Top 3 Best and Worst Study Strategies

by Julie “Jules” Troyer Ph.D.

WARNING: Study Stress Can Be Bad For Your Health!!!

Christopher crunched down hard on the highlighter in his mouth, literally feeling the steam coming out of his ears, as he tried to concentrate on the material he needed to study for his psychology exam tomorrow. He knew he better make some coffee because this was going to be another all-nighter; he had not even looked at his class notes since he took them. His stress level was almost blinding as he frantically highlighted, reread over and over the bolded terms in his textbook, and made flashcards. This is the best way to study….right?
Wrong! Research actually repeatedly shows us that highlighting, rereading, and flashcards are some of the most common but actually the worst study techniques (See Figure 1). Additionally, cramming all night is also a very poor method of preparing for an exam. So now that we know Christopher is following the most traditional and least effective study strategies, how can we reduce his stress and improve his performance?

3 Worst Study Strategies

First, distributed practice is by far the best method of studying. This means spending a small amount of time reviewing the material as it is learned. Students retain information much better when they expose themselves to the material over repeated instances instead of saturating themselves in a massed practice session right before the test.
Second, research shows the best techniques for studying are self-quizzing, elaboration, and self-explanation (see Figure 2). A self-quiz allows material to be assessed continually, not simply memorized. Also, generating original test questions helps students think like an assessor and helps to contextualize material. Elaboration can occur with a partner or alone and promotes more meaningful learning through connecting the material to other knowledge. Methods of doing this can be looking up related concepts on the internet, discussing controversial ideas with a partner, or reading related articles. Finally, providing examples is one of the single best ways of improving understanding and retention of newly learned material. Generating examples from life or from things read, seen on television/movies, or heard about is a great way of adding depth of comprehension.

3 Best Study Strategies

The best techniques for studying are self-quizzing, elaboration, and self-explanation; while the worst are highlighting, rereading the textbook, and making flashcards. The reasons are really rather simple: poor study strategies do not help students elaborate meaningfully on the material being learned and students need to learn material beyond mere definitions and surface familiarity to be able to perform well on tests that ask situated or high level questions. Using the best strategies over a period of time will reduce stress, test anxiety, and increase performance and retention of academic material. Learning how to study effectively is probably the most important and useful academic topic college students can be taught. Time, energy, and emotions can be saved by putting resources into the right direction!

References

Dunlosky, J. (2013). Strengthening the student toolbox: Study strategies to boost learning. American Educator, 37, 12-21.

McCabe, J. A. (2011). Metacognitive awareness of learning strategies in undergraduates. Memory and cognition, 39, 462-476.

Peterson, S. E. (1992). The cognitive functions of underlining as a study technique. Reading,  Research, and Instruction, 31, 49-56.

Rinehart, S. D. & Stahl, S. A. (1986). Some effects of summarization training on reading and studying. Reading Research Quarter;u, 21, 422-438.

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31 Comments

  1. Ashley Fleeman says:

    With final exams just around the corner, this post definitely stood out to me. I am not in denial that I am a very last minute person and tend to put things (studying, assignments, even filling my car with gas) off as long as I can. Listening and taking notes in class is the easy part, it is the follow up that I as a student struggle with. As my class assignments, projects, and tests pile up in my various classes I put each new thing on the back-burner until one is completed, soon finding myself in way over my head and having to cram last minute. I am guilty of using all of the wrong studying techniques on a regular basis. I can write two-hundred flashcards and not retain a word I wrote, forgetting what one card said when I move to the next, yet this is what I was taught with for much of my early education. I am a very visual learner and this is why I have liked and used flashcards as a way to study. Recently I have learned that using examples and relating the material I am learning to other things helps me remember what I learned when I see the information again (like on a test). I definitely agree that the best strategy is to review the material right after it is learned and continue to review it daily so that when test time comes it is easily retrieved. I know that if I would have used these strategies in the past I could have saved myself countless hours of late night/early morning cram sessions and loads of stress!

  2. Emily Waltz says:

    I can really relate to this post. I will admit I do not have the best study techniques. It started in high school where I realized that I really didn’t have to study for anything, and that effected me greatly in college. I learned very quickly that I would not be able to slide through college doing that exact same things I did in high school. I have learned better ways to study, but this actually interested me in see that flash cards and rereading are not good ways to study. To be honest, the way I study is with other people. I like to talk about the information and test ourselves on it as well. It helps when I can sit there and explain it to myself. I think studying habits and techniques all depend on the person. Many different people study different ways and are used to studying that way. I have noticed that studying in advance does cause a lot less stress. I think the main point for it would be balancing all of your schoolwork. Sometimes it is hard to set aside those extra hours to start studying. This is where sometimes it becomes hard and students end up pulling the all nighter and studying the day before.

    • Emily,
      Indeed, it is difficult to be disciplined enough to set aside the time to study ahead of time but as you point out it reduces stress tremendously and consequently dramatically improves performance. As you point out, people are individualistic in what works best for them in preparing for an exam; however, research is a wonderful tool to assist us in knowing what works best for most folks!

