If You Need to Study, Put Down the Highlighter

By: Jenna Savage


When it comes to studying, half the battle is avoiding distractions so you can focus without interruption. If you accomplish that, then the next step is figuring out the best approach to learning the material on which you’ll be tested. There are a lot of different studying methods out there, but some of them work better than others. To determine which ones were the most effective, researchers from Kent State University performed a study to determine which strategies lead to better grades, the Association for Psychological Science reports.

Led by John Dunlosky, Ph.D., Kent State University psychological scientists conducted a review of the 10 studying strategies that are most commonly used by students. Methods included highlighting textbooks, rereading notes, practice testing, and distributed practice. Whereas practice testing involves the use of flash cards and answering questions about readings, distributed practice is when a student spreads out studying over time and tests him or herself on the studying materials before an exam.

As explained in the report, which was published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, five of the techniques studied received low ratings in effectiveness. Among those techniques were some of the most popular studying strategies, like summarization, rereading notes, and highlighting important parts of text. These methods, which are often taught in classrooms as good studying habits, led to little academic improvement.

The two techniques that received the highest ratings in effectiveness were practice testing and distributed practice. Students who spread studying out over time, rather than cramming, and test themselves (or each other) prior to taking an exam see a lot of improvement in their performance. Likewise, students who use flashcards and answer chapter quizzes also perform well on exams.

As a result, students are encouraged to address their approach to studying and – if they feel as though they could benefit from a change – consider altering their habits to dedicate more time to delayed retrieval practice exercises than cramming and highlighting. Rather than taking the time to summarize chapters and class notes, they should give flashcards and quizzes a try. Educators are also encouraged to reconsider the studying habits they promote in the classroom.

Of course, some students may find that certain techniques may serve their individual needs better than others. Dunlosky agrees, and is quoted as saying that the learning methods are effective for students who are motivated and able to use them, according to the article. “Nevertheless,” he said, “when used properly, we suspect that they will produce meaningful gains in performance in the classroom, on achievement tests, and on many tasks encountered across the life span.”