Supporting Student Learning Strategies
- Students frequently use passive, review-based strategies in which they reread or memorize the textbook, personal notes, or other class materials.
- Rote memorizing and rereading of materials, which are considered surface strategies, require low cognitive effort, promote superficial familiarity with material, and facilitate an isolated understanding of concepts, rather than retention and meaningful understanding of concepts.
- Students tend to mass their studying into a single large session or a few sessions (also known as cramming). Massing of studying can support performance in the short term, but it does not support long-term retention of material.
- Students often prioritize what to study based on when it is due, rather than planning a schedule of study. The sooner students will be assessed over material, the more effort they devote to that material when studying. This approach may encourage the tendency to mass studying, as well as the tendency to procrastinate in studying.
- Students do occasionally use self-testing, an effective strategy because it promotes retention. However, they tend to view its value in revealing knowledge gaps and increasing familiarity with question format and wording, rather than improving retention.
- Strategies in which students seek assistance from expert sources, such as course instructors, teaching assistants, and tutors, are used surprisingly infrequently.
- However, students should be encouraged to seek help from instructors and expert peers for support with understanding material and for recommendations on how to study.
- Instructors can learn about which strategies students use for studying through tools such as strategy/resource planning assignments, weekly study diaries, and post-exam surveys/evaluation assignments.
Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger III, H. L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: do students practise retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17, 471-479. In this exploration of the strategies students use when studying for exams, the authors investigated whether students chose self-testing as a strategy and, if they did, why they used it. Undergraduate students who were participating in memory and learning experiments in psychology labs (n=177) reported what strategies they used while studying for exams and ranked how frequently they used each of their listed strategies. They also answered whether, given the choice, they would choose to restudy a reading passage or quiz themselves over the information in the passage. As expected, students frequently reread their textbook or notes when studying for exams but infrequently engaged in self-testing (i.e., practice recalling material). The few students who did use self-testing as a strategy reported its benefit in providing feedback on how successfully they had learned concepts, but not that it improved their retention. The authors argue that repeatedly reviewing materials may result in illusions of competence because students simply become more familiar with the material right in front of them, and they are less able to successfully recall information when the information is not present during testing. Based on the results, instructors should note that students are likely to reread course materials as they study and do not necessarily know that self-testing is superior in promoting long-term retention of information. Students can, however, recognize the benefit of self-testing in revealing knowledge gaps.
Lopez, E. J., Nandagopal, K., Shavelson, R. J., Szu, E., & Penn, J. (2013). Self-regulated learning study strategies and academic performance in undergraduate organic chemistry: An investigation examining ethnically diverse students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 50, 660-676. Students entering college differ in their knowledge of effective learning strategies, which may result in varying levels of academic achievement. This difference could partly contribute to a loss of students from the STEM talent pool, particularly students from minoritized groups. To evaluate this possibility, the authors examined whether students of different ethnic backgrounds differed in their use of learning strategies, and whether any differences corresponded to differences in course performance. Undergraduate students (n=89) from an ethnically diverse state university taking an organic chemistry course completed diaries in which they documented the strategies they used while studying. Among all ethnic groups, students reported organizing and transforming information, reviewing previous problems (e.g., homework and quizzes), reviewing notes, and reviewing the textbook most frequently; reviewing the textbook was the most used out of all strategies. The only detectable difference related to ethnicity was that Latino/a students reported using these popular strategies relatively more frequently than did White students. The least-used strategies included seeking social assistance (e.g., from peers, the instructor, or the teaching assistant) and metacognitive strategies (e.g., checking one’s understanding and setting goals/planning). Whether grouped together or separated by ethnicity, no strategies were significantly related to course grades, and only a couple strategies were moderately correlated with performance on formative assessments (concept maps and problem sets). Based on the results, instructors should note that students frequently review course materials, which may not impart any benefit to learning, and they may not often use metacognitive strategies or seek social assistance. Moreover, students may need coaching on using more effective strategies, such as self-evaluation, goal-setting and planning, and seeking assistance from expert sources.
