Aiding Learners in Studying Properly

14 Nov

Imagine being a first year student, or someone entering into new learning territory (a new major, a new interest, a new research project), and answer this question as if that “new to particular learning” person:

True or False: You are wasting your time studying. 

The answer?

True: You are likely wasting your time studying – and doing so mainly because most individuals don’t study properly.

As teachers, then, what might we think about – and what might we do – when considering how to coach our students in doing the work of learning, which we call studying, whether the students are in our courses or in our pool of advisees?

A good first step is to learn more about how learning and studying work, which this post will aim to address – providing synthesis, resources, and recommendations.

Effective Study Techniques

Reviewing the effectiveness of different study techniques, John Dunlosky and company (“the Dunlosky team” going forward) acknowledge that while many students commonly use strategies like highlighting and re-reading to study for tests, such strategies are ineffective, largely because they trick students into thinking that familiarity or recognition are equivalent to recalling information

Moreover, even if students can correctly recall information, that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to do well on a test since they also need to be able to transfer and apply that information to another setting.  Remembering knowledge is an important first step but simply listing what one knows is not useful if that knowledge cannot be applied properly in the appropriate context.  And, as researchers Diane Halpern and Milton Hakel note, formal education is all about long-term retention and transfer:

After a course is over, can students both remember and transfer that information to another setting? 

So what does work?  The Dunlosky team recommend testing and distributed practice.  A recent Study Techniques blog post describes practice testing as “ungraded testing that takes place outside of the classroom” – with flashcards made by students and practice exams from instructors as two common examples.  Distributed practice, learning that takes place over an extended period of time (days, weeks months), requires that students making time each day to study in effective ways – connecting and applying, practicing and deepen – rather than cramming just ahead of an exam.  As teachers, this requires we think about how we design preparing for class work – homework – that engages learners in distributed practice.

Memorize? Or not?

The Dunlosky team also contends that the keyword mnemonics/mental imagery practice used by many students are of “low utility”, largely because they are difficult to use properly, specific to particular contexts and not likely to lead to long-term retention.

And yet, keyword mnemonics/mental imagery are used by memory athletes, individuals who can memorize an entire deck of shuffled cards in less than a minute seconds (the record is 21.9 seconds).  And, a recent study showed these strategies can not only improve the memories of “ordinary” individuals but also result in long-term changes.  Using fMRIs to examine the brains of these ordinary individuals who underwent 40 training sessions that lasted 30 minutes, researchers compared their brains to the brains of memory athletes.  Not surprisingly, the training vastly improved the memory skills of the ordinary individuals, but more interestingly, comparisons of fMRIs between the trained individuals and the memory athletes showed similar patterns in brain activity.  Even more interesting was that four months later, these trained individuals still showed significantly better results in their memory tests, suggesting not only that they had long term recall but also that their training endured.

So what does that training look like?  The most commonly used strategy is to create a “memory palace”: the individual imagines a familiar location and then attaches items to be remembered to that location.  When those items needs to be recalled, the individual takes a mental journey to that location and stops at different points to retrieve those items.  By drawing on the brain’s visual and spatial processing, this strategy enhances the individual’s capacity to recall information because it broadens and increases neural connections, thereby more firmly embedding the memory.  Joshua Foer wrote about his experience of becoming a memory athlete in his book, Moonwalking with Einstein; a shorter version of his story can be found in his New York Times Magazine article, “Secrets of a Mind Gamer.”  And a medical student who attributes his studying prowess to these techniques has how-to videos on his website.


The Dunlosky team is correct in noting that the techniques highlighted here do take time and effort to learn and master – time and effort that students might better spend actually testing themselves on the content.  So, as a teacher, what might you do?

  • Give students practice questions during your class: This technique works well for you AND for students because it gives you a chance to try out sample test questions (it can sometimes be difficult for you, as the instructor, to gauge the difficulty of exam questions so trying them out on students in class gives you the chance to see how difficult the questions are and how well students know the material) and it gives students a chance to get accustomed to your test writing (and reduce their anxiety about what’s going to be on your tests).
  • Space out the practice of giving these sample exam questions so students have time to consolidate their learning, instead of encouraging cramming for an exam by having an exam review session just days before the test.
  • Ask students to submit potential exam questions to develop their ability to anticipate what will be on your exams. First, give them examples of likely exam questions so they won’t submit trivial questions (“What is a cell?”) or overly broad and vague ones (“What were the causes of World War 2?”) and tell them you may use student submitted questions in future tests/exams.
  • Give students time in class to create concept maps, which can be used as the basis for memory palaces. Once information is graphically represented, one can imagine taking a journey along a path and also recruit the visual and spatial processing parts of the brain to retain that information.
  • Make use of the Halpern and Hakel article to help students understand how learning works, to note that memorizing isn’t the only task needed for learning, and to introduce them to practices in your course that are set up to engage them in doing the work of transferring and applying that knowledge to another setting. In this process, as experienced learners, we “let them in on” what it takes to understand the content so that it can be used as the basis to create a memory palace.
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