A number of resources that we’ve published address student study strategies, particularly the ones they don’t use that research says do connect to learning. (See the links at the end of the article.) In a nutshell, students gravitate toward passive study strategies, and those don’t effectively promote deep and lasting learning. Some findings document a troubling resistance to change: students cling to favorite strategies even when presented with information about their inadequacy.
A recent study (Rowell et al., 2021) offers a more hopeful view of students’ understanding and use of study strategies. It’s not all good news, but there’s enough to merit an overview. Besides, it’s probably time for a reminder of the important role faculty can play as advocates for study strategies with proven, positive results.
The study authors offer an easy and memorable way to differentiate study strategies. The ones that work classify as “desirable difficulties”; these “feel more difficult during study but lead to better long-term learning (i. e. ‘active’)” (p. 165), while the less effective strategies are easier but garner few learning benefits. They’re passive. Specifically, studying that includes various kinds of retrieval practice (flash cards and practice questions), elaborate interrogation (those why and how questions), and summarizations promote better learning (and better exam scores) than reading notes or the text, looking over material, and recopying notes (p. 165). Spacing out study times and studying without distractions also increase the impact of efforts to master material.
The study took place in psychology courses at two levels: introductory and upper division. The research protocols for both were largely the same. After the first exam, students completed a reflection survey with questions about exam preparation: when study for the exam started, the total amount of study time, and the frequency of distractions. It also included a list of study strategies. Students indicated all the strategies they used and their two most-used strategies. Before the second exam, student participants listened to a 10-minute instructor lecture identifying effective and ineffective study strategies and then completed an exam-planning exercise. After the second exam, students completed the same reflection survey.
Starting with the good news, in both the introductory and upper division courses, students reported using at least one active learning strategy, most often some form of self-quizzing. And in courses at both levels, they studied for the second exam using more active learning strategies than they used studying for the first. Furthermore, students in all the courses indicated that they were open to changing something about their study strategies. That was true of almost half the students in the introductory course.
Then there’s the not so good news. Students at both course levels reported that they planned to use more passive than active study strategies. And that’s what they did. They spent more time rereading the slides, their notes, and the textbook and rewriting their notes than on retrieval, elaborate interrogation, and summarization strategies. Both groups intended to start studying earlier and in more spaced intervals. The upper-division students did start studying earlier for the second exam than for the first; the beginning students did not.
Also troubling is the similarity in study approaches used by students at both levels. One would hope that upper-division students would have discovered the ineffectiveness of passive strategies. But the proportion of students who preferred and used those rereading and looking-over strategies was remarkably similar at both levels. It raises yet again the question of whether students choose passive strategies because they work given the kind of exams they regularly take. If exams use a sizeable percentage of recall questions that do not necessarily test understanding of material, then a light review may be all students need to earn the desired grade.
To end on a positive note, this research found that when grouped by the strategies they used, students in the active strategies group “performed a few percentage points better on Exam 2 than students in the passive group” (p. 169). Active study strategies have a proven track record. The challenge is getting students to use them. This study is noteworthy in showing that a modest amount of reflection, exam planning, and teacher instruction did produce changes in study intentions along with modest changes in study behaviors. If we want students to learn, they need to hear us talking about the best and worst ways to study. What strategies are they using, and how successful are they? Are we part of the problem when we can be a big part of the solution?
Rowell, S. F., Frey, R. F., & Walck-Shannon, E. M. (2021). Intended and actual changes in study behaviors in an introductory and upper-level psychology course. Teaching of Psychology, 48(2), 165–174. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628320979893
Study Strategies: What the Research Tells Us
Knowledge of Study Strategies
What Do Students Do When They Study?
Ten Study Strategies for Students and Their Teachers
How Do You Study? A Questionnaire for Students