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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2018



How Should You Study?
Advice for Students and Faculty

Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
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It happens far too often. A student comes into my office and says, “Dr. G. I studied a lot for the last exam but I still only got a C!” This is a shame but a reality. What if they did not attend class often enough? What if they did not take good notes? Perhaps they did not read the textbook. Although all three of these possibilities would lead to poorer exam scores, a glaring issue is that the student might not have studied in the best way. There are a variety of ways students can and should study (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, & Willingham, 2013; Gurung & McCann, 2012). Cognitive science provides a strong list of factors that have been shown to influence learning. I will first review the research on usage of different learning techniques, and second, identify which techniques best relate to students’ past academic performance as well as predict current success.

A Brief Review of Research on Studying
Measures of study behaviors, also called study skills, strategies, or techniques, can provide a better awareness of a student’s strengths and weaknesses and, correspondingly, ways to optimize learning. Study behaviors can be broadly defined as behaviors functioning to acquire, organize, synthesize, evaluate, remember, and use information (Credé & Kuncel, 2008). Such behaviors include time management; goal setting; selecting what, how, and where to study; taking good notes; reading; and self-testing. Researchers have divided the many specific study behaviors into four main categories: repetition-based (e.g., flashcards), cognitive-based (e.g., studying with a friend), procedural (e.g., time management), and metacognitive (e.g., taking quizzes to test self-knowledge; for more details see Gettinger & Seibert, 2002).

Given the obvious link between studying and learning (as established by high exam scores and course grades), a large self-help market caters to students looking for tips. Many of the guides include discussions of topics such as multiple intelligences, learning styles, and time management, while providing step-by-step strategies on how to read better, take good notes, and remember and test better. Whereas some guides include some empirical evidence to support recommendations (Pauk & Owens, 2007), most do not. For example, Newport (2007) features tips based on interviews with students who achieved high grades in college. Unfortunately, the empirical basis of the available material varies greatly.

The Cognitive Psychology of Studying
Numerous factors are associated with students’ academic performance. These include achievement motivation, academic goals, contextual influences, social involvement, and perceived social support (Robbins et al., 2004). In addition, factors such as effort, ability, study skills, habits, self-efficacy, and motivation have a powerful influence on academic performance (Credé & Kuncel, 2008; Komarraju & Nadler, 2013).

In one of the most comprehensive reviews of study techniques, Dunlosky et al. (2013) rated the effectiveness of 10 learning techniques most commonly found to influence learning. The authors also rated the techniques’ utility based on their effectiveness across different learners, materials, criterion tasks, and educational contexts, and on the issues to implement them. All 10 techniques improve learning, though they vary in utility (Dunlosky et al., 2013). Techniques such as summarizing, highlighting, making up mnemonics for keyword, rereading, and using imagery for text learning have low utility, although they relate to learning. Elaborative interrogation (i.e., generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact/concept is true), self-explanation (i.e., explaining how new information is related to known information), and interleaved practice (i.e., mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session) are moderate utility techniques (Dunlosky et al., 2013).

Dunlosky et al. (2013) rated a final category of techniques as having high utility: practice testing (i.e., taking quizzes to see what you know), and distributed practicing (i.e., spreading out study activities over time). In one study, practice testing benefited a student the most when a student was able to correctly recall the initial concepts three times and, in addition, used spaced out intervals over a long period of time to relearn the concepts three times (Rawson & Dunlosky, 2011). Learning is more likely to occur not only when the student is able to recall the item, but also when a student has successfully retrieved the items twice (Karpicke, 2009). An example of the way a student may engage in both highly utilized techniques is by the use of flashcards. Students who utilize flashcards as a form of practice testing will space out their practice over time to test themselves (Wissman, Rawson, & Pyc, 2012).

