Students frequently employ four familiar, but not necessarily effective, methods when studying. Instead, teachers should guide students through instruction and planning to become more adept at some less familiar but more effective strategies for learning.
Many students use some typical, but ineffective, strategies for studying:
· Reading assigned text
· Marking with highlighter or pencil
· Reviewing the material a day or so before test
· Rereading what was highlighted or noted previously
The trouble with these methods is that when students depend on them, without adjustment, they will let them down. The result of relying on these strategies along might be some short-term success, but ultimately the long-term memory and understanding is missing. Students have crammed a kind of familiarity about the material, but haven’t done what is needed to make sure they have understood—which is necessary for long-term retention.
Of course, reading and marking (or better, note taking) is an important step toward understanding. But there are three simple strategies students can use to ensure that their study time is more efficient and more effective for the long-term.
1. Dialogue With the Author
I encourage my students to engage mentally with the author as they are reading. Particularly when reading non-fiction, such as a history text, it’s important for students to conduct a kind of mental discussion. They shouldn’t read passively, or simply let the author ‘lecture’ to them in print. Indeed, even during a lecture students should be asking (silently) questions, such as:
-what is the author saying is most important about this subject?
-why did the author choose that particular word or term to describe that action or event?
-how does what the author is saying relate to what I’ve learned previously?
-what’s the writer’s worldview? Does it influence how he/she presents this material?
-do I think what the author is saying is accurate? Do I have questions about this text?
Obviously, the student will want to balance asking questions with paying attention to the author, but what’s important is that students develop the habit of being active, participatory readers. This will make understanding and long-term memory of the material much more likely.
2. Distributed Practice Time
Cramming for hours right before a test can actually be an effective strategy—if all you care about is short-term memory. Students who cram may pass the test, but they will almost always forget what they supposedly ‘learned’ in a very short time. More effective is dividing the studying necessary over a longer period of time. Given the same amount of time, students who spread this out over several days or weeks or months rather than cramming will experience much longer retention. Cramming simply doesn’t work if learning means being able to remember and apply what was learned several weeks or months later.
3. Practice Testing
Trying to remember, and the work that that requires, can actually be more beneficial for memory and learning than simply rereading. Rereading material, while a good practice, can give a false sense of assurance because terms and ideas seem familiar. Of course, familiarity is not the same thing as knowing. Take away the text and quiz the student—then you’ll see what they really know. Students can self-test through flash cards, summarizing, etc. Teachers can build short but frequent quizzing into their class schedule. This immediate feedback has been shown to result in significant memory gains.
The goal of learning is long-term memory and application. As teachers, we want students to retain what we’ve taught them and to be able to use that knowledge in other contexts and for others means, sometimes years down the road. By teaching students to use the very simple strategies described above we will help them to be more likely to learn better and to retain longer the things we work so hard to teach them.
(adapted from Daniel Willingham, Educational Leadership, October 2014)