I sat in my office handing a box of tissues to a devastated student for the third time that day. This student had hopes and dreams that she felt were being destroyed due to low exam grades. This student looked up at me with tears streaming down her face and told me a story very similar to the one I had heard twice before in that day. Her story? I studied for hours and I thought I knew it before I got to the test.
This is heartbreaking for any teacher. I wanted to reassure her, but the true was that I was confused. The course I was teaching was hard, but it really had more to do with the amount of information. Generally speaking more time in should get better results coming out.
It took me years to figure out the problem. I had no idea how they were studying for hours and not knowing the material. This course was wreaking havoc on GPAs and futures. I kept asking myself, “What is going on?”. Was this all just test anxiety? The answer was no.
When I talked with the students there was a central theme that became more and more prominent. These students were not studying. As I asked for more details I would get responses that had some version of “I read the notes over and over”. Ding, Ding, Ding, we have a winner! Reading the notes over and over is not studying. It doesn’t work.
What does it take to learn? Learning is an active process. It requires more than reading. In order to really master the material, students need to make it part of their knowledge base.
Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves (Chickering & Gamson, 1987).
If students are sitting somewhere scanning their eyes across a page of notes they aren’t necessarily engaging in the material. In this day in age, often the notes themselves are not even written by the students but produced and delivered to the students by the instructor. This has created a very hands off approach to both teaching and learning.
Reading is an excellent way to get a second-hand account of information. Fiction reading is good at taking us away from our current environment and transporting us into a new world of fantasy.
Nonfiction Reading requires an entirely different set of skills and brain activity. I talked about nonfiction reading strategies in previous posts. You can catch some of those here and here. Reading and repeated readings of your notes are not the same thing as using good strategy (reading will be part of any strategy).
Repeated reading of course materials doesn’t work by itself. When we read the same thing over and over we don’t activate our brain. We begin to mentally check out.
This is the same reason we don’t catch mistakes when we proofread our own writing. Our brain makes insertions and deletions all on its own. Our brain will begin to anticipate what is on the page whether our brain knows the facts or not.
Three big reasons that should make you give up reading as the basis for your study strategy.
- It’s inefficient
- It’s ineffective.
- I think this is the worst of all. This is the one that’s made more students come to my office in tears than any other thing. Reading give students a false sense of confidence about the level of knowledge they have of the material.
So just to repeat myself it’s an efficient and effective strategy that falsely convinces the learner that they have mastered the material.
What should students be doing?
There are 6 proven study strategies that work.
- Retrieval Practice: Self-Testing
- Interleaving: Creating Patterns
- Concrete Examples: Use Examples
- Dual Coding: Use Visuals and Text (Adding auditory is good too)
- Elaboration: Expand the Idea
- Spaced Practice: Don’t Cram
Study plans should include all 6 of these strategies in order to be the most beneficial. You can find out more about each strategy and some examples here.
Once I discovered this mistake, I was able to help students. We would always talk about creating a study plan. Mapping the semester and applying good study strategies. There were students that followed through and students that didn’t. I can say that students that started to study differently also saw different results on later exams.
Free Semester Study Plan Workshop
It is the beginning of a new semester. I will be hosting a free workshop on using the syllabus to create the semester study plan (including the 6 study strategies) on Thursday January 19th at 8 PM CST & Sunday January 22 at 6 PM CST. There will be a free semester study plan workbook sent out before the workshop to use. I will have a Q&A session immediately following the live workshop. If you can’t make it live, I will have a replay available for a few days following the workshop so sign up to get that delivered to your inbox. Create a schedule for studying like you would for any goal.
Is Rereading the Material a Good Study Strategy? http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/rereading-material-good-study-strategy/
Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z.F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. The Wingspread Journal, 9(2), 3-7. See also AAHE Bulletin, March 1987.
Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., and McDaniel, M. A. Making it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.