Research Reveals Which Learning Methods Get an 'A'

FRIDAY Jan. 11, 2013 -- Students, get out those flash cards: A new study finds that they may be a better study option than some of the more popular methods -- such as highlighting or rereading material.

The study appears in the January issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

"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," study author John Dunlosky, of Kent State University, explained in a journal news release. "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," he explained.

Dunlosky and his colleagues found wide variations in the effectiveness of the 10 learning strategies they analyzed for the study. The two that received the highest rating were "practice testing" and "distributed practice."

Practice testing involves techniques such as using flash cards or answering the questions at the end of textbook chapters. Distributed practice involves spreading out studying over time and quizzing yourself on material before a test.

Five of the study strategies received a low rating. These included some of the most widely used methods, such as highlighting and underlining, rereading and summarization.

"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 [distributed] retrieval practice, students would benefit," Dunlosky said.

One reason why students are less likely to use the more effective learning methods has to do with teacher training.

"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 said.

This means that teachers are less likely to pass these easy-to-use and effective study strategies on to their students.

But Dunlosky also stressed that student motivation to excel is key. He said that the learning methods cited as best by the study "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. 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."

More information

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Posted: January 2013


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