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Studying skillfully - Many times students don’t study well because they don’t know how.

While the teaching and learning process is often multifaceted and complex, sometimes a student's problems are more simple than we expect. Sometimes they just don’t know how to study.

"I'm not sure I could put a percentage on the students who don't know how, but anecdotally I can say it is a big problem," says Megan Sumeracki, a psychology professor at Rhode Island College who specializes in student success.

Sumeracki and her associate, Yana Weinstein, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, have developed a series of practices they believe can help students who aren't good at studying or those who want to refine their skills.

The two say six approaches are key: retrieval practice, elaboration, spaced practice, using concrete examples and two less familiar sounding techniques: "interleaving" and "dual coding",

The two say interleaving involves changing study topics from time-to-time, which they say helps students stick with the task and retain material and perhaps have new insight when they return to it.

"You shouldn’t study one idea, topic, or type of problem for too long," they write. "Instead, you should change it up often. Interleaving like this may seem harder than studying one type of material for a long time, but this is actually more helpful in the long run".

Dual coding involves mixing the ways that students approach the material. "It is the the process of combining verbal materials with visual materials," says Sumeracki.  "There are many ways to visually represent material, such as with infographics, timelines, cartoon strips, diagrams, and graphic organizers. When you have the same information in two formats - words and visuals - it gives you two ways of remembering the information later on and it is an effective way to study."

The two refer to research in 1992 showing how such combination techniques work, based on the study of nearly 300 college students. It has been duplicated since.

Sumeracki also says she believes spaced practice is a very effective approach.

"It is the opposite of cramming. When you cram, you study for a long, intense period of time close to an exam. When you space your learning, you take that same amount of study time, and spread it out across a much longer period of time. Doing it this way, that same amount of study time will produce more long-lasting learning."

"Retrieval practice" involves bringing something back to mind a while after you have learned it. Teachers can help with this by very briefly reviewing topics just so that students bring them back to their thoughts and further imbed them.

Researchers at Kent State University found that teaching student study skills paid off, but that the approaches had to be taught in the proper way. They tested a list of techniques, considering four variables: learning conditions, student characteristics, materials, and criterion tasks. The successful approaches were:

  • Elaborative interrogation. Generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true
  • Self-explanation. Explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving
  • Summarization. Writing summaries (of various lengths) of to-be-learned texts
  • Highlighting/underlining. Marking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while reading
  • Keyword mnemonic. Using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials. Attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening
  • Rereading. Restudying text material again after an initial reading
  • Practice testing. Self-testing or taking practice tests over to-be-learned material
  • Distributed practice. Implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time
  • Interleaved practice. Implementing 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.


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. (