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Help Your Students Study Smarter With These Two High-Impact, Research-Backed Strategies

Re-reading. Highlighting. Making flashcards and quickly flipping through them.

The bad news: When left to their own devices, students often pick learning techniques that feel easy—but are often less than helpful when it comes to actually retaining knowledge. (Remember our discussion about typing notes in class? That’s another example.)

The other bad news: Teachers often aren’t aware of the excellent research that can help suggest better approaches.

The good news: The evidence is out there—and we’re here to distill it for you! Read on to discover two highly effective, research-backed ways to help your students study and learn.

In 2013, John Dunlosky of Kent State led a team of researchers in understanding more about learning techniques. They examined classic study methods in order figure out what actually works, and what doesn’t. Of the ten strategies in the study, only two stood out as “high-utility” in the findings: practice testing and distributed practice. That doesn’t mean that the other strategies, such as rereading, summarizing and mnemonics, are never useful—and we’ll get into that in another blog post—but it does mean that they require more specific requirements or use cases. So, for now, let’s talk about the high-utility choices.

First up: Practice Testing

Even if a student doesn’t perform well on a practice test, the process itself helps with learning. It’s all about recall: for example, if a practice test consists of asking students to write everything they know about a subject on a piece of paper, the simple act of trying to remember has some impact on the brain. So, even if a student ends up drawing a complete blank and ends up with an empty sheet of paper, trying at all will have helped—especially if they then go back and reread their notes.

The act of asking yourself important questions about a specific topic primes the brain to go back, re-read, and find the location of the information. That first act of struggling to recall is like creating a little bit of Velcro in a student’s brain, making a piece of knowledge stick when they encounter it again.

Next up: Distributed Practice

Distributed practice, true to its name, involves leaving some space between learning and practice episodes. Basically, if you allow some rustiness to occur and then try to recall the information, it’s more likely to stick.Robert Bjork, a psychology professor at UCLA, calls it “deliberate difficulty.”

Students, of course, generally don’t like this—because they’re used to being penalized for getting things wrong. So, if you’re using distributed learning in the classroom, it’s key to support your students emotionally. The goal should be to determine what students know and don’t know before any kind of summative assessment that counts for major points—not to make sure they’re perfect during practice time.

How can teachers put these insights into action?

  • Incorporate these highly effective learning strategies into the way you teach your subject material—don’t assume that your students have mastered them, even if you know they’ve been exposed to them in other courses. It can be difficult for students to switch contexts effectively, so you’ll need to provide some direction when it comes to using familiar strategies in a new class. (Some students may get it immediately, of course, but you’ll almost always see a range of needs for support.) Your structured guidance will help them move toward independence.

  • We all know how hard it can be to get students to put effort into something that doesn’t affect their grade. Therefore, we suggest making both practice tests and distributed learning exercises worth something—so that your class really gives it a try—but not enough to really affect their overall grade.

  • Make sure practice tests and quizzes require explanation or thought, so that students are forced to write something (not just pick an option in a multiple choice question). You want to make sure they can’t get the answer right by guessing. Encourage some level of thinking about why something is true.

  • Be honest with students about how these strategies might feel to them. Again, effortful learning can be frustrating. One study involving the effectiveness of distributed learning on assessments revealed that students who used these techniques did better in the course, but often felt like they were doing worse during their studying. They felt less confident going in to take tests, even though their performance improved. Remind them that the struggle they feel is actually good for their brains—and though they might feel worse with a more effective strategy, they’re actually making sure that their knowledge sticks around.

As usual, our role as teachers puts us in a position not only to pass on knowledge, but give our students the full range of tools they need—strategic, logistical, and emotional—to help them solidify and retain information, setting them up for long-term success. Helping them master highly useful learning strategies is a key part of that. (And remember, some of the lower-performing methods may still have their place—stay tuned for our next post for more on that.)

Wondering how practice testing and distributed practice might help your own development as a teacher? We’ve got your answer! The CTTL’s newest endeavor, Neuroteach Global, helps teachers infuse their classroom practices with research-informed strategies for student success—in just 3-5 minutes a day, on a variety of devices.