RAP ON: Helping Students Study

By Regan A.R. Gurung, Associate Vice Provost and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and Professor of Psychological Science, Oregon State University

Editor’s Note: This is part of our series of Research Advancing Pedagogy (RAP) blogs, designed to share the latest pedagogical research from across the disciplines in a pragmatic format.

Teachers hope that students put effort into their learning and often urge them to study more. While not spending a lot of time on a class or preparing for an exam is an easy explanation for why students score poorly, it is not just how LONG a student studies, but how they study that is important. There are a variety of ways that students do study. Students will often re-read their textbooks (or perhaps read it for the first time). Some will review their notes (if they have taken notes). Many will highlight their books and pay close attention to what is highlighted (even when there is more highlighted material than not). Others will make flash cards and focus on key terms, repeatedly memorizing items from a glossary. All these methods are not optimal for learning!

Noted cognitive psychologist John Dunlosky and colleagues (Dunlsoky et al., 2013; see also Donoghue & Hattie, 2021) studied all the methods mentioned above and more, analyzing the utility of ten common studying methods. The group looked at all the studies they could find on each technique and examined measure of learning as they related to each method. Most of the methods students used did not measure up to effective learning. For example, summarization (writing summaries of content), highlighting/underlining (marking potentially important content whilst reading), keyword mnemonic (generating keywords and mental imagery to associate with content), imagery use (attempting to form mental images of content while reading) and re-reading (restudying text material again after an initial reading) were all low utility items. Three techniques were rated as having moderate utility: elaborative interrogation (generating an explanation of a fact or concept), self-explanation (explaining how new information is related to already-known information) and interleaved practice (mixing different kinds of information within a single study session). Just retrieval practice (self-testing) and distributed practice (spacing out studying) were high utility techniques.

How do we get students to use these techniques?

What was done? 

The authors (Maurer & Cabey, 2023) testing an intervention designed to teach students a study technique that essentially combines the two high utility study techniques, spaced practice and retrieval practice found by Dunlosky et al. 2012, and titled successive relearning.  Students in two child development classes across two semesters (total of 90) completed a pre-measure and then received instructions on how to study using successive relearning. The pre-measure asked students about their plans to study and how they studied for their past exam. The demonstration of the method took four class periods and was started a week after the first exam. The core of the presentation was describing how to use successive relearning (e.g., how to use flashcards to repeated test oneself and to plan to do so spread out over time).

What did they find? 

Providing students with information on how to study more effectively had some benefits. For example, the number of days before the exam that students started studying increased from before the intervention to after it. Most importantly, student scores on a content showed a statistically significant improvement from pre-test to post-test. Furthermore, students’ confidence in their abilities increased as well. In qualitative reports, the students also reported higher metacognitive awareness of their own need to learn to study more effectively.

What does this mean for us?         

Most college faculty feel pressured to cover content and even the skills taught, may relate to the coursework (e.g., critical thinking). This study by Maurer and Cabay illustrates the benefits of taking the time to show students how to study can be built into lesson plans. While some teachers may not know what exactly these study techniques involve, taking the time for professional development (e.g., visit the Center for Teaching and Learning) to build such knowledge, is time well spent.

The bigger point is this:

Even students who may want to study hard and do better may not know how to do this. In college many teachers assume students already know how to study or trust academic success strategies are something the student will get in orientation, a general education College 101 class, or have already been trained in during high school.  A vast array of research suggests this is not the case. Picking on high utility strategies and taking class time to show students how to use them can increase learning.


Donoghue, G. M., & Hattie, J. A. C. (2021). A meta-analysis of ten learning techniques. Frontiers in Education, 6; 581216. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.581216 

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(1), 4-58. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266

Maurer, T. W., & Cabay, E. (2023). Challenges of shaping student study strategies for success: Replication and extension. Teaching and Learning Inquiry, 11. https://doi.org/10.20343/teachlearnininqu.11.18

Regan Gurung

About the author: Regan A. R. Gurung, Ph.D. is Associate Vice Provost and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Oregon State University and Professor of Psychological Science. This is part of our series of Research Advancing Pedagogy (RAP) blogs, designed to share the latest pedagogical research from across the disciplines in a pragmatic format.

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