Help Intro Psych Students with Their Learning Strategies: Build It into the Memory Chapter

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Years ago, as a young instructor, I didn’t have the tools to help my struggling students who came to my office for studying advice. I had a clear idea of what “studying” was since I had done it for so long, but I don’t know if it’s that I couldn’t put words to what I did to study or if I assumed that everyone did the same thing when “studying,” and that if that didn’t work, I didn’t know what would. In any case, over time, I got better at my advice – test yourself, space out your studying, for example.

One term I had a student who earned a perfect score on an exam. Students in the class knew somebody did, and they asked who it was. I said I couldn’t reveal the person’s name, but that person can if so desired. My perfect-score student immediately said, “I did! And I’m proud of it.” The other students began peppering her with some version of “How did you do it!” She explained that she spent time every day on the class. She read the textbook, took notes, merged her textbook notes with her class notes, thought of examples, tested herself over what she was learning. Students started exclaiming, “Oh! I don’t want to do all of that!” Her response? “Then you don’t get an A.”

Learning is hard work. There’s no way around it. For students who are willing and able to put in the hard work, I want them to use effective, research-based study techniques. Unfortunately, students may not know what those research-based study techniques are. Some of the techniques students use may be a complete waste of time. Gurung, Weidert, and Jeske (2010) asked 120 students to complete a questionnaire on 35 different study behaviors. The behaviors that correlated positively with the students’ final exam scores: “attended every class,” “answered every question in the study guide,” “used practice exams to study,” and “was able to explain a problem or phenomenon using the material.” Behaviors that correlated negatively with exam scores: “after class, I looked over my notes to check for and fill in missing information,” “highlighted the most important information in each chapter to review later,” “reviewed the chapter after the lecture on that topic,” “asked… a classmate/friend to explain material I didn’t understand,” and “asked the professor or TAs for additional materials.” Interestingly, when they looked at just the top half of exam performers, only one correlation remained. Those who reported highlighting as a study strategy scored lower than those who did not. Highlighting is easy to do – it’s too easy to do. It doesn’t require deep processing; it’s a very shallow process. But at the end, with words highlighted, it’s easy to fool oneself into thinking studying was accomplished. Highlighting is really just coloring – and there are reasons coloring is relaxing: it takes little to no cognitive effort.

Now, how about some advice on how to study? Yana Weinstein (UMass Lowell) and Megan Smith (Rhode Island College) of the blog have created a wonderful set of posters (slides and sticker templates) to help students learn how to study better. The strategies: spaced practice, retrieval practice, elaboration, interleaving, concrete examples, and dual coding. Side note: I love the use of the very specific word practice instead of the fuzzier word study. Elliott Hammer (2016) reports that “I’m also trying as of late to drop the word ‘study’ from my vocabulary in favor of ‘practice. It’s difficult to get students to be more active in their approach, and I want them to get beyond simply trying to read and call that studying. I don’t have data showing that the switch is working, but it feels more genuine.”

To get your students to dive into these learning strategies, after covering the memory chapter, ask students to explain why each strategy is effective based on the concepts and research covered in their reading. This makes a nice out-of-class assignment, but it would also work well done in class with small groups. Give each small group the set of posters to explain the effectiveness of each. After discussion wanes, ask a group to report out on one of the posters; give other groups an opportunity to add to the conversation. Move onto another group, and ask them to report out on a different poster. Continue until all of the posters have been covered. If you use a classroom response system, ask students if they currently use the study strategy and whether they plan to use it in the future.

Or you could do a jigsaw classroom. Divide the class into 6 groups of at least 6 members each (or 12 groups of at least 6 members or some other multiple of 6, depending on your class size) and give each group a different poster. (For smaller classes, use multiples of 3 and give each group 2 posters). After each group identifies why the strategy is effective (using the concepts learned in the memory chapter), break apart the groups so that at least one person from each group now forms a new group. Ask each new group member to share the strategy on their poster and explain why the strategy is effective.

Bonus: Use the Gurung, (2010) study as examples when you cover correlations in the research methods chapter. Or use it here in the memory chapter to reinforce correlations. And then ask students which learning strategy is being used in the practice of learning correlations.



Gurung, R. A., Weidert, J., & Jeske, A. (2010). Focusing on how students study. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(1), 28-35.

Hammer, E. (2016, July 31). I’m a member of STP and this is how I teach. Retrieved from

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.