With life being as busy as it is, with schedules full of study, sport, and socialising, students need to carefully consider study strategies to ensure their time is being used most effectively.
By Amanda J. Pooley and Emily Thorne
Frequent testing, assessments, and heavily weighted exams can create a flurry of urgency to absorb as much information as quickly as possible, sometimes referred to as cramming. In the absence of evidence about more efficient study methods, many students default to techniques including highlighting, re-reading, and note-taking, which research demonstrates is largely ineffectual; they just don’t work.
While there is no prescribed formula that guarantees high achievement, this review hopes to provide information about evidence-based study methods, including the frequency, length of study sessions, and how to structure study schedules to maximise effectiveness and get the most from your study time.
A great deal of research demonstrates that the common techniques such as highlighting, re-reading, and note-making are laregly ineffectual.
While study strategies such as highlighting or re-reading may feel like the go-to strategies, research presents us with many other options that are more effective.
What strategies are the most effective?
Rather than persevere with low utility methods, there is significant research evidence that much more effective strategies exist. An in-depth review(1) of ten common study techniques identified the following high utility strategies:
- Practice testing is a technique where students perform self-testing of information which has been learnt. Practicing retrieval of information has been shown to increase long-term retention and memory(2, 3), a phenomenon coined by researchers as “testing effects”(4). Practice tests help organise information into specific categories and protects long-term memory from interference(2).
- Practice testing is most beneficial when it provides opportunities for elaborative processing (3) and identifies gaps in knowledge. Elaborative processing is where learners take more time to analyse and process information that helps to integrate this new material with what they already know about the topic(5). These connections are supported when students practice recalling information, rather than just being exposed to the material through re-reading or copying notes(6).
Practice testing has been shown to increase long-term retention and memory especially when students practice recalling information.
There are many different formats in which practice tests can be completed.
- Free recall, which means recalling everything that was learnt. Completing free recall tests immediately after studying information may improve retention for at least the next two to seven days(7).
- Cue-based recall, meaning completing gaps by learning associated pairs, short answers, or filling in gaps. In a study(8), the use of review questions improved learning and retention in grade eight students.
- Recognition tests compare new information with old information which was presented earlier (for example, multiple choice questions or true or false questions). Whilst multiple choice questions have the advantage of being quick, studies have suggested exposure to the ‘wrong’ answers may mean this false information is stored in long term memory, especially when no feedback is given(9, 10).
Tests that require students to produce information (such as in recall tests and cue-based tests) are more beneficial than only multiple-choice questions(2). However, it is important to note that both test formats are beneficial compared to not doing practice tests at all and studying by re-reading. Based on a recent meta-analysis(11), mixed-format practice tests which include questions of all three different formats produce the best studying results. To effectively utilise the testing effect, practice tests should be as similar as possible to the real assessment. Some research(10) has demonstrated the importance of obtaining corrective feedback on practice tests to minimise the potential for errors to be repeated, but not at the expense of completing less practice tests because of time constraints(12). Practically, this means if you are very short on time, do several practice tests as opposed to one practice test and focusing the rest of your time on corrective feedback.
Mixed-format practice tests which include questions in recall, cue-based and multiple choice formats produce the best studying results.
How often should practice tests be done?
Although several studies have found that multiple testing practice may enhance memory(13), the benefit of multiple testing appears to depend on timing. Practice tests done across longer intervals and repeated may be more effective than those that are completed closer together(14). Based on a summary of the current academic literature, a delay of between one to six days is optimal between the practice test and final test (this is referred to as the ‘retention interval’)(11).
The literature suggests a method involving ‘distributed practice’, a term that refers to implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time(1). These learning episodes could involve any combination of activities such as re-reading, practice testing, or other retrieval activities.
What makes distributed practice work?
