Evidence-based Study Skills

How many times have students come to your office and asked your advice about how to study? Perhaps the student was a struggling first year or did poorly on the last test.  What do you tell them?

My standard response goes something like “the more you work with the information, the better you will learn it.” I would then go on to say:  “How you work with the information is up to you. You can do a variety of things to help you learn the information: highlight key points, take notes, outline the chapter, create flash cards, quiz yourself. Use whatever techniques best suit your learning style.”

According to a new review published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, my advice was only partially correct.  Dunlosky and his colleagues (2013) review the evidence on 10 different learning techniques including highlighting (or underlining), rereading, summarization, keyword mnemonics, imagery use, practice testing, and “distributed practice” (spreading out study activities over time). Their review summarizes the evidence as well as considers key variables (age of student, content, etc.) in great detail (55 journal pages).

Although most students rely on highlighting and rereading, these techniques (along with summarization, keyword mnemonics, and imagery use) have been found to have low utility. Their conclusion: the best techniques to enhance student learning are practice testing and distributed practice.

So the next time a student comes by with that question, I am now prepared to give an evidenced-based response.

About George Holden

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