Morehead, K., Rhodes, M. G., & DeLozier, S. (2016). Instructor and student knowledge of study strategies. Memory, 24, 257-271. Students do not always choose effective strategies. However, little is known on whether instructors know effective strategies and encourage students to use them. The authors compared undergraduate students’ reported strategy use with instructors’ beliefs on beneficial learning strategies. Students (n=300) from introductory psychology courses reported which strategies they used while studying for exams and whether their instructors influenced their approaches. Instructors (n=146) across the university reported whether they discussed strategies with their students, what strategies they recommended, and their beliefs about students’ study habits. Then, students and instructors rated the value of using an effective versus ineffective strategy in a given learning scenario (e.g., is interleaving versus blocking more effective?). Most students remarked that their instructors did not influence their strategy choices, yet most instructors reported discussing strategies with their students, often before a major assessment. Students reported using both effective and ineffective strategies most frequently (testing, rereading, using flashcards), and roughly half spaced their studying. In comparison, instructors often considered testing and spacing effective, but they also advocated for strategies with mixed effectiveness, such as rereading and studying with peers. Both students and instructors viewed testing largely as a monitoring tool (i.e., how well material was learned), rather than an approach to foster retention. A majority of students reported choosing to study whatever was due soonest, even though they believed planning was superior. Despite largely similar strategy endorsements, instructors were slightly more likely than students to endorse testing and generating one’s own study materials. Based on these results, instructors should note that (1) students may need support in planning their studying, (2) both students and instructors have mixed beliefs about effective strategies, and (3) some students do heed studying advice from their instructors. Instructors should know which strategies are effective so they can encourage their students to use them.
- Three of the most effective learning strategies are self-testing (practice testing), spacing of study (distributed practice), and interleaving.
- Self-testing allows for active retrieval and encoding of information, and examples include flashcards, quizzes, and practice exams. When students are prompted to recall information, they activate relevant knowledge and more deeply encode the prompt with the correct answer. With a richer memory pathway for the information established, a student can more easily access that information in the future.
- Self-testing promotes retention, monitoring of knowledge gaps, and higher academic performance compared to passive, reviewing-based strategies. Feedback on correct answers from self-testing enhances the testing effect.
- Spacing of study, in which students spread out their studying of the same content over multiple sessions, supports learning and performance because it fosters long-term retention. Students who space their study are less susceptible to the superficial familiarity with material that comes from massing or cramming. Furthermore, spacing can help to consolidate information from a previous study session, which makes the memory trace stronger because information is prompted after a long-enough period (when retention is more likely than familiarity). Spacing can also prompt active recall, much like self-testing.
- Spacing also encourages students to deliberately plan their study, which gives them greater control over the learning process (see “While Preparing for an Exam” node).
- Interleaving, in which presentation of examples from one category are alternated with examples from other categories, promotes superior learning over blocking examples from one category together. Interleaving is thought to benefit learning by naturally producing spaced practice and by promoting discriminative contrast across different categories. Spacing is inherent in interleaving because delays occur between studying a concept or example from the same category. Interleaving presumably helps students to recognize differences among different kinds of problems, which could promote transfer of knowledge to novel situations.
- Interleaving works for learning categories with strong distinctions among them, such as chemical groups on organic molecules. Other work has shown a benefit from interleaving with learning categories with some distinction, such as bird species.
- Instructors can discuss with their students why self-testing, spacing, and interleaving work, as well as demonstrate how they can be used while studying.