  3. Kaitlyn Barringer says:

    Reading this article was a nice confirmation that my study habits are not too bad. While I sometimes don’t have the time to start studying as early as I’d like, it’s nice to know that I am making good use of the time I do study. Self quizzing is something that I rely heavily on, and although this article says that rereading notes and making flashcards are not very effective I find that they work well for me. I read through my notes and type up a study guide with what I believe to be the most important points. I spend as much time as possible quizzing myself and having my friends quiz me over the study points. Flashcards have been very useful for me in my foreign language courses. Would flashcards count as self quizzing? I feel that simply rereading notes or writing flashcards is an ineffective study strategy, but these seemingly ineffective tools can be made very effective if utilized in the right way.

    • Kaitlyn,
      It is true for classes that do not require “meaningful learning” like a language class, flashcards can be very helpful. It is primarily tests that require higher level comprehension of the material and a deeper understanding of concepts that flashcards wane in effectiveness. Great point!

  4. Heather Ganas says:

    Having experienced three and a half years of college up till this point, I have figured out a few study skills that work and definitely some of the ones that do not! My freshman year I took the FYE class and the teacher basically told us highlighting and making note cards are the best study strategies. So there I went on into the semester thinking I knew how and what to study…wrong! I quickly realized highlighting information did absolutely nothing for me and really was just a waste of my time! Making notecards however is a study form I have been using since high school and has seemed to work great. I guess for me it is just a way to rewrite my class notes and get the main points for what will be on the test in written form for me to study as I have time. I definitely understand that if that were my only study strategy it would not allow me to “learn” the information though. Just recently I realized that studying with a friend in the class and bouncing questions off of each other is a great way for me to study and remember the information! It was great to read this article and even learn a few more tips on how to truly study!

  5. Katie Holliday says:

    This article is too good! I commit the highlighter crime, but really all it does is fool me into thinking that I have actually studied and learned the material. I know that the flashcards are bad, but I have found that re-writing my notes over a time or two really helps me. I think if I start quizzing myself while I re-write instead of just mindlessly copying the information down, I could see an even better result. Thanks for the information!

  6. Brae Salmond says:

    I actually used all of these strategies. I tend to read before and after class and go over what we went through in class. My stress level has been getting a little better once I started studying a week early. Distributed practice does works for me more than massed practice. Sometimes when I can’t focus I tend to take the night off and pick up the next day. I will start to use the best strategies more often now.

  7. Tonia Allen says:

    Attending collge as an older student, it helpful to learn new techniques to increase the efficiency of my study time. I have not had to study much in the last 25 years and need all the help I can get!! I have been trying the method that you describe and I feel like I know the information rather than just having memorized the information. I have alwasy been the kind of person that is more interested in the “why” of things rather than just the answer. I believe this method of studying will help me learn the “why’s.” I was also told by another professor that the more REM sleep that you get, the better your memory. So more elaboration and more quality sleep!!!

  8. Ranon Herman says:

    Growing up Teachers always told me to make flash cards. For example, when i was in Elementary School my teacher made all her student make flash cards for the times table. We would then break into groups and quiz each other using the flash cards. I like to think of myself as pretty good with my multiplication tables. I still think Flash Cards can be a good study habit if used over a long period of time at different study sessions, and are also accompanied by other study habits like creating examples. When you quiz yourself using flash cards you should do more than just learn or memorize the definition. You should come up with examples to remember the definition and how you can apply it to the real world. This way you retain the information in your long term memory.

    • Ranon,
      Any study strategy can be effective if used in the right way and indeed flash cards are appealing to many folks. The main problematic issue, as you allude to in your post, is that flash cards can contextualize learning or prevent students from elaborating on the material or thinking about what the term or concept on the card means beyond whatever is written on the back. They can, at times, “trick” you into thinking you really know the material because you can recite the definition on the back of the card quickly. Flashcards are wonderful for exams where the questions on it are definition questions or what we call “low level” questions. Flash cards reduce in effectiveness as a study strategy for exams where the questions are application, include novel examples, or ask the student to problem solve. Your suggestion to include you own examples is a great way to elaborate on the material being learned and get around the weaknesses of flash cards!

  9. Tyler N. Morgan says:

    I find myself using poor studying skills, because that’s how I was taught to study. I also realized when I use poor studying skills I’m usually cramming, and I what information I do retain I haven’t necessarily learned anything. I just memorized it long enough to take an exam, receive a fairly decent grade. After most exams, I can’t even begin to tell you what I learned/know. Most of my teacher (from past experiences) don’t really care if we’ve learned anything; they just want us to get good grades so they seem to be good teachers.
    I strongly agree that highlighting, rereading, and flashcards are poor study skills, because the repetition of reading and flashcards tend to bore me and I lose focus of what I’m supposed to really be doing. Highlighting… always end up highlighting almost the entire text, and I get overwhelmed with all the bright colors of “important stuff to know” by the time the exam is given. I also realized if I’m interested in what is being taught/learned I develop better study skills (i.e. elaboration and applying my new knowledge to outside experiences), because I want to know everything there is to know about the given subject matter. Learning is almost like a sport, you have to practice in order to get better… or in this case you have to practice to remember and know exactly whatever it is you are being taught.

