Among educators a large majority argue for a standard set of effective study tips used by successful students. But, it seems that Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan & Willingham (2013) do not agree. In their study, "Improving students' learning with effective learning techniques" published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest they evaluated ten of the most common study techniques with surprising results. In their article they divided the ten into three groups: 1) The least effective; 2) Moderately effective; and 3) Highly effective. In this article I will list the techniques included in each of the three categories, summarize their findings and in the conclusion I will discuss why one cannot rely on a single outlying article as conclusive. |
The Least Effective Study Tips Highlighting or underlining written material Rereading Creating summaries (responses to reading) Keyword mnemonics Imagery (creating mental pictures to remind students of important points) The authors argue for the low benefit of these techniques for many reasons. Among the reasons are, summarization and imagery only help a few students and with others limited results are the result. Mnemonics are difficult for some students to create and only work on a limited number of materials. Further, mnemonics, they say, only work as a limited retention tool. Finally, while most students reported rereading and underlining, there was little effect on performance. In short, the argument is that because these tools do not consistently boost perfomance in all students other study tools should replace them.
Moderately Effective Study Tips Elaborative interrogation (the use of 'why' questions while studying) Self-explanation (such as response journaling) Interleaved practice (mixing different subjects in a single study session) These three study tools, according to the authors, suggest a higher impact on student performance. They challenge students to make connections, to explain problems and think in more than one way each time they study.
Highly Effective Study Tips Practice testing (flash cards, working practice problems, or taking practice tests) Distributed practice (studying material repeatedly over many short study sessions There are some caveats to the highly effective study tips. First, teachers must make practice testing low stakes. Practice, they argue, should be just that, practice. As soon as one places value on practice it becomes performance. This, they say, reduces the value of practice.
By distributed practice, the authors contend that it is easier to retain difficult material when studied over time rather than waiting to the last minute and cramming for a test. While cramming is better than not studying at all, distributed practice helps students make deeper connections and enhances long term retention.
The Problem With This Study I suggest that this study is fundamentally flawed. 1) It fails to consider multiple intelligences. 2) The highly effective study tips appear to focus on the mundane even though they argue that they are really about connections. 3) The highly effective study tips depend on teacher or textbook authority taking responsibility for learning out of the hands of the students.
Multiple Intelligences is Not Considered Failure to consider multiple intelligences when talking about effective study tips overlooks differences in learning styles and approaches. I have written about Multiple Intelligences and why students (and their teachers) should identify their own (or their students) learning style. The least effective study tips are, for example, my most effective study tools. I would never argue they are the only tool or that everyone should use them. Rather, if one finds they work for them then, by all means, use them. If they don't then find another way. In this way, teachers have the responsibility to introduce many different approaches, always with the warning, this will not work for everyone.
A Focus on the Mundane The highly effective study tips seem to be a way to prepare for a television quiz show. Focus on the facts without regard to understanding the foundational problem leads to a group of trivial pursuit players. The highly effective study tips in this study seem to also contradict the foundational pull of the moderately effective study tips. Come on, you can't have your cake and eat it too.
Responsibility and Highly Effective Study Tips In both of the highly effective study tips, there is a subtle shift in responsibility for learning from the student to either the text or the teacher. In the case of practice testing, students must practice using prepared problems found at the back of their text. Oh sure, they could make their own flash cards or they could simply rely on boxes of published flash cards. Either way, practice is outside of serious understanding, rather it requires that students learn to parrot back someone else's ideas. Furthermore, when the idea that practice must be low or no-stakes, this is not a student decision. The teacher must buy into this idea as must the students. Far too many students will simply blow off 'homework' if it falls into this category.
I argue for the model that does not place a specific value on any study technique. I suggest that the effective study tips are found in a basket filled with tips of equal value. It is, then, the responsibility of the student to find the ones that work and place all others on hold. Teachers that understand multiple intelligences may be able to guide their students as they try out new ideas, but in the final analysis, it is the student who makes the choice .
Finally, it is important to stress that the most effective study tips are those that allow the student to learn how to learn, not what to learn. By learning how to learn no obstacle is too great to allow for failure. Learning what to learn, on the other hand, challenges only short-term memory. Material is quickly forgotten. This study opts for the latter at the expense of the former. It is a powerful reason why not to believe in single studies that appear to deviate from the norm.
Dr. Roger Lewis is the owner of Effective Study Tips where he introduces parents and their children to the most effective study habits we know of. Dr. Lewis is a career educator teaching in both middle-school settings and in university departments of education. His specialty is in the teaching of reading methods for k-12 students. He is now retired concentrating on sharing his knowledge with a broader audience.
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