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, 4-58. Out of the many ways educators can support student achievement, one readily available approach is encouraging students to use effective learning strategies and techniques. However, it may be difficult to identify which strategies to suggest, out of the many available, to improve achievement. In this monograph, the authors assessed 10 different learning strategies that could improve achievement. They compiled and reviewed literature on these strategies and evaluated their potential for supporting learning based on their generalizability: the content/disciplines in which the strategies were investigated, the context in which the learning occurred (e.g., individual versus group learning), student characteristics (e.g., age and prior knowledge), and the specific types of tasks to which the strategies were applied (e.g., problem solving versus recall). Based on the degree of generalizability and evidence for improving learning, each strategy was rated for its utility. Spacing and self-testing were rated at high utility because they can be easily implemented, can be used in many different learning contexts and disciplines, and robustly support student performance. Interleaving was rated at medium utility because early evidence suggested it benefits learning, but little evidence was available at the time that demonstrated its efficacy in classroom settings. Finally, strategies such as highlighting materials and rereading were rated at low utility. Although easily and commonly used in a variety of tasks and subjects, these strategies inconsistently support performance because they are cognitively passive and inefficient. This review distills the vast literature on learning strategies so instructors can focus their efforts on promoting the most effective learning techniques. Based on this paper, instructors should note that (1) spacing and self-testing are the two most valuable strategies for improving student achievement, and (2) spacing and self-testing can readily be incorporated into instruction on how to learn in order to encourage students to use them.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). What works, what doesn’t. Scientific American Mind, 24(4), 46-53. This resource is a summary of the Dunlosky et al. 2013 review. We recommend this short article for readers who are interested in the top recommendations from the comprehensive review.
Eglington, L. G., & Kang, S. H. (2017). Interleaved presentation benefits science category learning. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 6, 475-485. Interleaving examples from different categories during study, rather than blocking similar examples together, enables learners to identify distinguishing features of those categories and promotes superior learning. In many science courses, students are asked to distinguish between well-defined categories (e.g., identifying polar vs. nonpolar amino acids), and instructors may deliberately point out key features of these categories during instruction. Little is known as to whether highlighting key features during instruction either supports the interleaving effect by enhancing attention to distinguishing features, or hinders the effect because it could prevent learners from actively searching for key features. In a series of four experiments, the authors presented undergraduates (n=60) with examples of various chemical compound categories—half the students learning by blocking examples from each category, and half learning by interleaving examples from different categories. The authors also tested whether explicitly highlighting diagnostic features for each category and example during study affected the efficacy of blocking versus interleaving. Participants made judgments of confidence in correctly identifying chemical groups and were tested two days after studying. Participants with interleaved studying consistently outperformed those with blocked studying in correctly identifying simple and complex organic compounds (controlling for previous chemistry knowledge). They generally made more accurate confidence judgments in correctly identifying test items and reported higher confidence compared to the blocked group. Visually cueing diagnostic features during study did not decrease the efficacy of interleaving over blocking, as interleaved studying still produced higher performance. Based on the results, instructors should note that discussing and highlighting relevant features during learning of the categories (1) does not detract from the benefits of interleaving examples during study and (2) can be applied successfully to science material with clearly defined features across categories.
Rodriguez, F., Rivas, M. J., Matsumura, L. H., Warschauer, M., & Sato, B. K. (2018). How do students study in STEM courses? Findings from a light-touch intervention and its relevance for underrepresented students. PLoS One, 13. Spacing and self-testing result in higher achievement, and training for using these strategies could improve performance for students from minoritized groups who are underrepresented in science. The authors assessed the degree to which students in a large-enrollment molecular biology course (Year 1 n=544; Year 2 n=782) used spacing and self-testing while studying for exams, whether use of spacing and self-testing varied by minority status, and whether an intervention to encourage use of spacing and self-testing could increase their use. Students in the control groups (multiple course sections) and the intervention group (one section) reported how they studied at the beginning and end of the course. The intervention group received a 10-minute lecture during the second week on the benefits of spacing and self-testing (i.e., answering practice questions/problems) and was reminded weekly to use them. While a majority of all students (regardless of group) reported spacing, self-testing, and rereading the textbook early on, minoritized students reported using self-testing less frequently than non-minoritized students. Students in all groups reported similar levels of spacing and self-testing initially, but the intervention group often maintained their use of both strategies while the control groups stopped using both strategies over time. Minoritized students in the intervention group increased or maintained their use of self-testing specifically whereas minoritized students in the control groups decreased their use. Students who used spacing and self-testing throughout the course earned higher course grades, compared to those who never used or adopted them later. Although they generally earned lower grades compared to non-minoritized students, minoritized students who reported self-testing earned similar grades to non-minoritized students who reported self-testing. The authors note that the intervention group had more frequent exams than the control groups, but it indicates that course format might influence the use of spacing and self-testing. Based on the results, instructors should note that (1) they can encourage students to use spacing and self-testing by discussing their benefits in class, (2) spacing and self-testing best support performance when they are adopted early, and (3) spacing and self-testing can improve achievement for minoritized students.
