Students everywhere, put down those highlighters and pick up some flashcards! Some of the most popular study strategies, like highlighting and even re-reading, don't show much promise for improving student learning, according to a new paper.

In the article, psychologist John Dunlosky of Kent State University and colleagues review ten learning techniques commonly used by students.

Based on the available evidence, they provide recommendations about the applicability and usefulness of each technique.

While the ten learning techniques vary widely in effectiveness, two strategies , practice testing and distributed practice, made the grade, receiving the highest overall utility rating. Most students are familiar with practice testing, having used flash cards or answered the questions at the end of a textbook chapter or took practice tests before their SATs. Students who prefer last-minute cram sessions may not be as familiar with the idea of distributed practice.

They say spreading out studying over time and quizzing yourself on material before the big test are highly effective learning strategies. Both techniques have been shown to boost students' performance across many different kinds of tests, and their effectiveness has been repeatedly demonstrated for students of all ages.


Nobel laureate Professor Carl Wieman also did a series of articles here on how education in 2020 should look.

"Schools and parents spend a great deal of money on technology and programs to improve student achievement, even though evidence often isn't available to firmly establish that they work," says Dunlosky. "We wanted to take a comprehensive look at promising strategies now, in order to direct teachers, students and parents to the strategies that are effective, yet underused."

In contrast, five of the techniques received a low utility rating from the researchers. Notably, these techniques are some of the most common learning strategies used by students, including summarization, highlighting and underlining, and rereading.

"I was shocked that some strategies that students use a lot — such as rereading and highlighting — seem to provide minimal benefits to their learning and performance. By just replacing rereading with delayed retrieval practice, students would benefit," says Dunlosky.

So why don't they? Why aren't students and teachers using the learning strategies that have been shown to be effective and inexpensive?

They found that the answer may have to do with how future teachers are taught.

"These strategies are largely overlooked in the educational psychology textbooks that beginning teachers read, so they don't get a good introduction to them or how to use them while teaching," Dunlosky explains. As a result, teachers are less likely to fully exploit some of these easy-to-use and effective techniques.

To help address this gap, the researchers organized their report in distinct modules, so that teachers can quickly decide whether each technique will potentially benefit his or her students and researchers can easily set an agenda on what we still need to know about the efficacy of these strategies.

"The learning techniques described in this monograph will not be a panacea for improving achievement for all students, and perhaps obviously, they will benefit only students who are motivated and capable of using them," Dunlosky and colleagues note. "Nevertheless, when used properly, we suspect that they will produce meaningful gains in performance in the classroom, on achievement tests, and on many tasks encountered across the life span."


Published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.