3 Things Experts Say Make A Perfect Study Session

Peter Brown (a writer), Henry Roediger (a psychologist), and Mark McDaniel (another psychologist) have 3 important tips for learners on how to study.

Try this tomorrow in school: ask any of your students how they study.  Their response:  "uh, I like read the textbook and look at the notes."  One study found upwards of 84% of students reread text.

Even to those not in education, this seems like a waste of time, and it is.

Help your students improve their study habits by highlighting the advice of Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel in their book Make It Stick.

This article will discuss what your students should not be doing to study and will give you a response when you hear the inevitable "uh, I like read the textbook and look at the notes." 

What most students do #1: reread the textbook and notes

Why this does not help:  when you reread a text, you relearn and become fluent with the text rather than the concepts.  Rereading implies passive attention, simply skimming.  Once the core behavior of active reading, highlighting text is not helpful, in fact, it is now considered harmful.

Scientific America explains why highlighting is thought to be detrimental to the acquisition of knowledge:

"(highlighting) draws attention to individual items rather than to connections across items."
Highlighting was actually identified by Time magazine as the worst method of studying:

"Highlighting and underlining led the authors’ list of ineffective learning strategies. Although they are common practices, studies show they offer no benefit beyond simply reading the text. Some research even indicates that highlighting can get in the way of learning..."

  A rereader is not invested in the text.  Even if the learner highlights and makes notes, real learning is not happening.  Your exposure is shallow and though some concepts may ring a bell, most spend some time in working memory just to disappear when you turn the page.

What to do instead of rereading: quiz yourself
Most textbooks come with  chapter assessments and summarization bullet points.  Use them to reinforce the ideas already learned.  Learning is about making connections and quizzing yourself is a great way to ensure that those connections have been made.  The teacher phrase for bringing to light what you know and don't know is self assessment.  Quizzing yourself works because each time a concept is revisited, or said differently, retrieved from memory, the mental connection is strengthened.

What most students do #2: Massed practice

What this is and why it does not help: massed practice is reviewing the same content for a lengthy period of time.  As you spend more time on the content, you feel like you're learning, but really you're just utilizing working memory.

For example, a student needs to learn the cell organelles, so they use flashcards to help memorize the different functions.  They sit and work through them until they know each one "cold."  They set the cards down feeling triumphant about acquiring their new knowledge just to find out the next day during the exam it has all dissipated.

The phrase "practice makes perfect" is absolutely true for education, but we must add spaced practice makes perfect.

What to do instead: spaced practice

Spaced practice allows for memory attrition and spacing out your review sessions means that you recognize some of the learned information will be lost and you need to practice recalling it.  From Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel:
"Anything you want to remember must be periodically recalled from memory."
Spaced practice allows you to reconstruct the memory and master the concept.  Again, reconstructing the memory is strengthening the connection and is the core of remembering a concept for a lengthy period of time.

From Scientific American:
"Long delays between study periods are ideal to retain fundamental concepts that form the basis for advanced knowledge."

What most students do #3: Blocked practice

What it is and why it does not help: blocked practice entails studying the same subject and performing the same study tasks.  Most students feel more comfortable looking at a single problem and mastering it before moving on.

This does not help because this is not the way your brain thinks.  Your brain's main goal is to perceive an ever-changing environment.  It rarely sees the same issue over and over.

Much of learning is not only finding the solution to the problem, but also determining what the problem is.  By practicing the same problem, you're skipping ahead and giving your brain the easy way out; it already knows the kind of problem it has to solve.

What to do instead: interleave problems

Interleaved practice takes problems from all content areas addressed.  Or, it takes different problems from the same content.  Rather than address the same type of problem, interleaved review sessions involve different problems that need solving.

Bottom line, the brain first has to determine what problem it has to solve, then it has to solve it.  This requires deep and meaningful thinking which leads to stronger mental connections and learning.

In summary and what to tell your students when they ask you how to study: quizzing yourself is better than rereading your text, spaced practice is better than a long block of massed practice, and mixing up problem types is better than blocked practice.

Try this awesome article from Scientific American if you'd like to learn more about the study techniques that work, and which ones do not.

Thanks for reading.  And also, buy Make It Stick and read it.  You'll be glad you did so.


  1. Very interesting. Your proofreader needs to check the difference between your and you're, it's distracting from the content.

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