- Other strategies that support learning and performance, outside of self-testing, spacing, and interleaving, can vary based on context. Context includes the nature of the material, assessment demands, course learning objectives, and instructional approaches.
- Students often consider how they will be assessed—i.e., what are they expected to know and be able to do—and select strategies they believe will bring them success. Instructors can intentionally design their courses, from learning objectives to assessments to class sessions, to encourage students to use effective strategies for their learning.
- Other strategies can support learning and performance based on how they are used and in which situations (procedural and conditional knowledge of strategies).
- For example, reviewing the textbook has sometimes been linked to achievement, even though it is not always recommended as a strategy. In this case, students who review the textbook to check their understanding of challenging concepts (invoking metacognitive monitoring) could have superior performance, compared to students who passively reread text.
- Deep learning strategies promote understanding and connecting of ideas, and they are often promoted over surface strategies. Deep strategies can involve metacognition as well, such as when students assess their understanding while using such a strategy. However, even surface strategies are useful, and selecting surface versus deep strategies will partly depend on a students’ level of background knowledge.
- When students have little background knowledge on a concept, they must first build that background knowledge with surface strategies, such as taking notes and spacing their studying. Once they have built that knowledge, they can monitor their level of understanding and adopt approaches that can deepen their understanding.
- Instructors can help students develop procedural and conditional knowledge of strategy effectiveness by prompting students to be intentional and explicit in (1) what resources they plan to use for their studying, (2) how they will use them, and (3) why they will use them. Procedural and conditional knowledge can also help students build proficiency with metacognitive regulation (planning, monitoring, and evaluating approaches).
- This prompting is best when done in the context of a specific course, so students can more readily connect approaches to studying with how successfully they acquire and use content and skills.
Scouller, K. (1998). The influence of assessment method on students’ learning approaches: Multiple choice question examination versus assignment essay. Higher Education, 35, 453-472. Prior work has revealed that students often adopt a particular approach to their learning. In a deep approach, learners tend to seek robust understanding, connect ideas, and enjoy immersing in the task, whereas a surface approach entails minimal task engagement and reproducing information with little understanding. Students may select approaches based on their perceptions of assessment demands, such as format (multiple-choice exam versus essay assignment) and the expected level of cognitive processing. These different approaches could result in different levels of achievement on those tasks. To evaluate such possibilities, the author asked undergraduate students taking a second-year education course (n=164) to report their learning approaches (surface versus deep) towards both a multiple-choice exam and an essay assignment, their perceptions of the cognitive-processing level targeted for each assessment, and their preferred assessment format. Students perceived the multiple-choice exam to assess lower-level cognitive skills and often employed surface approaches. Contrarily, students perceived the essay assignment to assess higher-level cognitive skills and tended to employ deep approaches. Students who employed surface approaches to the multiple-choice exam earned higher scores compared to students employing a deep approach; the opposite was true for the essay (deep approach, higher scores; surface approach, lower scores). Lastly, students who preferred essay assignments were more likely to adopt deep approaches, and those preferring multiple-choice exams tended to adopt surface approaches. Based on the results, instructors should note that (1) the nature of an assessment, such as format and perceived level of cognitive skills tested, can influence students’ choices of strategies for completing the task, (2) students who use strategies aligned with assessment demands tend to perform more strongly than students using misaligned strategies, and (3) instructors can be intentional in how they design their assessments, depending on course learning goals, to encourage students’ use of effective strategies.
