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A Fundamental Gap

Too often even advanced and older students don’t know how to study effectively.

It may seem like a fundamental mission for education, but a surprising number of students in high school or even college will admit they really don’t know how to study.

“It isn’t unusual for a student at a young age to need to learn study skills, but it is surprising how many older students really don’t know how to study or are studying in inappropriate ways,” says Henry Roediger a distinguished professor of brain science at Washington University in St. Louis and co-author of leading book on the topic. “It’s actually shocking how often it is overlooked.”

Recent reports have shown that college students say they lack study skills, and Roediger says his experience is that most high school teachers have found even successful students often aren’t studying efficiently.

“It is really something that needs to be taught in 3rd or 4th grade and reinforced throughout their years in school,” he says.

Roediger and other researchers have found some approaches that teachers and parents recommend for studying such as re-reading, highlighting or summarizing material, might not actually be effective, especially over time. However, spacing out study session and self-testing have proven to work, he says. He and other experts also have found that when students learned study skills their performance improves significantly – and even their attitude about a subject.

Here are five things teachers can tell students – and parents – about studying:            

The environment counts.

Students should have a regular time and routine for homework. Habits can be established as early in elementary school with regularly scheduled reading time or structured games. Parents should be firm about rules, including about distractions and appropriate settings for study. Some research has shown that students learn better if they mix up where they study.

Experts suggest 10 minutes of study time for each grade level should be enough. Parents should offer to help when needed and monitor the results by having students show them their work, or by checking grades or asking for teacher feedback. Roediger also notes that students tend to be overconfident about how well they have learned material and parent should be warned that when their student say, “I’ve got it”, they still may need more study time.

Space it out.

John Dunlosky, a psychologist at Kent State who has extensively researched study skills, in one exhaustive study ranked 10 popular approaches using various criteria and found that distributed practice – or studying a subject then taking a break and studying it again – works very well. He found, for instance, that if students were given a passage to read twice successively, they often recall details better if tested right away but they consistently do better over time if they pause and do something in between. So, a student who studies a topic for an hour three separate times over a week will recall it better than if they spend three hours on it in one night.

Change things up.

Roediger notes that Coaches and music teachers have known for some time that their students learn better if they practice a mix of skills in one session, and in one study seventh-graders learned better with such a structure. Some one subject at a time and for the others, old and new problems were mixed in what’s called interleaving. After five days, the students who used interleaving did 25% better, and a month later their scores on a test were 76% higher than the other group.

Roediger says in those cases, students “discriminate among the types of problems and select the right method for each.”  Blocked studying of problems in a vacuum, experts say, doesn’t let them see the relation of topics or how to distinguish problems and the solutions.

Bring it back.

Researchers generally see “retrieval” as the best studying technique – being tested about material you have studied, either by yourself or others.

Roediger notes that it helps students “know what they know” and reinforces it, while pointing to things they don’t and imbedding them. “We think of this for simple kinds of learning like spelling tests or learning multiplication tables. But it actually works at any level all the way to medical school,” Roediger says. “And it gets you results short term and long term.”

He found college students tested three times after reading a short passage did 21 percent better on a recall test after a week than those who simply read the material four times without having to recall it.

He also says learners should be cautious about eliminating things they think they know. “We may very well know that George Washington is the first president and be able to commit some things like that to memory and not have to re-study them. But generally, we are a bad judge of what we really have retained and overly optimistic,” he says.

Lock it in

Some experts have found that having a student not just repeat information but teach it to someone else forces them to make sure they have a clear understanding. Even writing an explanatory document benefits them. Mnemonics may help too.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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