By Teachers, For Teachers
We know studying is fundamental to learning, but too often students don't know how.
As students move into their school year, each one likely hears familiar piece of advice at least once: "Study hard."
But what if the one thing they haven't learned is how to do just that – how to study?
Experts say that often the problem for many students isn't that they are lazy, don't care or have a learning issue. But, rather, it is that they just don't know how to apply themselves when they alone are responsible for their learning.
"More and more schools are recognizing the importance of teaching kids study and organizational skills," says Phyllis Fagel, a school psychologist who frequently writes for national publications about education topics. She says too often, parents and schools don't recognize that student may not be sure how to study or need to learn what study approaches fits their learning style. And, unfortunately, we often don't have an efficient classroom management way to recognize the problem.
Fagel believes that effective studying is closely linked to organization, and suggests that students need a "Uniform organization system" that includes a studying routine.
"Maybe they all log homework or organize their binders or chunk assignments the same way initially. Teachers can check the students' planners and binders weekly to ensure they’re mastering the school-recommended approach. Then, as students gain confidence, they can tweak and personalize their systems."
Amanda Morin, an advocate for students with learning disabilities for Understood.org at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, who has written generally about study skills for all students, agrees.
"Understanding the goal of specific assignments also is key for effective studying," she says. "That's something teachers can provide verbally when assigning homework as well as on the written assignment – or on the homework portal if a school uses one. It can be as simple as saying, 'This is practice of what we did in class' or 'look for something new that you didn't already know as you read this.'" Other experts say it can be a broader goal, too, such as, "This work will help you have an important fundamental understanding of key points about the topic in the unit we will be covering for two weeks." It is important to have students see where their individual study session might fit in the overall learning goals of the class or prepare them for a test.
In other words, students should first understand why they are studying.
Once they have a system for planning their work (and a good setting for studying that meets their needs and fits their learning style – which can be reinforced with parents) and understand the goal for the effort, there are techniques they can learn.
Megan Sumeracki, a psychology professor at Rhode Island College, has specialized in student learning, and she and her associate, Yana Weinstein, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, have detailed their research on study skills on their Web site and in their presentations.
"I'm not sure I could put a percentage on the students who don't know how to study. However, anecdotally I can say it is a big problem," Sumeracki says.
The two say six approaches are key: Retrieval practice, elaboration, spaced practice, interleaving, concrete examples and what they call "dual coding," or students recording information in two forms.
"It is the process of combining verbal materials with visual materials," she says. "There are many ways to visually represent material, such as with infographics, timelines, cartoon strips, diagrams, and graphic organizers. When you have the same information in two formats - words and visuals - it gives you two ways of remembering the information later on and it is an effective way to study."
The two refer to research in 1992 showing how such combination techniques work based on the study of nearly 300 college students. It has been duplicated since.
Sumeracki also says she believes spaced practice is a very effective approach.
"It is the opposite of cramming. When you cram, you study for a long, intense period of time close to an exam. When you space your learning, you take that same amount of study time, and spread it out across a much longer period of time. Doing it this way, that same amount of study time will produce more long-lasting learning."
"Retrieval practice" is also effective – involving bringing something back to mind a while after you have learned it. Teachers can help with this by very briefly reviewing topics just so that students bring them back to their thoughts and further imbed them.
Some of the ideas developed by the two about appropriate techniques are similar to those found by others who have done research on the study approaches.
Research by a team at Kent State University showed that learning study skills paid off, but that they had to be the right skills. They developed a list of and tested them taking into consideration four variables: Learning conditions, student characteristics, materials, and criterion tasks.
"Fortunately, cognitive and educational psychologists have been developing and evaluating easy-to-use learning techniques that could help students achieve their learning goals," the researchers note as they list 10 techniques they believe educators should teach students based on testing a variety of them. They are:
Sumeracki also notes that while testing has gotten a bad name, if we could avoid the pressure we sometimes put on students it is actually a useful way for them to learn. "Tests aren't the enemy," she says. "They actually promote learning, and helping students view them as learning opportunities can be very positive."