Guidance for students who want advice on how to study better

February 2, 2016

Students are often confident that they know how to study until they receive the results from their first major exam. Students at all levels must adjust their learning strategies to align with the demands of the learning task. First year students must learn that expectations for exams and assignments in a university setting differ from those they encountered in high school or a community college. Expectations for learning change again when students advance to course work in their major or graduate-level classes.

Feedback on a first assessment alerts students to the need to adjust their learning strategies, but students may be unaware of the merits of different approaches to learning. Misconceptions promoted in popular media, misleading intuitions, and poor understanding of their own cognitive processes often guide student beliefs about the value of a learning strategy.

John Dunlosky has written a highly readable description of effective learning strategies. He describes several learning strategies, explains why each strategy works, and describes the research evidence for the effectiveness of the strategy.

For instructors, Dunlosky offers the following advice:

  • Give students frequent low-stakes quizzes during class that focus on the most important material.
  • Make the final exam for a class a cumulative exam. If students know they will be tested on material again and want to improve their grade, they will restudy material they missed on earlier exams. Review and restudy creates a distributed pattern of learning, which improves retention.
  • Guide students in creating a “study planner” to distribute their study throughout a semester and minimize cramming.
  • Passively rereading and reviewing notes is not an effective learning strategy.
  • Encourage students to practice retrieving information by taking practice tests when they study. Students can use tests provided on a textbook site if questions require similar knowledge as exam questions. Students can also create their own test questions for self-tests, which gives them a different perspective on the content as well as providing additional retrieval practice.
  • Develop assignments that ask students to elaborate on their reading, develop answers to “why” questions, or apply text material to a practical application or real-world example.
  • Highlighting text is effective only if students return to highlighted material and reflect and elaborate on this material. Students who only reread highlighted material will learn less than students who use the highlighted material in a meaningful way.


John Dunlosky (Fall, 2013). Strengthening the Student Toolbox. American Educator.

02/02/2016 gb