The two most effective study strategies—and why students probably don't know them

With countless study strategies to choose from, students and teachers may not know which tactics truly work best, Claudia Wallis reports for the Hechinger Report.

In fact, 85% of textbooks used to train teachers on the student learning process had less than a page on validated study strategies, according to a report by the National Council on Teacher Quality.

As much of the research on study tactics has not reached students or their teachers, it makes sense that many new college students need a little help building their study skills, Wallis argues.

Luckily, the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest published a comprehensive review of ten study techniques. The authors drew from nearly 400 studies and ranked the techniques based on the level of utility.

Low-utility tactics lacked "sufficient evidence of efficacy" or only showed usefulness in certain areas, says John Dunlosky, the article's lead author and psychology professor at Kent State University. High-utility tactics showed a broad impact across all fields and for all students, he explains.

According to the review, only the two study techniques below earned a high-utility rating.

Practice testing

Students can self-test their knowledge through flashcards or review quizzes. Learners at all levels benefit from practice that requires "free recall" of content, Wallis writes. Studies show that the act of recalling information from your memory is more effective than simply rereading your notes, says Thomas Toppino, a cognitive psychologist at Villanova University.

5 myths about learning, debunked

Distributed practice

While a five-hour cramming session can be useful, students are better off spacing out the study sessions across a few days, says Dunlosky. When learners revisit information over time, the information becomes easier to retain and recall, Wallis adds. And if students study the same material in different locations, the material becomes associated with a range of memories that boosts retention, she writes.

Other tips

Students shouldn't underestimate the power of sleep, Wallis adds. Getting sleep between study sessions can help students learn faster and remember more material, according to a 2016 study published in Psychological Science.

A learner's best bet is to combine self-testing with distributed practice, Wallis argues. Highlighting information can be useful as well—as long as students do more with their notes than simply reread them, says Dunlosky (Wallis, Hechinger Report, 11/28).

Related: How to create an active learning classroom


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