Distributed practice has been widely studied and found to be an effective learning strategy. Research(1) explained that the distributed practice effect is a product of different mechanisms that are believed to enhance memory and long-term retention. Research has shown subsequent sessions help to remind students of materials learned in the initial session which stimulates the retrieval process and subsequently, improves memory. Although there is a plethora of studies that demonstrated the effectiveness of distributed practice, there are studies(15) that have raised questions over these claims. In some situations, processing of information in the second learning session has been impacted because less cognitive effort is applied to information which is already familiar. Students can also have a sense of ease and overconfidence that they know the material better than they do. Given this, one must consider the conditions in which distributed practice can benefit retention.
Distributed practice has been widely studied and found to be an effective learning strategy.
What about active recall?
Research suggests the most important factor underpinning the ability to later recall information is how involved and engaged the learner is when they study the material(16). For example, active recall could involve a student answering comprehension questions from a textbook chapter or a self-created list corresponding with the exam content. If, whilst attempting the questions, the student identified gaps in knowledge, a natural curiosity to find the answer would emerge. In trying the questions, the student creates the necessity to understand the information for themselves.
Medium utility strategies
Briefly, this section will review strategies which have been assessed as medium utility(1). Most of these strategies lack empirical evidence or require further research. Therefore, these strategies could supplement study regimes which include the high utility methods described above.
- ‘Interleaved practice’ is a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session(17). For example, in interleaved practice, a student practises different subtopics in mathematics (algebra, decimals, volumes in solid and fractions) in one study session, instead of dedicating the whole session to practicing algebra before moving on the next session. Some studies have shown students who used interleaved practice in learning mathematics concepts performed better in final test than those who used block study(18, 19) because of their ability to discriminate between different types of problems and categories(20, 21).
- ‘Elaborative interrogation’ involves generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true(1, 22). To be most effective, elaborative interrogation must be generated by the student, accurate, involve processing of similarities and differences, and relies upon prior knowledge of the topic(1). Basically, this is about proving to yourself the fact is actually true and you personally believe it.
- ‘Self-explanation’ involves learners explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving(1). In the process of self-explanation, learners generate their own explanation and inferences about causal and conceptual relationships between elements in the to-be-learnt material that enhance understanding(23). The technique is most useful when students are prompted to explain correct information and explain common errors or misconceptions about the topic(24).
‘Interleaved practice’, 'elaborative interrogation’ and 'self-explanation’ techniques can supplement study regimes.
Research suggests the most important factor underpinning the ability to later recall information is how involved and engaged the learner is when they study the material.
Common but ineffective strategies
Research indicates that students tend to choose strategies which their peers use, or teachers encourage(25). Students report using a particular strategy simply because it was taught by a teacher(26, 27). Some methods, such as highlighting, re-reading, and copious notetaking are frequently used by students. However, not all techniques enhance memory and retention.
Research(1) has described the following methods as low utility (which means they may be ineffective and as such there are probably better ways to spend your study time):
Writing summaries of to-be-learned texts. The research showed summarisation may be only useful for those who have already mastered this skill, and intensive training is required before this strategy could be effective.
Marking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while reading.
- Keyword mnemonic
Using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials.
- Imagery for text
Attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening.
Reading text material multiple times. A common choice, however, it can provide a false sense of mastery as while it increases familiarity with the content being studied, the passive nature of the task does not enable deep processing of information(11). Research(28) indicates that retention was not enhanced with re-reading.
While study strategies such as highlighting or re-reading may feel like the go-to strategies, research presents us with many other options that are more effective. As described above, a planned schedule involving practice tests, distributing study sessions over time, and tasks that ensure elaborate processing occurs, will create far better retention of information. When planning your study strategy for upcoming endeavours at school or university, give these evidence-based strategies a try.
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- Eisenkraemer, R., Jaeger, A., & Stein, L. (2013). A systematic review of the testing effect in learning. Paideía, 23(56), 397-406.
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- Rohrer, D., & Taylor, K. (2007). The shuffling of mathematics problems improves learning. Instructional Science, 35(6), 481-498. doi: 10.1007/s11251-007-9015-8.
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The authors thank Ali Abdaal for his YouTube video on study skills.