The funny thing about school is that everyone expects you to study, but you never take a class called, “How to Study Effectively.” You’re just expected to pick this important skill up on your own.

It’s no wonder that so many students — whether in high school, college or even graduate school — have such lousy study habits. They also do a lot of things that common wisdom suggests are effective. But research suggests otherwise.

There are three common study habits in particular that a lot of students do, but which may not be particularly effective for most of the people who use them.

Why don’t these three study habits work very well for most people who employ them?

Let’s look at an in-depth study led by John Dunlosky (et al. 2013) from Kent State University, who 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 three common study habits that are surprisingly ineffective include re-reading a chapter or assignment, highlighting or underlining text in a chapter, and summarizing text.


Re-reading is simply reading a text, chapter or article more than once. The belief is that upon re-reading the text, you will pick up on ideas, concepts, or terms that you may have initially learned.

Why doesn’t it work very well as a reliable study measure?

Concerning criterion tasks, the effects of rereading do appear to be durable across at least modest delays when rereading is spaced. However, most effects have been shown with recall-based memory measures, whereas the benefit for comprehension is less clear.

Finally, although rereading is relatively economical with respect to time demands and training requirements when compared with some other learning techniques, rereading is also typically much less effective.

Re-reading is okay as study measure, but because it is so time-intensive, other study measures are simply a more cost-effective use of your limited study time. It’s a lazy method of study that might help a little, but not as much as you probably thing.

Highlighting and underlining

Highlighting or underlining important passages or key ideas in a text one is studying is one of the most common study techniques employed, especially by college and university students. “The[se] techniques typically appeal to students because they are simple to use, do not entail training, and do not require students to invest much time beyond what is already required for reading the material.”

But does highlighting — either actively doing it, or reading previously highlighted passages — actually help you learn?

On the basis of the available evidence, we rate highlighting and underlining as having low utility. In most situations that have been examined and with most participants, highlighting does little to boost performance.

It may help when students have the knowledge needed to highlight more effectively, or when texts are difficult, but it may actually hurt performance on higher-level tasks that require inference making.

In other words, most students have been doing this because it’s easy to do and there is a common belief that it helps. But the research tells a very different story. And not only does it not help, but for some material, it may actually hurt your performance!


Summarization is simply reading a text — such as a book chapter or an article — and writing a brief summary of what you’ve just read. “Successful summaries identify the main points of a text and capture the gist of it while excluding unimportant or repetitive material.”

So given that summarizing helps you boil down text into key concepts or ideas, why doesn’t it work very well as a reliable study aid?

On the basis of the available evidence, we rate summarization as low utility. It can be an effective learning strategy for learners who are already skilled at summarizing; however, many learners (including children, high school students, and even some undergraduates) will require extensive training, which makes this strategy less feasible.

Our enthusiasm is further dampened by mixed findings regarding which tasks summarization actually helps.

In other words, a lot of students don’t know how to do it very well. And when they do learn how to do it, it doesn’t help with actual learning of a lot of material most students would use it for.

So What Study Methods Work?

Check out our article, 2 Important Strategies for Effective Studying. And remember that studying while trying to do something else — like checking your Facebook page, watching TV, or talking to others — isn’t going to help either. Studying needs to be focused and as free from distractions as possible to be as effective as possible.

Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time.


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.

Further Reading