What Are the Best Ways to Study?

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Image credit: UBC Learning Commons

When I first started teaching, I could not understand why some bright, motivated students struggled in my class. Once I discovered the true problem — awful study skills — I became something of a study skills evangelist. Once a week I present a “Study Minute” in class, I co-host a “How to study for the sciences” seminar that attracts hundreds of students every semester, I include a “Learn How to Learn” section in each chapter of my textbooks, I host a weekly supplemental learning session that models effective study skills, and so on. I want my students to not only learn about biology but also become better learners.

So I was happy to learn of an article by John Dunlosky et al. that summarizes research on the best ways to study. You can find a condensed view of the article at Scientific American, but you have to be a subscriber or get it through your university library. Or you can dig into the full monograph in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. That article is longer, but the price is right: It’s free.

Or you can read on to find the take-home message. Basically, Dunlosky and his colleagues evaluated the evidence behind 10 study techniques:

  • elaborative interrogation (for example, students might be asked to explain why photosynthesis requires water or why aerobic respiration requires oxygen)
  • self-explanation (for example, students might explain to themselves how they know that plants need nitrogen)
  • summarization (for example, students might read a passage about thermoregulation and create a summary of the most important points)
  • highlighting (or underlining)
  • the keyword mnemonic (you know, like ROY G BIV for the color spectrum, or the cheerfully phrased “Dumb Kids Playing Cards On Freeway Get Smashed” for the taxonomic hierarchy)
  • imagery use for text learning (students might read a paragraph about, say, transcription, then be instructed to create a mental image that will help them remember what they have read)
  • rereading
  • practice testing (self-testing)
  • distributed practice (students spread out study sessions rather than cramming)
  • interleaved practice (students mix topics as they study; for example, they might practice what they know about photosynthesis and respiration at the same time instead of keeping those two topics separate, helping them see the connections between them)

So, which five do you think Dunlosky et al. found the most effective? Have you picked your top choices? OK, then read on…

The winners were self-testing, distributed practice, elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, and interleaved practice. Notably, the old standbys — highlighting and rereading more than a second time — are pretty much a waste of time. The other three techniques might be OK but more research is needed.

I love this article because I spend a lot of time coaching my students on the best study techniques. Thank you, Dr. Dunlosky and your colleagues, for giving me tools I can use to help my students succeed in all of their classes.

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