Are some ways of studying better than others?

3 strategies backed by science

With finals just around the corner, we’ve gathered some of the top evidence based strategies for studying based on findings from cognitive scientists.

So often, people don’t do things that seem obvious because they simply don’t know they are supposed to do them. We saw this firsthand in one of our earliest studies. We explained to students that the brain can get stronger and smarter when you challenge yourself and practice.

“What do you mean? How should we practice?” Our broad suggestions weren’t enough. Students wanted details.

Providing educators and students with strategies to improve student learning and engagement is important at PERTS, as one of our main goals is to increase student achievement. As a research center that focuses on learning mindsets, our team spends a LOT of time discussing the role of beliefs in shaping students’ learning and achievement. But learning beliefs must be paired with good learning strategies to be most effective. What good are beliefs if students don’t know HOW to learn?

Are some ways of learning better than others?

Yes! Cognitive scientists study the way our minds work, and along the way they have learned some interesting facts about the best ways to store and retrieve information. For a great summary on the science of learning, visit Deans for Impact.

*If you’re an educator, share these strategies with your students! You may be surprised by how helpful they find this information.

1. Space it out over time

When I was in college, my most common form of studying was to “cram” it all into one 5 or 6 hour session the day before a test. Not only was this miserable, but more often than not, I also forgot the information as soon as the test concluded.

Research shows that we retain information better when we space practice over time. Even spacing content over two sessions can make a difference. In one study, college students completed ten math questions either in one session, or across two sessions separated by seven days. There was no difference between the groups when students were tested one week later, but four weeks later, students who had spaced their practice did significantly better.

What can teachers do?

  • Schedule review time across the term/semester. *Research suggests that important information should be reviewed several weeks to several months after the initial lesson.
  • Assign homework that reviews older lessons.

2. Quiz yourself!

Many people study by reading through notes and books over and over, but one of the best ways to remember information is by taking practice quizzes.

In a 2012 study, researchers not only found that quizzes (or, “retrieval practice”) improved students’ performance and their ability to transfer information to new ideas, but they also learned that some types of quizzes were better than others:

  • A “review quiz” that occurs at least a few days after a lesson is better than a quiz that happens right after a lesson.
  • Quizzes that provide feedback improve student learning.

When studying, create tests or flashcards for yourself, or pair up with a friend to create quizzes for each other. *Science Tip: Mix up different types of content while quizzing yourself (this strategy is called “Interleaving”). For example, if you’re studying for a math exam that covers different operations, create a quiz that mixes up question type so that you can practice finding the right strategy.

What can teachers do?

  • Use class time to quiz students. Tips: 1) Mix-up the content, and 2) Quiz students on important content from previous lessons.
  • Provide feedback to students on their tests, and emphasize that mistakes are an important and great part of the learning process.

3. Create a story

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

For material that is particularly hard to memorize, create a story or mnemonic. This helps give meaning to otherwise seemingly meaningless content.

In a 1986 study, middle school students were tasked with reading about the accomplishments of famous people. The students who were taught a mnemonic strategy that they could use throughout the reading remembered more information than students who were given no strategy. This was true for above and below average readers, as well as for long and short reading passages!

*Elementary school teachers seem to be well aware of this strategy and often use songs and chants to help students remember new information!

What can teachers do?

  • Share examples of mnemonics or stories during class time and reference them throughout the semester so students can commit them to long-term memory.
  • Ask students to create a mnemonic or story for homework.

Rachel is a Program Associate at PERTS, an applied research center at Stanford University that develops and tests learning mindset resources for educators and parents. If you’re interested in learning more about mindsets and practices that support them, visit www.mindsetkit.org.