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Study Better: Tough Studying Makes Easy Tests

Five simple, inexpensive study strategies that pay off on the test.

Want to make it easier to ace the final exam? Do well on SAT? The GRE? The MCAT? Many standardized tests are cumulative, often forcing students to draw on knowledge from a class taken years ago. There are a handful of inexpensive and effective study skills that can help. And cramming isn't one of them.

This is a guest post by Chanel Zhan, Williams College Class of 2016.

A comprehensive (but short and readable) paper summarizes five proven strategies that make it easier for students to retain their knowledge in the long run (Roediger III & Pyc, 2012). The authors argue that these strategies should be incorporated by students and teachers: (1) spacing (i.e. spreading out the studying), (2) interleaving (i.e. mixing up different types of problems), (3) testing, (4) elaborative interrogation (i.e. asking yourself “why?”), and (5) self-explanation (i.e. asking yourself “did I know this?”).

In one study (Bloom & Shuell, 1981), high school students were told to learn French and were subsequently tested. Half of the students were given 30 minutes to learn all the vocab words, while the other half studied the words on 3 consecutive days for 10 minutes each. Test results showed that, although the students who studied for 30 minutes straight performed better on a test right after studying, the students who spread out their study sessions (spacing!) performed better a week later on a pop-quiz. Similarly, in another study, (Taylor & Rohrer, 2010), 4 th grade students who practiced doing different kinds of math problems at once (interleaved practice!) performed much better in the long run than those who practiced a chunk of the same type of math problem and then moved on to another chunk of the same type of math problem, and so on (blocked practice.)

To examine the effects of testing on memory, Roediger and Karpicke (2006) compared the long-term recall of three groups of students who were told to read a passage. One group simply read the passage four times. Another group read it three times and took a test. A third group read the passage only once and then took three tests. As expected, those who read the most did the best on an assessment given right afterwards. (For the assessment, they had to write down everything they could remember from the reading.) However, one week later, the group who took the most tests (but studied only once) recalled the most information from the reading.

Studies also back up the benefits of asking yourself questions as you read. In one experiment (Smith, Holliday, & Austin, 2010), biology students were told to read a section in the textbook. One group was periodically asked questions involving why the facts were true. In the other group, students simply read the section twice. Based on a later true or false quiz on facts, students who were prompted to answer “why” (elaborative interrogation) performed better than those who only read the text. On a similar note, in an earlier study (Wong, Lawson, & Keeves, 2002), two groups of high school students were told to study a math theorem. One group had to think out loud and monitor their own learning, by asking themselves questions about their learning experience as they read the text (i.e. "Hm… did I know this?"). The other group were simply told to think out loud. The next day, all students took a test. Results indicated that the students who engaged in self-monitored learning ( self-explanation ) were much better able to apply their skills to novel kinds of math problems.

The five strategies that the authors discuss seem hard to apply at first, because students feel like they aren’t learning as quickly. Indeed, studying “the right way” takes time. After all, who wants to pause every five minutes while reading a dense textbook and have to think to themselves, “Why is this correct? Did I know this?” But in the long term, the evidence suggests that this time is well spent.

Furthermore, these tricks are relatively simple and cost-effective, unlike some other reforms. The Los Angeles United School District, for example, recently decided to allocate $1 billion dollars to purchasing 600,000 iPads for students (Smith, 2014) The bond used to pay for those iPads will likely be on the books for decades, even though an iPad's lifespan is probably no more than 5 years! Furthermore, there is very little data to indicate that iPads actually help students learn more effectively. The strategies suggested by Roediger & Pyc (2012), on the other hand, are backed up by solid evidence. They also can be implemented at minimal cost.

Students can easily try to turn some of these techniques into habits, and teachers can attempt to restructure their lesson plans. Based on the research, here are some applicable studying tricks:

  • Study a little of each subject every day; space it out. Don’t cram!
  • Practice different types of problems in a jumbled order, so you’re not doing the same kind of problem all in one go!
  • Test yourself, and take as many practice tests as are available. Practice questions help too!
  • While studying, ask yourself: “Why is this true? How did it happen?” Then try to answer those questions.
  • Also ask, “Did I know this information already? Does it make sense to me? Is this something new?”
  • To do the above, you can make flashcards. Study some flashcards for each subject every single day, and randomize the order, etc. You can also make a few "question" flashcards—i.e. "Why was the previous fact significant?" or "How does this relate to what I know?"—and toss them into the stack, to periodically remind yourself to engage in deeper thoughts about the concepts.

Most students probably intuitively know that they shouldn't just cram. But studying ahead of time takes a lot of self-monitoring and motivation . Teachers, however, can (sneakily) incorporate these evidence-based studying techniques in their curriculum. For example, teachers can teach a little of each concept every day, to spread the lesson out. They can also give more quizzes and tests, or prompt students with a simple "why does that make sense?" once in a while. These tricks can help students better retain important concepts, even if students think these study skills seem harder at first.

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This is a guest post by Chanel Zhan, Williams College Class of 2016.


Bloom, K. C., & Shuell, T. J. (1981). Effects of massed and distributed practice on the learning and retention of second-language vocabulary. Journal of Educational Research , 74 (4), 245-48.

Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological science , 17 (3), 249-255.

Roediger, H. L., & Pyc, M. A. (2012). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition , 1 (4), 242-248.

Smith, D. (2014, January 15). LAUSD Doubles Down On Controversial iPad Experiment. Retrieved March 1, 2014, from Huffington Post website: lausd-ipads_n_4604006.html

Smith, B. L., Holliday, W. G., & Austin, H. W. (2010). Students' comprehension of science textbooks using a question‐based reading strategy. Journal of Research in Science Teaching , 47 (4), 363-379.

Taylor, K., & Rohrer, D. (2010). The effects of interleaved practice. Applied Cognitive Psychology , 24 (6), 837-848.

Wong, R. M., Lawson, M. J., & Keeves, J. (2002). The effects of self-explanation training on students' problem solving in high-school mathematics. Learning and Instruction , 12 (2), 233-262.