Every college student and high school student believes he or she has honed a set of highly effective, useful study skills. I used re-reading, lots of summarizing, note-taking (and outlining), and taking the little tests you would often find at the end of a chapter to help me remember the material I just read.

Nobody taught me how to study this way. It was just something I did through trial and error in trying and discarding multiple techniques. For instance, I tried highlighting, but it did little for me.

Of course, psychologists and other scientists have been testing effective study techniques now for decades. Being far more clever than I, they’ve actually run such techniques through the research ringer, and have come out with some effective study strategies.

Just last month, another group of researchers decided to take a look at all of that research, and boil down what we know about the most effective methods for studying. Here’s what they found.

Researchers led by John Dunlosky (et al. 2013) from Kent State University decided to take a critical look at the 10 most common learning techniques available to students and see whether they had strong or little backing in the research literature. The study methods examined were:

  1. Elaborative interrogation — Generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true
  2. Self-explanation — Explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving
  3. Summarization — Writing summaries of to-be-learned texts
  4. Highlighting/underlining — Marking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while reading
  5. Keyword mnemonic — Using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials
  6. Imagery for text — Attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening
  7. Rereading — Restudying text material again after an initial reading
  8. Practice testing — Self-testing or taking practice tests over to-be-learned material
  9. Distributed practice — Implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time
  10. Interleaved practice — Implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session.

So unbeknownst to me at the time, I was engaging in a combination of the above learning techniques while in school — summarization, rereading, and practice testing. I also tried to distribute my studying over time, and not try and cram right before a test (although I probably was only marginally successful in adhering to that desire). ((As an aside, I always thought it somewhat ironic looking over the birth, publishing, and digestion of a book, it goes from an idea in an author’s head, into a book outline, then a chapter outline, then the actual text to fill out each chapter outline. Then the publisher publishes this fleshed-out text. Then students digest it by breaking all that text down back into an outline — probably not so dissimilar from the one the author originally used before he wrote the book!))

At least one of my techniques was deemed effective by the researchers — practice testing. The other technique that received across-the-board high grades was distributed practice.

According to the researchers, 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.

Some common study techniques used by most students didn’t receive such high marks for effectiveness:

In contrast, five of the techniques received a low rating from the researchers. Interestingly, these techniques are some of the most common learning strategies used by students. Such ineffective strategies include: 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,” Dunlosky said. “By just replacing rereading with delayed retrieval practice, students would benefit.”

Indeed, students probably relay on tasks like highlighting and rereading because they are the easiest to do while actively studying. It’s so easy to whip out a highlighter and believe that by actively marking a passage, it’s somehow seeping into your brain cavities like syrup does into those little waffle compartments.

Sadly, that’s not the case. You might as well just sniff the highlighter for all the good highlighting does in helping you study.

Other techniques that got mixed but generally positive reviews include interleaved practice, self-explanation and elaborative interrogation. Mnemonics are likely helpful for some key concepts (you can’t get through medical school without them), but not as a general study technique.

And rereading (which 65 percent of college students admit to using) can’t hurt you if the material is dense and difficult and you didn’t quite get it the first time around. But don’t kid yourself into believing that rereading is as good as taking a practice test or spreading studying over time. (And generally, you only need to re-read a text passage once; multiple rereading efforts don’t usually help with comprehension.)

So there you have it — focus on practice testing and studying evenly over the course of the entire semester. Those techniques are going to be the most time-effective and the best use of your brain cells.

Read the full article: What Study Strategies Make the Grade?


Dunlosky, J. Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Nathan, M.J. & Willingham, D.T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4-58.