Being smart about studying (#ACPEEP)

by Stephanie Chasteen on June 17, 2010

Students are notoriously un-smart about their study habits.  We know that anecdotally, but we’ve also got some solid data to show how bad they are.  A lot of the problem is that we can fool ourselves into thinking we’ve learned something.  From one of the ACPEEP’s summary documents:

Many experiments have shown that repeated study opportunities can fool students into thinking they know material better than they do (as assessed by a production test, such as short answer or essay). Although the material may be familiar (and students may be able to pick out the correct answer on a multiple-choice test), they still may not be able to recall the material for tests that require production. Because rereading material and other common strategies (e.g., highlighting or underlining and then rereading the underlined material) increase fluency, students may be tricked into thinking they know the material better than they really do (Jacoby, Jones, & Dolan, 1998). The illusion of knowing that comes from rereading is particularly disturbing given student reports that rereading is their most frequent study strategy when preparing for a test – and oftentimes they only re-read the material they underlined during their initial reading (e.g., see Kornell & Bjork, 2007).

Here are a few examples:

–       Underlining words in a text increases your sense that you could retrieve this information, but it actually has no effect.  (Yet, of course, many students study by highlighting their textbooks!)

–       When self-testing, when we can remember something quickly we assume that we know it.  But in truth, the harder something is to recall, the more that thing becomes cemented in our mind.

–       When people see a bunch of things presented together (for example, show the paintings of one artist all in a row, and then another artist all in a row), they have the sense that they’ll do better on a test to identify the artist that created any individual painting.  But in truth, they did better when the paintings of different artists were scattered throughout the presentation (interleaving rather than massed).  Of course, when we study, we tend to study one topic or idea all at once, rather than interleaving it.  So, students are least satisfied with the most effective forms of instruction!

–       Students tend to be overconfident in their learning, leading them to stop studying earlier. So, feedback showing them just what they do and don’t know (like clickers or quizzes) is good in pointing out to them what they don’t know, so they can study more.

–       Students tend to study the things that they don’t know very well yet, but it will take them a lot of time to reach mastery on those items.  To get the most bang for their buck, they should probably study the things that they know well but haven’t quite mastered.  Those items, in the “zone of proximal learning” will only take a small amount of time to reach mastery, so it’s more efficient to study those items first.

If you’re interested more in the research on how students decide to study, see this important article: The Promise and Perils of Self-Regulated study by Kornell and Bjork (PDF here), and a great article directed to students, explaining the important findings of cognitive psychology:  How to Succeed in College, Learn How to Learn (PDF here).

Photo:  Patrick Hannigan on Wikimedia

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