Everybody Is Stupid Except You

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Study Smarter, Not Harder

What successful college students do differently

Good students don't just study harder, they study smarter. A study published this week identifies some habits of successful college students. 

I'll describe the new study shortly, but first: How should students study? A growing body of cognitive psychology research emphasizes the value of two principles:

Principle one is space your studying out over time. If you study something and then study it again right away, it's fresh in your mind the second time. You'll probably feel like you've learned it well. Don't be fooled. Instead of restudying right away, wait a while (e.g., an hour, a day, a week) and then study again. You'll learn far more. Spacing works because when something's fresh in your mind you don't learn much from studying it; you learn more when you've had time to forget it, which allows you to strengthen the memory anew.

Principle two is test yourself. People test themselves when they study with flashcards, and doing a physics problem set is almost like an open-book test. But when it comes time to read a textbook or a novel, most students don't test themselves. This is unfortunate. Testing gets us actively involved in our learning and makes us retrieve information from our own memories. Testing requires effort, but it pays off in spades.

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Ironically, students often rate spacing and testing as counterproductive. Spacing makes it harder to recall the information the second time around; testing reveals gaps in one's knowledge. So do students take advantage of these strategies?

According to the study that came out this week, the good ones do. Marissa Hartwig and John Dunlosky surveyed 324 college students about their study habits and their GPAs. The study is important because it takes laboratory principles and investigates them in the real world. Both spacing and testing were correlated with increases in GPA. The authors say:

In summary, low performers were especially likely to base their study decisions on impending deadlines rather than planning, and they were also more likely to engage in late-night studying. Although spacing (vs. massing) study was not significantly related to GPA, spacing was associated with the use of more study strategies overall. Finally, and perhaps most important, self-testing was a relatively popular strategy that was significantly related to student achievement.

Why spacing wasn't significantly related to GPA isn't clear. The data suggest that spacing may be completely off students' radar screens. Basically, good students don't do it because no one does it. 

It's always important to remember that correlation doesn't equal causation. Maybe smart study habits cause good grades. But maybe something else, like diligence, causes both good grades and good study habits. Still, the data from this study are suggestive. 

College isn't all about grades, it's really about learning. The beauty of spacing and testing is that they increase grades and learning. And it's hard to imagine that even the best students are overusing these techniques. If you want to increase your GPA and learn more without spending more time studying, think about testing and spacing. 

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Nate Kornell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Williams College.

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