The words, “It’s time to study,” can mean all kinds of things to all kinds of kids. In our house, one of our children might respond by grabbing some highlighter pens and reviewing class notes. Another might re-read a chapter in his textbook before tomorrow’s exam. And another might look up from his video game and say, “My test isn’t until next week, I have plenty of time!”
The next time I encourage my children to study their lessons, I should probably be more specific. According to researchers, many of the most commonly used study strategies by students are limited in their effectiveness.
In a new study published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, researchers reviewed the outcomes of studies on student achievement based on ten different learning techniques including: highlighting and underlining potentially important parts of the material, re-reading material that was read earlier, creating helpful “key words” and memory strategies to remember words and concepts, taking practice tests, and studying classroom material over a period of time rather than in one sitting.
The study found that highlighting and re-reading are both popular study strategies, yet they provide only minimal benefits in the classroom.
Only two techniques received consistently high ratings by the researchers. Practice testing and studying over time were found to be the most effective ways to promote learning and improve academic outcomes among students of all ages.
Practice testing might involve creating flash cards with relevant information and giving self-tests or being quizzed by a parent. Regular index cards and a ball point pen are all the tools needed for this tried-and-true study technique.
Studying over time doesn’t mean reading a chapter two nights before an exam instead of the night before. Instead, it involves creating a specific study schedule that starts long before the material needs to be mastered. For example, your child might set aside a half hour or an hour every night for a few days or weeks before an exam to review concepts and materials. Although it involves more planning and work (“You mean I should study every night?”), this strategy may actually feel less stressful and even more enjoyable to your child because it eliminates the pressure of trying to cram a bunch of facts into one evening-long study session.
Many kids are used to studying only one way, so these strategies may need to be taught and encouraged. The good news is that they are relatively easy to learn and don’t require special skills or technology. Of course, learning is a complex process and there may be a number of reasons why some students struggle in the classroom – regardless of which study strategies they utilize.
The lead author, John Dunlosky of Kent State University, and his colleagues suggest that these study strategies aren’t a quick fix for all students and will likely only benefit motivated students who are capable of utilizing them. “Nevertheless, they note, “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.”