Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Study Techniques – Part II

10 Mar

Last week in Part 1 of this TILT blog post I described the findings from an article by Dunlosky and colleagues that evaluated the efficacy of different learning techniques.  Briefly, the authors found that practice testing and distributed study were high utility strategies and highlighting and rereading were low utility strategies.

Based on these findings, I wanted to determine students’ reactions to implicit study skill presentations as part of a class.  Will students they find such presentations useful?  Will they make use of the study skills presented to change their study approaches? If so, will they report that these practices made any difference in their learning?  To do this, I incorporated these questions in an undergraduate science course in Fall 2013.

I designed a pretest to give on the first day of class asking students to evaluate their current study skills.  The pretest was designed to feature the most highly rated learning techniques.  The pretest served two purposes:  (1) to compare results to a posttest given at the end of the semester; and (2) to increase students’ awareness of their own learning strategies.

To promote different learning strategies I created and presented four short (5 – 10 minute) modules.  The topics were:

  • the advantages of studying with others,
  • effective reading techniques,
  • effective study techniques, and
  • preparing for exams.

Modules were presented as visually rich PowerPoint presentations supported with handouts.  Each session reviewed the research literature on the topic and proposed practical strategies students could use immediately.

A posttest was given on the last day of class to see if study skills changed.  The questions were identical to the pretest.  Another survey asked for feedback about the usefulness of the study modules.

Overall, student response can be classified as neutral:

  • 61% of students stated that the time spent on the study modules was “about right”
  • 30% said “too much” and
  • 9% said “too little”.

In all,

  • 30% of students agreed that the study module presentations were useful (average 4.6 on a 7 point scale, 7 = strongly agree).
  • 26% agreed that the handouts were useful (4.30 on a 7 point scale), and
  • 22% stated that they have made a change to their study habits as a result of the study modules (4.17 on 7 point scale).

Their post-test responses confirmed this neutrality; there was no difference in study habits compared to the pre-test.

Reflecting on this rather disappointing data led to me to think through why the results weren’t more positive, and to propose three ideas regarding possibilities for future modification:

1.  The study modules were too abstract.  A few students asked for “specific examples” in the open-ended feedback. An improvement would be to tie the principles from each module to an actual class assignment.

2.  A compelling argument for change was not provided.  Several students commented that their current study skills were working.  This is true because each student gets to define “working” by their own standards.  An improvement would be to demonstrate the effectiveness of one technique over another by having students use both on a common task.  A concrete activity, ideally tied to an actual assignment, would allow students to see for themselves the relative effectiveness of a certain technique.

3. Change is hard.  One student commented that the information presented was good, but changing habits is hard.  An improvement would be to continually reinforce principles through specific examples related to assignments throughout the semester.

Graham Gibbs predicted these results in “Self-reflective improvement,” saying:

Students rarely use the methods they read about in how-to-study books or are taught on study skills courses.

Additionally, Gibbs notes that:

Improving students’ [study skills for learning in disciplines] appears to involve raising their awareness of what they are doing, increasing their repertoire so that they can choose to do different things when it seems appropriate and tuning them in to task demands so that they can recognise what is required.

I think my initial experiment reinforces this with the additional insight provided in reflecting on student feedback to incorporate concrete ideas for module redesign.  When I have the opportunity to do this again, I’ll report on it in a Part 3 addition to this blog post.


Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Study Techniques – Part I

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.”)


One Response to “Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Study Techniques – Part II”


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

    […] Part 2 – on raising student awareness of what they are doing,  and increasing their skills repertoire so that they can choose strategies for study. […]

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