Which Study Strategies Make the Grade?

Students everywhere, put down those highlighters and pick up some flashcards! Some of the most popular study strategies — such as highlighting and even rereading — don’t show much promise for improving student learning, according to a new report published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

In the report, APS Fellow John Dunlosky of Kent State University and a team of distinguished psychological scientists review the scientific evidence for 10 learning techniques commonly used by students. Based on the available evidence, the researchers provide recommendations about the applicability and usefulness of each technique. While the 10 learning techniques vary widely in effectiveness, two strategies — practice testing and distributed practice — made the grade, receiving the highest overall utility rating.

Most students are probably familiar with practice testing, having used flash cards or answering questions at the end of a textbook chapter. Students who prefer last-minute cram sessions, however, may not be as familiar with the idea of distributed practice, which involves studying over time and quizzing yourself on material before big tests.

In contrast, five of the techniques received a low utility rating from the researchers. Notably, these techniques are some of the most common learning strategies used by students, including summarization, highlighting and underlining, and rereading.

“The learning techniques described in this monograph will not be a panacea for improving achievement for all students, and perhaps obviously, they will benefit only students who are motivated and capable of using them,” Dunlosky and colleagues note. “Nevertheless, when used properly, we suspect that they will produce meaningful gains in performance in the classroom, on achievement tests, and on many tasks encountered across the life span.”

Read the entire report.

Observer Vol.26, No.2 February, 2013

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