What I'm Reading: Article on Improving Students’ Learning

June 19, 2016

W e have all had the experience of giving a test that a significant number of students did poorly on, and then getting blowback from those students because they had "worked hard." I have never doubted that students do work hard, but lately I’ve started to wonder if their study techniques are actually effective. A 2013 article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, by John Dunlosky and four co-authors, analyzes the effect of both the common study techniques used by students, and techniques that were developed and evaluated through cognitive and educational psychology research.

In essence, the authors of "Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques" say that if students work hard but use ineffective techniques, they will perform poorly. Study skills that students typically use — highlighting or underlining their notes, reading material over and over, and summarizing the content — are the ones that have the lowest ability to contribute to learning. The most beneficial strategies are practice testing and distributed practice, in which students break up studying into several short sessions spread out over several days. The authors point out that those beneficial techniques require almost no training and no more time than the ineffective ones do.

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 As retention rates become higher priorities for institutions, it is important that we think about how we train our students to do academic tasks. The techniques they use contribute to their success as much as their work ethic does.

Ryan L. Korstange is a lecturer in university studies and coordinator of the university seminar program at Middle Tennessee State University.