The Cognitive Science of Studying: What should we be teaching our students?

I’ll just come out and say it: students don’t know how to study.

When students are asked how they study the response is often something along these lines:

  • Wait until the night before the test
  • Find my notes and textbook
  • Read/reread notes and textbook
  • Highlight stuff
  • Repeat until I can’t stay awake any longer or distraction gets the best of me

There are several problems with this approach. In the following I have outlined our students’ problematic practices and compared them to what current research says they should be doing instead.

  1. Rereading vs. Retrieval

In a 2009 study that asked undergraduate students to list their most common study strategies, 83.6% listed “rereading notes or textbook” as their go to strategy.

Rereading visual

Further Research seems to reveal that rereading, while popular, may not be the best strategy for studying:

“[In] head-to-head comparisons of learning techniques, rereading has not fared well against some of the more effective techniques discussed here. For example, direct comparisons of rereading to elaborative interrogation, selfexplanation, and practice testing…have consistently shown rereading to be an inferior technique for promoting learning.” Full essay here: Dunlosky

Rereading is a common strategy because it provides the illusion of competence; it feels like learning is happening, but in reality fluency is established, not lasting understanding.

Fluency with knowledge or a skill is akin to recognition, not recall. As we reread, our mind is working with the material in the text, giving us the illusion of understanding – or the perception of recall from long-term memory.

Fluency is dangerous territory because the content has been coded to emerge with a cue – the study material – that will not be there on the test. It can have some benefits for multiple choice or matching type questions because the answer acts as a cue for memory recall. However, under most testing circumstances the mind has not been prepped to pull this information from long-term memory.

In Make It Stick the research of Brown and Roediger summarizes the problem well:

“[Even] the most diligent students are often hobbled by two liabilities: a failure to know the areas where their learning is weak – that is, where they need to do more work to bring up their knowledge – and a preference for study methods that create a false sense of mastery.” p. 17

Alternative to Rereading: Retrieval Practice

Retrieval visual

Put succinctly, retrieval practice is doing the opposite of rereading, students should:Retrieval Step 1

Step one:

  • Put the materials away,
  • Get out a blank piece of paper or a blank page in a digital document software (ex. OneNote),
  • Write or draw everything that can be brought to mind about a topic or question,


Step two:Retrieval step 2.PNG

  • Once long-term memory of the topic has been exhausted – and only once it has been exhausted – course materials should be used to check for accuracy and details that may have been forgotten.

Other simple ways of using the strategy of retrieval practice include:

  • Taking practice tests,
  • Creating and using flash cards,
  • Writing your own practice tests, or
  • Quizzing with a partner

We could list strategies ad nauseam. The key is that the information is pulled from memory, then checked for accuracy and detail using course content.

This process of forced recall (or retrieval) not only more deeply encodes the memory, but increases the retrieval strength of the memory – and for testing, retrieval strength is exmassed and spaced practicetremely valuable!

To take retrieval practice one step further, check out Massed Practice vs. Spaced Practice


Additional websites, articles, and books to look into:

The Learning Scientists – A great source for a simple, visual description of retrieval as a study skill

Episode 2 – Retrieval Practice – The Learning Scientists also have a Podcast

Cult of Pedagogy Podcast/Blog – Interview with Pooja Agarwal about retrieval practice

The Retrieval Practice Website

What Works, What Doesn’t? Some study techniques accelerate learning, whereas others are just a waste of time – but which ones are which? An unprecedented review maps out the best pathways to knowledge.

Make It Stick – Website for the book Make it Stick

Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast – Small Teaching – Podcast about the book Small Teaching

The Essential Role of Memory Retrieval in Student Learning – Blog


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