Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Study Techniques – Part 1

3 Mar

What learning techniques are the most effective for college students?  John Dunlosky and colleagues set out to answer this question by reviewing empirical studies published in the psychological literature evaluating different learning strategies.   They found that some popular techniques used by students were not very effective and some they rated of high utility were underutilized, in part because faculty don’t know about them.  

High Utility Practices

The authors looked at studies of ten different learning techniques in depth.  They specifically wanted to look at strategies students could perform on their own without supervision.  Two techniques were found to be of high utility: practice testing and distributed practice. 

Practice testing describes ungraded testing that takes place outside of the classroom.  This includes any form of testing students would use on their own including practice exams supplied by the instructor, end-of-chapter textbook problems, or flashcards.  (These formative assessments are not to be confused with summative, in-class exams that are graded.)  Dunlosky and colleagues conclude that this study approach is effective “across an impressive range of practice-test formats, kinds of material, learner ages, and outcome measures.”

Distributed practice refers to distributing learning over time (hours, days, weeks) as opposed to mass practice (cramming) all at once.  It was found to work in the majority of studies, using a wide variety of materials, for students of different ages.

Low Utility Practices

Two popular learning techniques were found to be of low utility: highlighting and rereading.  Highlighting or underlining text is a common technique used by students when they study, however, some studies have shown that most undergraduates overhighlight their text.  Furthermore, in cases where students  were asked inference questions, highlighters were actually at a disadvantage, because, the authors propose, students may only be learning individual concepts rather than finding connections between them. 

Rereading is the most frequently used study technique by undergraduates the authors report.  Rereading was found to be of better benefit than only reading once, however it was not as effective as other study approaches including practice testing.

Trying Out the Practices

To move these findings  into the classroom, I wanted to share them with students, particularly undergraduates. To do this, I needed students to evaluate the learning techniques they were currently using, and make changes if they were not optimal.  Metacognition, encouraged by Stephen Chew in his “How to Get the Most Out of Studying”  videos,  is a skill that benefits  students long after college. It is also one of the U of M Student Learning Outcomes.  Graham Gibbs in “Self-reflective Improvement” states that “Metacognitive awareness and control is the most influential of all aspects of “study skills.”

These resources focusing on metacognition, which I’ve included below, are themselves great background and practical resources for teachers who want to devise and embed high utility learning practices into existing or new courses.

Drawing on this research, my approach was to design several five-minute study modules to deliver in the classroom that asked students to take a metacognitive approach to their learning.  My goal was to see if these study modules could move students to incorporate more high utility strategies like practice testing and distributed practice into their repertoire of study strategies.   I tested this in a single undergraduate course in the Fall of 2013.

Next week I’ll describe the results.


Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M.J., Willingham, D. T. “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14.1 (2013): 4 – 58.

Gibbs, Graham.  “Self-Reflective Improvement.” Times Higher Education 30 May 2013.  (Now titled, “Raising Awareness of Best-Practice Pedagogy.”)

TILT Blog: How to Get the Most Out of Studying, video resources created by Stephen Chew


2 Responses to “Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Study Techniques – Part 1”


  1. How to Get the Most Out of Studying: A Video Series for University Students – and Their Teachers | TILT - 13 January 2016

    […] Part 1 – on practice testing and distributed study as “high utility” study strategies, and highlighting and rereading as “low utility” strategies. […]

  2. Studying Properly: Ideas and Resources | TILT - 14 November 2017

    […] 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” – […]

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