Hartwig, M. K., & Dunlosky, J. (2012). Study strategies of college students: Are self-testing and scheduling related to achievement?. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 19, 126-134. While previous research has investigated patterns of strategy use among undergraduates and their reasons for selecting strategies, it has not always made a more direct connection between strategy use and achievement. This study explores the strategy use profiles of higher- versus lower-achieving students, particularly assessing whether self-testing and spacing are related to higher achievement. The authors asked undergraduates enrolled in introductory psychology courses (n=324) to report how they scheduled their studying, reasons for engaging in self-testing, and the specific strategies they frequently used when studying. A majority of students used self-testing to monitor how well they had learned material, and as expected, those who used self-testing tended to have higher GPAs. Students often prioritized studying based on what was due soonest, especially lower-achieving students, although higher-achieving students were more likely to plan their studying. Surprisingly, rereading the textbook or notes positively predicted GPA, yet spacing did not, despite its reported benefits for retention. Nevertheless, students who spaced their study also tended to report self-testing and rereading the textbook or notes and used more strategies overall. That some strategies corresponded to higher achievement, whereas others did not, can speak to the importance of understanding the context in which students are using these strategies, as well as the nuances in how strategies are used. Based on the results, instructors should note that the context in which strategies are used—subject domain, course learning goals and assessment demands, and the specifics of how and why students use strategies—could help to explain their contribution (or lack thereof) to academic performance.
Hattie, J. A., & Donoghue, G. M. (2016). Learning strategies: A synthesis and conceptual model. Nature Partner Journal Science of Learning, 1, 1-13. If students are to be successful, lifelong learners, then they must effectively learn how to learn—that is, learn how, when, and why to use particular learning strategies. The authors of this synthesis propose several concepts in a model of the learning process. First, the strategies that best support achievement align to the demands of the learning task. Thus, it is crucial that students and instructors have a clear, shared understanding of expectations for success, so students can more intentionally direct their efforts and select appropriate strategies. Second, learning happens on a continuum, from surface processing (building knowledge), to deep processing (connecting knowledge), to transfer (applying knowledge). Each phase is characterized by strategies that maximize that type of learning. Rather than prizing deep processing and transfer over surface processing, instructors and students should recognize that all types of processing are necessary at particular times and in particular circumstances. Surface processing is critical for establishing background knowledge that can then be elaborated upon and synthesized during deep processing, and eventually made robust to be transferred to novel situations. Accordingly, learning how to use strategies effectively should be situated in the context of specific content so students can learn how and why certain strategies are appropriate for certain tasks and domains. Based on this article, instructors should note that (1) students need explicit instruction and feedback on what constitutes success for a task, (2) students’ level of background knowledge can influence which learning strategies they select, (3) surface, deep, and transfer-related learning can be useful depending on the learning context, and (4) teaching of strategies should account for students’ background knowledge and be embedded in specific content, so students can more readily build procedural and conditional knowledge of learning strategies.