What This Means for Students
Most of what people think helps learning does not. No, studying in the same place all the time is not needed for optimal learning. No, highlighting a lot of text is not a very useful strategy. No, spending time rereading material is not good use of time (instead students should test themselves on the material). A lot of good strategies are not what one would expect. It is not all common sense, and although they may not be real secrets (they are often buried in scientific journals), not enough people know of them or use them. There are some surefire practices that can really help and yes, effort is required.

Cognitive science boils it down to this: you need to know what you NEED to know (look at your syllabus), what you DO know (test yourself), and what you DO NOT know (look at your results). Sounds simple but this is perhaps the most important set of skills students can have—metacognitive skills. When students have a lot to learn, the content needs to be organized. Students should plan out when they are going to work on which class. They should put something in place (e.g. reminders in a phone, a list making app [try Wunderlist], a diary or calendar) to help APPLY the plan and MONITOR progress. Students should take time to REFLECT on how well they are learning and TEST themselves. They should EVALUATE their learning and adjust their PLANs accordingly. This is the critical metacognitive cycle.

It also pays to use deep processing. Instead of reading material to memorize facts (called surface processing), students need to be trained instead to translate the material into their own words. They should find the themes and connections with other material they are studying. They should make up examples with the material. One strategy is to think of how they could apply the material to their own lives. All these ways of deep processing help them learn better.

Students should make sure they have the right mindset too (Dweck, 2008). The fact is that knowledge is not fixed. Intelligence can be developed and grows. One can get smarter and we are not “stuck” with the intelligence we were born with (and other people were just not born knowing more). Having a fixed mindset can hurt. People who think knowledge is fixed actually work less after scoring poorly on a test. People with a growth mindset understand that we can get smarter, automatically work harder. Just changing mindset (to growth) can help one learn better.

Tips for Teachers
From a pragmatic standpoint, there are a number of specific practices for teachers:

Find Out How the Student Has Been Studying
Possible questions include: Did you read the assigned chapters before the test? Did you read them before you came to class, after, or just before the exam? How much time did you devote to studying for the test? Did you read these chapters once, or more than once? (This question provides a chance to review the old Law of Frequency, and to describe how repetition influences memory formation and recall.)

Check Attendance and Note-Taking Practices
Assuming that the student attends class regularly, you might ask the following: Do you take good notes? Do you review your notes after class to correct obvious errors? Do you compare your notes with those of other students? Where do you sit in the classroom? You may also want to look at the quality of the student’s notes and suggest changes (e.g., leaving more space, use of topic headings, writing down of examples used by the instructor).

Suggest Healthy Behaviors
Ask how much sleep the student gets, how much they got the night before the exam, and if they are getting any exercise and eating properly. (This might provide an opportunity to review the effects of sleep on memory formation.)

Recommend Tutoring
If tutors are available, encourage their use. If not, ask if the student has tried studying with other students.

Discuss Recognition Versus Knowing
Describe the difference between going over material enough that one can “recognize” the material as very familiar and prematurely conclude that it is known and understood, and really knowing and understanding it. (You might even mention Ebbinghaus and the benefits of overlearning, or work on the “curse of knowledge” showing that students often think they know the material if the material is right there in front of them.)

Urge Self-Assessment
One easy strategy is to give your students access to an established and free study behavior measure (e.g., ASSIST) and have them use it to get a sense of what they are not doing (Entwistle, 2009). The ASSIST provides a profile of scores on strategies and alerts students to possible problems in their existing ways of studying (available at www.etl.tla.

Discuss Winning Strategies
Hattie (2009) synthesized research from more than 800 meta-analyses relating to educational achievement. He then derived the effect sizes for different interventions. Intervening to improve study behaviors was a significant factor with an effect size of .59. This meta-analysis and other works on study techniques (Gurung, 2004, 2005) show specific strategies (discussed in the previous section) are empirically proven to work. Share them with students.

Advise Students on What NOT to Do
Previous research suggests that students take some “dangerous detours”: study techniques that may not be beneficial involving more study time at the expense of other techniques (Gurung, 2004, p. 164). Sadly, such detours could represent behaviors used by academically weaker students. Dunlsoky et al. (2013) show that highlighting and rereading notes is not a high utility strategy. Tell students to minimize doing this.

