What should students focus on? Evidence-based study habits
A lot of the study advice that students and school pupils get is next to useless. Some is actually counterproductive, includes the learning myths, such as finding a ‘learning style’ (learning styles actually don’t exist - but this doesn’t stop many schools from pushing the idea relentlessly!)
In addition, advice often unhelpfully focuses on getting students to sit down and study, without actually telling them how to do so effectively. All too often, study tips focus on making study plans, starting early, drinking lots of water, or just generally working harder.
Cognitive psychology has shown that in order to use your study time effectively, you should pay more attention to what you do during your study sessions. In other words, it’s not just the amount of practice that counts, but how you do it.
To take an analogy that I sometimes use in lectures, imagine a basketball player throwing the ball at the basket again and again, and missing again and again. That player would get a lot further if he or she focused on technique, rather than just ‘working hard’.
These are some of the flawed study techniques that are commonly used by school pupils and university students (Hartwig & Dunlosky, 2012):
Skim reading chapters of textbooks
Highlighting words or sections
Unfortunately, these techniques are ineffective ways to learn — at times they are almost useless. For example, several research studies (e.g. Dunlosky et al, 2013; Yik et al, 2018) have shown that highlighting or underlining notes usually makes no difference to how much is recalled (and, in case you were wondering, neither does using different colours of pens!).
What would be considerably more effective would be:
Writing summaries of notes from memory, preferably after a delay (so the summary is not written verbatim from working memory).
Re-reading after a delay, and testing yourself.
Identifying key terms and phrases, and writing these onto index cards in order to check your memory of them later.
When and where to study
We can apply science to how the study sessions take place, too. Consider the following, all of which are commonly believed to be helpful when studying:
Finding one place to study and doing all your work there.
Drinking 6-8 glasses of water a day as you study.
Studying with friends.
Long study sessions (several hours at a time) on a single topic.
None of these are actually useful or necessary. Research has shown that studying in multiple places is actually more helpful than working in a single place (Smith et al, 1978) – if the context of the learning doesn’t vary, it becomes harder to remember the information elsewhere (e.g. in an exam hall). Water won’t make much difference unless you are actually dehydrated (too much will lead to you needing the toilet, making it harder to concentrate). And friends will simply distract you.
Long study sessions should certainly be avoided. Yes, you may need to study quite a lot in order to learn the key ideas from your course. But, as with exercise, this is best split into shorter, more intensive bursts. Try doing several 20-minute sessions (sometimes called ‘pomodoros’), covering a single part of a topic in each. Then take a break, and when you come back, test yourself on the information — this can be as simple as writing down everything you can remember on a piece of paper.
Finally, cognitive psychology research has shown that people tend to underestimate how rapidly forgetting takes place (Yan et al, 2016). It’s tempting to think that topics and information can be ticked off a study plan as “done”. However, what if you have forgotten most of it after a week?
A much more effective approach is to allocate at least one, and preferable 2-3 sessions in your overall study time where you will return to an earlier topic. Schedule these to take place at least a day or two after the first revision session. Again, test yourself, because not only will this highlight areas that you have forgotten, the test itself will help to consolidate the information in your memory.
Related post – what to do with a week to go until your exam
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.
Hartwig, M. K., & Dunlosky, J. (2012). Study strategies of college students: Are self-testing and scheduling related to achievement?. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 19(1), 126-134.
Smith, S. M., Glenberg, A., & Bjork, R. A. (1978). Environmental context and human memory. Memory & Cognition, 6(4), 342-353.
Yan, V. X., Clark, C. M., & Bjork, R. A. (2016). Memory and metamemory considerations in the instruction of human beings revisited: Implications for optimizing online learning. In J. C. Horvath, J. Lodge, & J. Hattie (Eds). From the laboratory to the classroom: Translating science of learning for teachers (pp. 61-78). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Yik, N. C., Yi, L. X., Somadam, S. T. N., Amirudin, A. E. B., & Ananthan, S. (2018). Effect of Highlighting Text on Concentration, Memory and Attention Among Undergraduate Medical Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial. American Journal of Educational Science, 4(4), 149-158.