Steiner, H. H. (2016). The Strategy Project: Promoting Self-Regulated Learning through an Authentic Assignment. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 28, 271-282. Self-regulated learners set goals and plan, select appropriate strategies, monitor and evaluate their approaches to reach their goals, and have higher academic performance. Although instructors expect their students to be effective self-regulated learners, many students transitioning from high school need support in meeting these expectations by practicing self-regulated learning in an authentic context. That is, they must practice how to plan, choose strategies, monitor progress, and evaluate approaches based on outcomes from a tangible academic task, such as a course exam. The author employed the “Strategy Project” in which undergraduate students in a first-year seminar (n=79) did the following: learn about effective strategies from in-class instruction, choose a specific course exam to apply the strategy project, meet with the specific course instructor to discuss effective strategies, set a timeline for studying and select strategies, and evaluate their strategy plan through an essay with metacognitive prompts (e.g., what strategies helped). The author openly coded essays for emergent themes. Students found the project helpful and felt it enabled them to more easily meet expectations for college learning, such as trying new, more effective strategies and planning their study. They also identified why certain strategies were or were not helpful while studying for their first exam, proposed specific strategies to address shortcomings, and valued self-quizzing and seeking help from their instructors as useful techniques. Most importantly, approximately 70% of students reported at least a small increase in their exam grade, and those whose grade decreased took responsibility for their lack of studying effort. Based on the results, instructors should note that (1) adopting effective strategies should be situated to a specific task and context, (2) guided planning, monitoring, and evaluating can help students to recognize the value in controlling their learning, and (3) metacognitive engagement can improve performance.
Chen, P., Chavez, O., Ong, D. C., & Gunderson, B. (2017). Strategic resource use for learning: A self-administered intervention that guides self-reflection on effective resource use enhances academic performance. Psychological Science, 28, 774-785. Students with greater knowledge and control over how they learn can use course resources more strategically, and they experience higher academic performance. Can an intervention aimed at supporting students in explicitly planning how and why to use particular resources while studying increase performance? In two field experiments, undergraduates in an introductory statistics course (Study 1, n=171; Study 2, n=190) were randomly assigned either to the control or intervention conditions. Both groups received a reminder of the upcoming exam one week prior, but the intervention group received a series of prompts regarding strategic resource use. These latter students reflected on expectations for the upcoming exam, selected course resources from a checklist, explained why their selected resources would maximize their learning, and proposed a plan for how, when, and where they would use them in their studying. Finally, students in both conditions reported which resources they actually used and their usefulness in a post-exam survey. In both studies, students receiving the treatment outperformed students in the control group in overall course performance by 3-4 percentage points. Students in the treatment group also chose fewer resources, indicating they were more efficient and intentional in resource use. A causal model shows students in the intervention becoming more reflective in how they learn overall, which influenced how useful they thought their selected resources were and consequently improved their performance. Based on the results, instructors should note that prompting students to intentionally select resources for learning, and articulating why and how they would use them, builds procedural and conditional knowledge and increases performance. Such an intervention is a minimal-effort approach to foster metacognitive regulation because students are explicitly setting goals and planning, monitoring, and evaluating their resource choices and effectiveness.
- The approaches to learning that students believe work best are often not the approaches that work best.
- For example, students believe that studying one topic for a long period of time (massing) will result in higher performance than studying a topic for a short period of time and then revisiting it after a delay (spacing). They maintain this belief even after performing better with spacing than with massing.
- First-year students are often willing to change their approaches to learning, but they may not know what approaches are effective. Students may have trouble evaluating the effectiveness of their study plans, which can make it difficult for them to identify appropriate ways to modify those plans.
- Students may be aware of effective approaches, but they may not use them for a variety of reasons. For example, students may lack knowledge of how to enact the strategies, confidence in using the strategies, or the agency to take charge of their own learning. Students may also believe that an approach shown to be effective in the literature is not effective for them personally.
- Students tend to use learning strategies that brought them success in the past, even when those strategies are no longer working in their current courses.
- Students may avoid effective learning strategies because they cause them discomfort. This finding suggests that students need help understanding the value of discomfort while learning.
- For example, students may feel discomfort because of increased cognitive effort required to employ some strategies, stress caused when they identify their own knowledge gaps, or the challenge of having to intentionally plan and organize their study.
- Instructors can talk about “desirable difficulties” during learning and encourage students to embrace challenges, while also providing mentoring and support for making changes to study approaches.