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Change is hard. Once you’ve learned to do something one way, it can be very difficult to do it a different way, even when you know that that different way would be better. Heck, we all know we should exercise more, eat better, and sleep – both more and better. Physicians used to think that all they had to do was educate their patients, and their patients would make those changes. People, of course, are not that simple. That’s one reason that integrated healthcare is becoming popular. Having a psychologist on the team – someone who understands behavior – can make a big difference in someone’s health outcomes.
We know what good study strategies look like (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, & Willingham, 2013). We share these with our students, our students think they are all good ideas, but how many students actually make the change? It’s a risky move to give up a less-than-ideal study strategy that will probably get a C for a never-tried study strategy.
We’re psychologists. We know that an effective route to behavioral change is through baby steps, foot-in-the-door, if you will.
Toshiya Miyatsu and colleagues (2018) have identified some of the most popular study strategies that students are already using and have made recommendations of how students can tweak them to use them more effectively. Below is a summary of their recommendations.
Rereading, used by 78% of students in the studies identified by Miyatsu, et al. (2018).
Because rereading is usually passive, we expect poorer learning outcomes. If students are going to reread, they should space out their rereading (spacing effect), and before rereading they should try to recall all that they remember from their last reading session (retrieval practice).
Underlining and highlighting, used by 53% of students in the studies identified by Miyatsu, et al. (2018).
This strategy can also be passive. Lesser-skilled readers have a hard time identifying what is important in a text resulting in too much or too little underlined or highlighted. Teaching students how to identify the important information in a text makes a difference. Students should wait until their second reading to underline/highlight. After reading a chapter or a section of a chapter, it’s easier to identify the important content (elaborative processing). Also, teach students how to see the structure of the text (see outlining next).
Outlining, used by 23% of students in the studies identified by Miyatsu, et al. (2018).
If instructors give the outline or give a partial outline, students do better. If the students create the outline, they don’t do better as compared to other study techniques, unless they received training in how to outline. Seeing the structure of the text helps readers find the key points. After having the outline, students can use it for it retrieval practice, e.g., “What were the supporting ideas for point B in this section?” Remind students to look at the outline at the beginning of the chapters of their textbooks. Taking 30 seconds to read through it will give the students a framework that will help them structure what they will be reading.
Note-taking, used by 30% of students in the studies identified by Miyatsu, et al. (2018).
The big questions about note-taking are how students take notes and whether they are permitted to review their notes before recall. If notes are hand-written, students tend to condense what they are learning and convert it into their own words – fewer notes, but more elaborative processing. If notes are typed on a computer, students tend to transcribe – more notes, but less elaborative processing. On recall tests where the notes are not reviewed, the hand-written note-takers out-perform the typists. If the note-takers are permitted to review their notes prior to recall, the typists may or may not out-perform the hand-writers. Because the research in this area is still pretty scant, the best recommendation to students is, “Review your notes.”
Flash cards, used by 55% of students in the studies identified by Miyatsu, et al. (2018).
Flash cards are all about retrieval practice. Students should continue to practice recalling items they’ve already learned. Flash card sessions should be spaced out (spacing effect).
Message to students: You’ve been using “My Study Strategies v. 1.0.” You don’t have to throw those out if you’re not ready to, but it is time to use your study strategies more effectively. Up your game to “My Study Strategies v. 2.0” by heeding these recommendations.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Supplement, 14(1), 4–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266
Miyatsu, T., Nguyen, K., & McDaniel, M. A. (2018). Five popular study strategies: Their pitfalls and optimal implementations. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(3), 390–407. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617710510
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