School & District Management

Research Finds Students Short on Study Savvy

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 05, 2012 3 min read
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Students are least likely to choose to test themselves while studying, although it has been shown to be the most effective study strategy, according to researchers here at the Association for Psychological Science conference.

“It’s a remarkable feature of our educational system that we give students so much stuff to learn and rarely tell them how to go about learning that stuff,” said Purdue University psychologist Jeffrey D. Karpicke. “Learners tend to think of ‘how do I get all this stuff into my head?’ and they don’t spend much time considering how they will get all of that stuff back out of their heads when the time comes to retrieve it. If you use effective strategies, you can spend less time studying and learn more; you stop wasting time in studying and get more out of it.”

While K-12 educators often argue that students are tested too much in U.S. schools, research from the Memory Lab at Washington University in St. Louis has found that repeated attempts to recall information, either during a class quiz or by the students quizzing themselves or each other, can cause students to remember as much as twice the information, both facts and concepts, as other study habits.

“If you want to concentrate on how to get people to learn durably, you need to concentrate on [testing] as a learning activity,” said Henry L. “Roddy” Roediger III, a psychology professor and the lab’s director, in a keynote address at the May 24-27 conference. “Testing not only assesses what we know but changes what we know,” he said.

Mr. Roediger is working with middle and high school science classes to introduce quizzes in the classroom as a learning device. Students are randomly selected to take multiple-choice and short-answer quizzes throughout the year.

He found that taking tests and quizzing themselves, in contrast to other study methods, helps students identify gaps in their knowledge and focus more on the next lesson. Five to seven “retrieval sessions” seem to lead to the best long-term memory of a concept.

In a study published this month in Current Directions in Psychological Science, which was presented at the conference, Mr. Karpicke asked 120 college students to read science texts and use one of four study strategies to prepare for a test in a week: reading the text once, reading it repeatedly, drawing a map of the relationships between concepts, or actively trying to remember the information via quizzes.

Rereading Favored

The most common way the students reported studying was to reread material; 84 percent regularly used that method, and 55 percent considered it the most important study strategy. Only 11 percent of the students said they regularly quizzed themselves on content, and 1 percent considered that their primary study strategy.

Before the test, students predicted how well they would do, based on their study strategies. Mr. Karpicke and his colleagues found that the more times students read the material, the more they thought they’d remember in the long term, estimating they would get 80 percent or more correct answers on a test given a week later.

“This finding [on students’ predictions] happens all the time in research, and I think it’s because when you repeatedly read material, it becomes very familiar,” thus making students feel more confident that they will remember it, Mr. Karpicke said. “In the long term, it’s the exact opposite."Students had the least confidence in retrieval practice, or quizzing, which actually proved to be the most successful study practice. During testing, students who used quizzes to study correctly answered about 65 percent of the questions taken directly from the text and 70 percent of those that required students to infer information by making connections across concepts. That was more than 10 percent better on direct questions and nearly 10 percent better on inference questions than students who read once or repeatedly or who drew concept maps.

Beth M. Schwartz, a psychology professor and an assistant dean at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va., found that even when students are told that quizzing can improve memory, they prefer to outline or reread key words from the material—techniques found to actually decrease long-term retention.

Part of the problem is that students tend to study only for the next test, not to understand the material, Mr. Roediger said.

“If you haven’t prepared for a test but you just read over the material a few times five minutes before the test, you’ll probably do OK,” he said. “You won’t remember anything a week later, but you’ll probably do OK.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2012 edition of Education Week as Students Aren’t Savvy About Study Strategy, Researchers Say

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