Learning Techniques: Research Reveals the Dos and Don’ts

Learning Techniques: Research Reveals the Dos and Don’ts

When students ask for studying advice, what should we tell them? Should we advise rereading material? Using flashcards? Highlighting key terms?

If you are curious about the effectiveness of different study strategies, check out this recent article in Psychological Science in the Public InterestThis thorough, user-friendly review describes and evaluates ten common learning techniques. Each technique is given an overall utility rating (low, moderate, or high) based its effectiveness across learning conditions, student characteristics, materials, and outcome measures.

So which techniques make the grade?

Not many. Only two techniques earned a high utility rating, which means they consistently improve learning in a range of circumstances. In contrast, a full half of the techniques—many of them popular with students—received a low utility rating, which means they have weak or inconsistent effects on learning. The remaining techniques have limited application, but might be helpful for specific types of learners or tasks.

Here are all ten techniques organized by their utility rating:

HIGH UTILITY

  1. Practice testing: practice answering questions about study material
  2. Distributed practice: spread studying over time

MODERATE UTILITY

  1. Elaborative interrogation: generate an explanation for a fact or concept
  2. Self-explanation: explain the thinking process while learning
  3. Interleaved practice: study different kinds of material in a single session

LOW UTILITY

  1. Summarization: write summaries of study material
  2. Highlighting and underlining: identify and mark significant content in a text
  3. Keyword mnemonic: associate known images and key words with new vocabulary
  4. Imagery for text: generate images of study material 
  5. Rereading: read material multiple times

The good news is that the high utility techniques are easy, low cost strategies that can be used by individual students or incorporated into our course or section design

So the next time a student asks how to study better, we can tell them what works—and what doesn’t.

See Also

Many course design ideas and resources in Course Preparation Resources.

Resources for students in Academic Skills Coaching.