  10. Jeremiah Wigginis says:

    This was very informative and insightful. It is crazy because this is how I’ve studied throughout my entire college career but it seems to work for me. I think that I procrastinate on studying purposely because I enjoy the thrill of working under pressure Lol I never stress over my studies and plus most of the material that is often covered are things that I am actually interested in.

    • Jeremiah,
      The good thing is, when you are actually interested in something and find it to be useful….almost anything works to do well on an exam because you already are inclined to understand and retain it!

  11. Megan Patten says:

    I find it very ironic that this is the first article that i decided to read. I notice that there are many different comments on this article but this specific topic really stands out to me the most. Honestly I have been a very bright student my whole life and in high school I was always striving for an A in every class that I had. My way of studying in high school would basically be everything you said here that are included in the bad studying habits. Flashcards were my best friend while I went through high school and I always found myself highlighting things that really were not that important. I would cram all night before the test but as you probably already know high school test are nothing compared to college test. I would pass that test that I took in high school by doing the “bad” studying habits but my first year of college I noticed very fast that something had to change and quick. One thing that I noticed myself doing a lot more of would be studying the material over a couple of weeks instead or just cramming the day before the test. At first I did not know that there was an actual term for this but since I took this class I learned that this is called distributed practice. So i completely agree with this article because we should all move away from the things that are considered to be “bad” studying habits and move more to the good studying habits. I believe that we should all lose the flashcards for one because you definitely do not learn anything by using those. I am super happy that I read this article mainly because I have a test tomorrow and I can use these studying habits to help me pass my exam. So thank you Dr. Troyer for this article for us to help better improve our studying skills and our grades in the future.

    • Megan,
      It is so true that the shift from high school to college really requires a change in study habits! Good luck on your exam….wait you don’t need any luck because you have a good strategy for studying :-).

  12. Katherine Ragan says:

    This helps me to understand that I shouldn’t waste my time making flashcards and highlighting, I should be quizzing over the material day by day. I usually wait until a few days before the test to go over the information but I can understand why going over the info as it is learned would work better. I should make quizzes for myself over the info right after I learn it and then review and quiz day by day. Not wait until the last minute. In high school this was never taught because we usually had homework to quiz us over the material that we learned for the day. But I never put 2 and 2 together until now!

    • Katherine,
      You make a great point about high school and homework, you are exactly correct that as students transition into the college scholastic setting, they have to begin providing that kind of reinforcement/quiz activity for themselves. Often it is such a relief not to have homework to do every night, students neglect to spend the evenings studying!

  13. James Bruce says:

    I have never been a “studier”, but it seems many “studiers” are studying ineffectively. One thing I really enjoyed doing throughout school was teaching others that were struggling with the material. Many times in classes like LA and Science I only sort of knew the material, but helping the other person and having to explain the information really helped to grasp the information to where “studying” all night after school was not necessary. Self-quizzing was also an enjoyment of mine. Many times, because of my love for school and learning, I would find websites at home about information I was learning, mainly because I was bored. Now teaching these are good in-class study tools to use with repetition and slef-checking.

    • James,
      The process of teaching other students that are struggling or peer-tutoring is another fantastic method of studying or reinforcing the material! Also, finding websites on the material being studied in class or reading articles related to it are fantastic ways of elaborating and making the learning meaningful and robust!

  14. Jenna Owens says:

    I think this helped me out a lot because the three least effective study methods are the study methods that i often use, and I want to try the most effective strategies to see if it will improve my grades.

  15. Jessica Trautwein says:

    I knew that there are good ways and bad ways to study but I did not know excatly what they were. The sad thing was that I used some of those bad study habits for most of my life. Now that I know how to study then my stress level will probaly decrease. I wish that more teacher had explained how to study for tests. This is why I am so glad that you made an article about study starategies to hlep your students like me that need to learn these strategies.

  16. Anna-Leigh Powell says:

    I can relate to this post first hand. I can tell SUCH a dramatic difference in both my stress level as well as my test grade when I start studying for the exam very early in advance (generally a week out). Starting early helps me to keep anxiety at bay because if I find myself growing tired or just not focusing one night, I can call it quits and know that I can pick up where I left off the next day. This method also allows me to study in short bits of time throughout the week, which helps to eliminate the horribly stressful feeling of “cramming”.
    One thing I did find very interesting in the post is the mention of reading notes on the “ineffective” list. This is one studying technique I tend to use a good bit. After reading this I might need to re-strategize my personal studying method.

    • Anna-Leigh,
      Actually rereading your notes is a pretty effective strategy, especially if it is done within 24 hours or so after taking those notes! The ineffective strategy of rereading really pertains to rereading the textbook over and over as a method of trying to reinforce the material. I love that you talk about keeping your anxiety at bay by distributing when you study!

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