Students don’t know how they study and learn best

Wednesday, November 7th, 2018

Some progressive teachers take pride in allowing students to choose how they study and learn best, but there’s a serious flaw they overlook: students don’t know how they study and learn best:

Karpicke, Butler, and Roediger III (2009) (1) explored study habits used by college students. They surveyed 177 students and asked them two questions. For the sake of this post, I will only focus on question one:

What kind of strategies do you use when you are studying? List as many strategies as you use and rank-order them from strategies you use most often to strategies you use least often.

The results? Repeated rereading was by far the most frequently listed strategy (84% reported using) and 55% reported that it was their number one strategy used. Only 11% reported practicing recall (self-testing) of information and 1% identified practicing recall as their number one strategy. This is not good for student-choice of study. 55% of those surveyed intuitively believed that rereading their notes best utilized their study time…assuming students intended on using their time most effectively. This is just not so.

A phenomenon known as the testing effect indicates that retrieving information from memory has a great effect on learning and strengthens long-term retention of information (2). The testing effect can take many forms, with the most important aspect being students retrieve information. A common saying in my room is to make sure my students are only using their brain…if you’re using notes, the textbook, or someone else’s brain, you’re not doing it right. While many correctly see this attempt as a great way to regulate and assess one’s knowledge, the act of recalling and retrieving strengthens long-term retention of information.

This is not so with repetitive rereading. Memory research has shown rereading by itself is not an effective or efficient strategy for promoting learning and long-term retention (3). Perhaps students believe the more time I spend studying, the more effective the learning. Is it correct to believe that the longer I study something and keep it in my working memory, the better I will remember it? No.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    There are a lot of things students don’t know. That’s why they’re students. Sadly, formal education does little to help with priority number one: learning how to learn. It’s not that there isn’t some science about it. It’s that the classroom doesn’t leverage the science well.

    I gave up on formal education in all its forms when I realized that I learned better via my own methods. Since then I’ve worked on refining my methods.

    I think the big problem is the emphasis on drill. Drill is perfectly appropriate for certain things, particularly muscle skills. It only gets you so far in language learning, and it’s of no use at all to learn creative or analytical tasks. But drill is easy for the teachers.

    The testing effect is all well and good once you’ve devised the right test. The controversy over teaching to the test misses this point. Get the test right, and teaching to the test will be meaningful.

    Learning a foreign language, I had my time wasted in class learning words and constructs that people in real life don’t actually use. The same techniques would have been more helpful with the proper vocabulary. But even then, it would have been just drill.

  2. Felix says:

    Harry, your comment got me thinking and surfing.

    There are lot of links to advise educationalists how to teach self-learning. Let’s be fair and generous. Their advice might make sense to non-self-learners. But who cares? There are plenty of resources for non-self-learners. And, those who have to take an educationalist’s advice on self-learning are probably never going to self-learn.

    There are stories about autodidacticism. But I didn’t find where anyone simply asked autodidactists how they do it.

    Let me get the ball rolling:

    If you’re a kid, forget grades. If you need grades to tell you whether you’re learning, take a class or be happy in ignorance of the subject.

    Be curious. If you’re not curious about something, take a class or be happy in ignorance of the subject.

    Find something out that you care about or would be fun to know. … Do it again. … Keep doing that.

    Harry, do you have anything for the list? Anybody else? (I’m guessing the Isegoria venue is heavy on the autodidacts.)

  3. CVLR says:

    “Anybody else? (I’m guessing the Isegoria venue is heavy on the autodidacts.)”

    I have an answer, but you’re not going to like it: be born with a really good memory. And if you’re not born with a really good memory, marry a woman with a really good memory and hope it’s dominant for the next time around the great carousel of life. There’s just no substitute, I’m afraid. Elaborate notecard filing systems aren’t going to help much. You are fundamentally limited by the information you are able to synthesize from disparate sources, on demand.

  4. Harry Jones says:

    Well, we can’t choose how we were born. Causation doesn’t work like that. But we can make the best of what we’ve got.

    Me, I’m pretty happy with my software mental crutch. It keeps getting better (for me, at least) because I keep improving it.

  5. Felix says:


    Good memory sounds OK. But, isn’t that a prerequisite of being a “good” autodidact? As opposed to *being* an autodidact.

    BTW, introspection says there are two main types of memory:

    1) A big bag of trivia.

    2) A structure that produces knowledge or memories on demand.

    The former is used and consumed as material to build the latter. The latter makes up things that could be or could have been. We call those things “knowledge” and “memories”, respectively. Anyway, whatever. Off topic.

  6. DJohn1 says:

    Train your memory in the ars memoria. Difficult but not overly so. The basic techniques haven’t changed in 2500 years.

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