We are now pretty clear on what study habits make a difference when exam time rolls around.
Back in 2013, a group of cognitive psychologists published a paper looking at the effectiveness of a range of common study strategies. The researchers – including John Dunlosky, professor of psychology at Kent State University in the US – concluded that many of the most common study techniques weren’t very effective, while some of the most effective were rarely used.
The least effective methods included rereading material, highlighting and underlining, while practice testing and elaborated interrogation (asking "why" and "how") were found to be the most successful. (You can read Dunlosky’s findings in full here.)
Effective GCSE revision approaches
The list of effective strategies also included wider techniques that required an overhaul of the very way in which students are taught, most notably the interrelated techniques of distributed practice and interleaving.
The 2013 paper caused modest ripples within education, especially among teachers who were eager to embrace more evidenced-informed methods drawn from cognitive psychology.
And since then, further evidence has supported the notion that these specific learning strategies are linked to exam scores, such as a 2015 study by Brianna Bartoszewski and Regan Gurung (2015).
But how much of this advice is getting through to pupils?
How students are really revising
Kayla Morehead, another Kent State University psychologist, has found that teachers and lecturers endorse both effective strategies (such as practice testing) and educational myths, including learning styles (Morehead, Rhodes and DeLozier, 2015).
And even when students know which strategies are most effective, they don’t necessarily use them. One study, for example, found that students who said they planned to use certain strategies (such as self-testing and flashcards) over the coming months rarely did and tended to fall back on less effective methods like rereading and highlighting (Blasiman, Dunlosky and Rawson, 2017).
A 2019 study published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology expands on this earlier research and makes it more relevant to secondary school teachers (Dirkx, Camp, Kester et al, 2019).
Kim Dirkx and her co-researchers chose to question 318 Dutch secondary school students about their study strategies. The study differed from previous research in two interesting ways.
First of all, the researchers narrowed their focus towards the strategies students used when they were on their own, such as at home or during self-study periods.
Secondly, rather than having students identify their study behaviour from a list of pre-set strategies, Dirkx and her colleagues didn’t place a limit on the number or variety of strategies students reported using.
After eliciting responses from the students, the researchers placed each strategy into a category that most closely corresponded to those in the Dunlosky study. They then further divided these into strategies the students used as primary methods and those they used less often.
In common with previous studies, the most-used strategies were rereading and summarising, and this was the case for both the primary method and the ones used less regularly.
Very few students (0.3 per cent) used highlighting as their primary method but over a quarter did say they used it. Practice testing was only used as the primary method by just over 8 per cent of students but this rose to slightly over 60 per cent as a strategy used less often.
More importantly, perhaps, distributed and interleaved practice was reported by less than 1 per cent of respondents as their primary strategy, while in the less-often-used category, just under 4 per cent of students used distributed practice and only 0.3 per cent used interleaving.
Also, students reported using methods that didn't fit into these categories, including copying, thinking of real-life examples, cramming and completing practice problems.
Apart from this last technique (where just over 7 per cent said it was their primary strategy and nearly half said they used it less often), there were relatively few students who used these methods.
More work needed
Secondary school students are, therefore, continuing to use suboptimal study strategies even though there is now a greater awareness and understanding of the most effective techniques, and the reasons for this are bound to be multifaceted.
It could be that many students are simply unaware of what works and have little in the way of formal induction into these techniques. Many teachers may also be unaware of the evidence base or are still clinging to the learning myths that appear annoyingly resilient.
However, even when students are aware of these strategies and may well apply them in the classroom, when it comes to private study they appear to be reverting to the strategies that require less cognitive effort and are, therefore, less effective.
Students may, it seems, benefit from a formal program of study skills training with guidance on how to implement them both in and beyond the classroom. It might also be useful to inform students that, although rereading and highlighting can result in the illusion of learning, such methods invariably lead to short-term retention. On the other hand, while self-testing and distributed learning may appear slow and less effective at first, they are more likely to result in more durable long-term retention.
The research does currently suggest that both students and teachers are yet to fully capitalise on the wealth of information available from cognitive psychology. However, by doing so, schools can greatly enhance and extend their current pedagogical repertoire.
Marc Smith is a chartered psychologist and teacher. He is the author of The Emotional Learner and Psychology in the Classroom (with Jonathan Firth). He tweets @marcxsmith
- Bartoszewski, BL and Gurung RAR (2015) "Comparing the relationship of learning techniques and exam score", Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1/3: 219-228
- Blasiman, RN, Dunlosky, J and Rawson, KA (2017) "The what, how much, and when of study strategies: comparing intended versus actual study behaviour", Memory, 25/6: 784-792
- Dirkx, KJH, Camp, G, Kester, L et al (2019) "Do secondary school students make use of effective study strategies when they study on their own?", Applied Cognitive Psychology, 33/5: 952-957
- Morehead, K, Rhodes, MG and DeLozier, S (2015) "Instructor and student knowledge of study strategies", Memory, 24/2: 257-271