Teaching How to Study

It is no secret that testing is part of the learning process, and it doesn’t matter whether you call it a check for understanding, quiz, formative assessment, pencil game…whatever. Teachers know what they want their students to learn. And students (ideally) should know what they are supposed to demonstrate mastery of, too.

So if teachers know what students need to learn, and if students know what they are expected to learn, why aren’t test scores high across the board? Why do some students perform poorly on tests? And why do others stay up late studying for a test…for hours on end?

When I ask myself these questions, if I dig real deep into the root cause of why students struggle with tests, what I’ve come to realize is that students don’t know how to properly study for tests.

Many students engage in massed or blocked practices (i.e., cramming) which may help in the short-run, but will not persist over time (Roediger & Pyc, 2012). Another study method that students often use is rereading the material…over and over and over again. This type of effort also does not result in long-term retention, but rather a false sense of confidence in remembering the material because each successive reading is easier and seems more familiar than the last (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014).

I guarantee if you ask students how they study, they will tell you that they do both of the aforementioned.

And that’s why many of them struggle.

The learning sciences are clear that massed practicing does not lead to long-term retention of information (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014; Roediger & Pyc, 2012). But rather engaging in spacing (learning over time or spiral learning) and retrieval practice (deliberately recalling what has been previously learned) are two study methods that have been shown to have positive effects on long-term retention of information (Roediger & Pyc, 2012).

Retrieval practice can occur in a variety of ways (Blunt & Karpicke, 2014). I have used manipulatives, quickwrites, and mind-mapping. I don’t know that the manner of retrieval is as important as the act in and of itself. What I mean by that is that students need to engage in some serious thinking (recalling) of the information in order to make it stick. In fact, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014) in their book Make it Stick wrote “while any kind of retrieval practice generally benefits learning, the implication seems to be that where more cognitive effort is required for retrieval, greater retention results” (p. 40).

So what does that mean for my students?

Well, today, that meant that I gave my students a blank piece of paper. Together we drew a basic concept map of the main topics or content that they need to know. Then I gave them eight minutes to engage in what I call a brain dump: writing anything and everything they recall about the topics listed on the concept map in pencil. No talking to peers, and no looking on each other’s papers either. Then after eight minutes, I gave verbal prompts in the hope that it would further jog their memory. Still no talking to peers or looking on each other’s papers. I wanted them to focus solely on what they remembered. After two minutes of verbal prompts, students were instructed to grab a pen, share their findings with their peers, ask questions, and fill in the gaps on their concept maps in pen. For the most part, students were fully engaged for the entire 20 minutes. Their concept maps were growing outward like a spider web with details upon details from their peers whether they copied from another person’s concept map or jotted down a thought that came to mind. The best part of this practice was that students were actively engaged in the learning process. Better yet, when they were done, they had a great study tool which told them what they already knew (in pencil) and what they needed to further study (in pen).

It is my hope that my students learn and practice good study skills. I know it won’t come simply by me telling them that a test is coming. I need to pro-actively teach them ways to help with long-term retention of information. And just like anything that I do in my classroom, this is something that will need to be revisited time and time again until it becomes ingrained…a habit for them.


Blunt, J. R., & Karpicke, J. D. (2014). Learning with retrieval-based concept mapping. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106, 849–858. doi:10.1037/a0035934

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it Stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hardiman, M. (2012). The brain-targeted teaching model for 21st-century schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Roediger, H. L., III, & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 20–27. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2010.09.003

Roediger, H. L., III, & Pyc, M. A. (2012b). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1, 242–248. doi:10.1016/j.jarmac.2012.09.002

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