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Popular study strategies called ineffective — report

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Researchers who evaluated 10 learning techniques believed to improve student achievement found that five of them — including highlighting or underlining, are not very effective.

The report, called “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques,” says that one reason that ineffective study habits form is because there is too much research for educators to evaluate to figure out how to advise their students. Published in the January issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest,  the report was written by John Dunlosky and Katherine A. Rawson of Kent State University, Elizabeth J. Marsh of Duke University, Mitchell J. Nathan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Daniel T. Willingham of the University of Virginia.

The 10 techniques that had been cited as helpful to students in earlier literature and studied by the researchers are:

*elaborative interrogation — uses “why” questions to get students to make connections between new and old material.

*self-explanation — prompting students to provide their own explanations for problems while learning material


*highlighting or underlining

*keyword mnemonic — the use of keywords and mnemonics to help remind students of course material

*imagery use for text learning — creating mental images to remind students of material


*practice testing — flashcards are one way to practice test

*distributed practice — studying material over a number of relatively short sessions.

*interleaved practice — mixing different kinds of problems or material in one study session

Techniques rated as highly effective for students of different ages and abilities were practice testing and distributed practice. Those cited as having “low utility” were summarization, highlighting, the keyword mnemonic, imagery use for text learning, and rereading. In the middle, rated as having “moderate utility,” were techniques including elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, and interleaved practice.


The report says in part:


If simple techniques were available that teachers and students could use to improve student learning and achievement, would you be surprised if teachers were not being told about these techniques and if many students were not using them? What if students were instead adopting ineffective learning techniques that undermined their achievement, or at least did not improve it? Shouldn’t they stop using these techniques and begin usingones that are effective? Psychologists have been developing and evaluating the efficacy of techniques for study and instruction for more than 100 years. Nevertheless, some effective techniques are underutilized—many teachers do not learn about them, and hence many students do not use them, despite evidence suggesting that the techniques could benefit student achievement with little added effort. Also, some learning techniques that are popular and often used by students are relatively ineffective. One potential reason for the disconnect between research on the efficacy of learning techniques and their use in educational practice is that because so many techniques are available, it would be challenging for educators to sift through the relevant research to decide which ones showpromise of efficacy and could feasibly be implemented by students (Pressley, Goodchild, Fleet, Zajchowski, & Evans,1989).






Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · January 23, 2013

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