15 Nov 2014
November 15, 2014

Study Skills: What the Research Says

Numerous studies have been conducted recently about which study skills and habits are the most effective. Many of the results show that many commonly-held beliefs aren’t necessarily the most successful. We’ve sorted through the research and compiled a list of some of the most relevant findings.

1:   Alternate Study Locations

Rather than choosing one specific study location, alternating locations where students study appears to improve recall ability. Psychologists performed an experiment using two different rooms where students studied a list of 40 vocabulary words. One location was a room that had no windows and was filled with clutter. The other location was more modern and had a pleasing view. Some students were limited to only one location while others were allowed to study in both rooms. The students who studied in both rooms fared better on a test of the 40 words than those limited to only one room. Further studies confirmed the same results, with students studying other subjects as well.

One of the researchers explains that, “…when the outside context is varied, the information [studied] is enriched, and this slows down forgetting.” The results also seem to show that the brain makes connections between what it is studying and the sensations created by the setting.

2:   Ask “Why”

Numerous research studies show that having students answer questions such as, “Why did this happen? Why is this true? Why did the main character behave in this way,” is a proven method for retaining important information and building cognitive skills. Asking questions encourages students to integrate new information with prior knowledge, improving memory and retention.

Another method for employing this strategy is to have students ask “why” questions as they read. “Why does Earth have four seasons?,” or “Why did the author write this story?” are just two examples of questions that foster comprehension and recall.

3:   Self-testing

Self-testing is a reading strategy that also builds comprehension and recall, but is slightly different than asking “why.” With self-testing, students occasionally pause from their reading to ask what the text means to them. If necessary, students may then review parts of the text they have already read to build meaning.

Self-testing encourages students to make inferences based on what they are reading. With self-testing, students are identifying what information or concepts they don’t fully understand and constructing deeper meaning. A Purdue University study has shown that self-testing is a more effective strategy than simply rereading or reviewing notes.

4:   Practice testing

Practice testing improves learning by practicing recall. According to researchers, students have to actively engage the brain’s long-term memory when taking a test. Making practice testing a habit (and not just a test-taking strategy) creates more pathways in the brain; this builds a variety of different ways to recall the same information. By the time an actual test is taken, students find it easier to retrieve the correct answer.

There are many ways to apply practice testing—with flash cards, graphic organizers, and asking questions directly related to key ideas in the text. As students check the accuracy of their responses, they continue to construct meaning and relevance.

5.   Distributed Practice

Research has shown that the best way to study for a test is to space out the studying over several days in shorter study sessions rather than cramming at the last minute.

This method, called “distributed practice” taps the brain in ways that aid learning. Each time a new study session is begun, students have to “reboot” their recall abilities for the various topics they are studying. Researchers believe that spacing out study sessions forces the brain to relearn information. “The idea is that forgetting is the friend of learning,” states one researcher. “When you forget something, it allows you to relearn, and do so effectively, the next time you see it.”

6.   Mixed Practice

The results of another research study challenges the common belief that concentrated work on one specific skill is the best way to achieve mastery. According to this study, practicing different but related skills or concepts in one sitting, rather than focusing intensely on a single skill or concept also improves recall. In this way, students learn to distinguish between problem types as well as the various methods in which they are solved. Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, between addition facts and word problems or between reading and studying vocabulary—also seems to stimulate recall and comprehension more than concentrating on only one specific skill at a time.

To learn more about effective study skills instruction, check out one of our more popular products, Study Skills: 50 Strategies for Success. Then download free samples of this product and many others at our Sample Lessons section.