlighting, keyword mnemonic, imagery use for text learning and rereading. Three techniques were rated as moderate utility: elaborative interrogation, self-explanation and interleaved practice.
In elaborative interrogation, teachers ask students to provide explanations for explicitly stated facts (e.g. The hungry man got into the car. Why did the hungry man get into the car? The hungry man got into the car to go to the restaurant). Elaborative interrogation takes little training but it is limited to discrete factual statements. With longer texts, effect on learning is diluted if teacher poses questions infrequently, such as every 1-2 pages. Researchers rated this technique as having moderate utility not only because it may not be that useful with lengthy or more complex texts but it also seems to largely benefit students with low levels of domain knowledge, researchers write. There is solid evidence that it is effective for short-term learning, but it is unclear if it is effective for long-term retention.
In self-explanation, students explain some aspect of their processing during learning. Like elaborative interrogation, self-explanation may enhance learning by supporting the integration of new information with existing prior knowledge. Self-explanation facilitates problem-solving and helps students overcome misconceptions. For this study, researchers reviewed studies using prompts that were relatively content-free.
While this technique’s strength is that it can be used across different content materials and age groups, one issue with self-explanation is that some students may require more instruction to be successful with it. Another issue is that self-explanation can be time-consuming and that the increased time on task may account for some of the benefits.
Many fewer studies have focused on interleaved practice than the other techniques researchers examined in this study. In virtually every class at every grade level, students need to learn about many different subtopics in a content area, the researchers write. Most students may study or practice in blocks, studying one type of material or problem before moving on to the next . However, recent research indicates interleaved practice, in which students alternate their practice or study of different problems, subtopics or material, produces superior results for learning, especially in math.
Interleaved practice may enhance organizational processing and item-specific processing by allowing students to more readily compare different kinds of problems. When students work on similar problems in one block, they rely on working memory, while interleaved practice requires distributed retrieval from long-term memory, the researchers write.
The researchers rated the following techniques as low-utility for the following reasons:
Summarization—Summarization is feasible for learners who already know how to summarize and less so for younger students (middle school and below) and students with disabilities, according to the researchers. It also may require extensive training for some students.
Highlighting—Highlighting seems to do little to boost performance and may actually hurt performance on higher-level tasks that require inference making. Most students do not highlight effectively and highlight too much material so that the major points get lost, according to the researchers.
Keyword mnemonic—The effort involved in using this technique, i.e. generating keywords may not be the most efficient use of time given that retrieval practice benefits retention as much as the keyword mnemonic. Surprisingly, use of keyword mnemonic leads to accelerated forgetting since students may have difficulty remembering which word the image is supposed to trigger.
Imagery use for text learning—Visualizing text can improve students’ learning of text materials. However, the benefits of imagery are largely limited to image-friendly materials and this technique has only been shown to be effective in tests of memory. Further research is needed.
Rereading—This technique is one that students most frequently report using during self-regulated study. Some studies have reported that 18% of students reread entire chapters and another 62% reread parts of the material. However, rereading lags behind the other techniques in this study in terms of research showing its effectiveness. Most of the effects have been shown with recall-based memory measures and the benefit for comprehension is unclear. It may also depend on other student characteristics such as knowledge or ability.
The major implication of this study is that teachers and students should make greater use of study techniques to increase learning. Students often favor fairly ineffective strategies (rereading, highlighting) and should be educated about high-impact techniques such as practice testing and distributed practice. Students can begin to learn about the use of these techniques beginning in the upper elementary grades. Teachers can easily integrate techniques in homework assignments and in class.
“Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology,” by John Dunlosky, Daniel Willingham et al., Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 2013, Volume 14, number 1, pps. 4-58.