How Should Students Study

Returning graded exams to students is certainly a delightful task if the results are great. Otherwise, it is painful. When a student has obviously spent so much time preparing for the exam and not see the fruits of his or her labor, it is depressing. Then the student poses a difficult question to the teacher: "How should one study for the next exam?" "Is there some other method the student should try to do better next time?" I joke sometimes that students should use the textbook as a pillow. Perhaps, knowledge can be absorbed by osmosis. That crazy notion relaxes a somewhat tense situation. Seriously, one could easily imagine that studying is individualized at some level. A student needs to find what works. A teacher can only offer a number of strategies.

The journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest recently published a study that examines various methods of studying. By employing well designed studies, each method is assessed on effectiveness and general applicability. One of the authors of this recent work is psychologist Daniel T. Willingham of University of Virginia, whose works have been described several times on this blog. The title of the paper is "Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology":

The methods that have been assessed are:

  1. Elaborative Interrogation - a student tries to find out why a fact or concept is true. 
  2. Self-explanation - a student examines his or her own way of solving a problem and relating new information to previous learned lessons.
  3. Summarization - a student writes in his or her words the lessons that have been given.
  4. Highlighting/underlining - a student marks sections of a textbook while reading with the notion that these highlighted parts contain the key ideas.
  5. Keyword mnemonic - a student uses keywords or special phrases to help recall trends or rules.
  6. Imagery for text - a student tries to imagine a figure to explain what one is reading.
  7. Rereading - a student reads the text more than once.
  8. Practice testing - a student solves problems or questions at the end of the text.
  9. Distributed practice - a student spreads exercises over time as opposed to cramming.
  10. Interleaved practice - a student mixes different kinds of material within a single study session. 

The list is probably not exhaustive, but it does cover the most popular or widely used strategies by students. To do a proper assessment of effectiveness and general applicability, the psychologists first identify all the variables that can influence the usefulness of the strategy. These variables have been grouped into four different types: Materials, Learning Conditions, Student Characteristics, and Criterion Tasks. Variables under Materials represent different types of subject or content. The list includes vocabulary, translation, lecture content, science definitions, narrative texts, expository texts, mathematical concepts, maps, and diagrams. Under learning conditions are amount of practice, open vs. closed-book practice, reading vs. listening, incidental vs. intentional learning, direct instruction, discovery learning, rereading lags, kind of practice tests, group vs. individual learning. Student characteristics have age, prior domain knowledge, working memory capacity, verbal ability, interests, fluid intelligence, motivation, prior achievement, and self-efficacy. Lastly, the tasks are cued recall, free recall, recognition, problem solving, argument development, essay writing, creation of portfolios, achievement tests, and classroom quizzes. Clearly, to find strategies that are generally applicable to all of these conditions is quite a tall order.

The study did find which strategies are most promising:

Practice testing turned out to be the most useful. Distributed practice was also found to be highly effective. Interleaved practice, elaborative interrogation, self explanation are moderate. The rest are of low utility.

So throw away that marker because it does not help....