The best ways to study, according to science

Several recent studies find that studying smarter, not harder, is the key to academic success, Sue Shellenbarger writes for the Wall Street Journal.

Shellenbarger rounds up the latest research on the right and wrong ways to study.

Experts tell the Journal that many students take a passive approach to studying, and they spend a lot of time re-reading and highlighting. When the material begins to look familiar, students think they've learned it. But that's a false sense of security, says Ned Johnson, founder of Prep Matters. Just because material looks familiar doesn't mean you'll be able to recall it later for a test, he explains.

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Instead, Johnson recommends students take a more active approach to learning that emphasizes retrieval practice, such as practices tests and quizzing friends. In a 2015 study, students who quizzed each other in study groups got higher grades than those who didn't.

Another common mistake is marathon cram sessions. Instead, Johnson encourages students to study in regular, short sessions of about 45 minutes.

This requires students to plan ahead. A 2017 study found that students who created a study plan about a week before a test scored a third of a letter grade higher on average than students who didn't. Their study plans included:

  • What questions they expected to see on the test;
  • The resources they could use to study that material; and
  • A summary of how they'd use those resources.

Nudging students to think about the range of resources at their disposal may help for other reasons as well, according to a separate 2017 study. The researchers found that college students got better grades if they searched for extra resources, such as instructional YouTube videos. However, researchers found that few students do this—fewer than one in five went to office hours, even though students who did were more likely to get A's (Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal, 8/15).

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