Assess Your Own Students’ Study Behaviors
Correlate the behaviors with exam scores and identify what behaviors are associated with better scores. Share this with the students to help them modify their study behavior. For example, the first author created a 35-item Study Behavior Checklist based on previous research and student interviews (Gurung, Weidert, & Jeske, 2010).

Do Not Expect a Silver Bullet
It is important to bear in mind that there are no strategies that work all of the time, for all students, in all classes. Different exams call for different strategies. It is possible that introductory psychology multiple choice exams require only basic study behaviors, whereas an upper-level essay exam will need different behaviors.

In general, instructors need to be cognizant of how much of the advice they give to students is empirically proven to work in an actual classroom rather than a controlled cognitive psychology laboratory study. Asking students to complete a study skill inventory after the first exam may provide instructors with a starting point to discussing study behaviors with students. Taking some class time to discuss the variety of study techniques, and then detailing what exactly is involved in each method, may be critical to helping students do better. I hope these suggestions prove helpful when the next student asks you how to study for your exams and that their performance improves as a result of your advice.

Credé, M., & Kuncel, N. R. (2008). Study habits, skills, and attitudes: The third pillar supporting collegiate academic performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 425–453.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4–58.
Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.
Entwistle, N. (2009). Teaching for understanding at university: Deep approaches and distinctive ways of thinking. London, England: Palgrave Macmillan.
Gettinger, M., & Seibert, J. K. (2002). Contributions of study techniques to academic competence. School Psychology Review, 31, 350–365.
Gurung, R. A. R. (2004). Pedagogical aids: Learning enhancers or dangerous detours? Teaching of Psychology, 31, 164–166.
Gurung, R. A. R. (2005). How do students really study (and does it matter)? Teaching of Psychology, 32, 239–241. Retrieved from
Gurung, R. A. R., & McCann, L. I. (2012). How should students study? In B. M. Schwartz, R. Gurung (Eds.), Evidence-based teaching for higher education (pp. 99–116). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Gurung, R. A. R., Weidert, J., & Jeske, A. S. (2010). A closer look at how students study (and if it matters). Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10, 28–33.
Karpicke, J. D. (2009). Metacognitive control and strategy selection: Deciding to practice retrieval during learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 138, 469–486.
Komarraju, M., & Nadler, D. (2013). Self-efficacy and academic achievement: Why do implicit beliefs, goals, and effort regulation matter? Learning and Individual Differences, 25, 67–72.
Newport, C. (2007). How to become a straight-A student: The unconventional strategies real college students use to score high while studying less. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
Pauk, W., & Owens, R. J. Q. (2014). How to study in college. Boston, MA: Wadsworth.
Rawson, K. A., & Dunlosky, J. (2011). Optimizing schedules of retrieval practice for durable and efficient learning: How much is enough? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 140, 283–302.
Robbins, S. B., Lauver, K., Le, H., Davis, D., Langley, R., & Carlstrom, A. (2004). Do psychosocial and study skill factors predict college outcomes? A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 261–288.
Wissman, K. T., Rawson, K. A., & Pyc, M. A. (2012). How and when do students use flashcards? Memory, 20, 568–579.

Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is the Ben J. and Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Human Development and Psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. He has published articles in a variety of scholarly journals including American Psychologist, Psychological Review, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and Teaching of Psychology, has a textbook, Health Psychology: A Cultural Approach, relating culture, development, and health published with Sage (4th edition), and is also the coauthor/coeditor of 14 other books. An award winning teacher (APF’s Charles Brewer Distinguished Teaching Award, The CASE Wisconsin Professor of the Year, the UW System Regents Teaching Award, the UW-Green Bay Founder’s Award for Excellence in Teaching), his research interests span social psychology, health psychology, and scholarship of teaching and learning.



Copyright 2018 (Vol. 22, Iss. 2) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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