Study techniques are some of the factors that affect learning success. As such, various techniques are commonly used by learners: from highlighting to proofreading to mnemonic keywords. However, in terms of their effectiveness — and this is what matters! — all techniques are far from being equal. This is what a group of researchers concluded after reviewing the research results on ten study techniques. Here are their conclusions!
Choosing the Ten Techniques
Two main criteria guided the researchers’ choice of ten techniques in particular: the fact that they are relatively easy to use and thus may be appropriate for a majority of students, or, for some techniques, the fact that students consider them to be highly reliable.
To make recommendations about the relative usefulness of these techniques, the researchers assessed whether their benefits generalize across the following four categories of variables: learning conditions, student characteristics, materials, and criterion tasks.
The ten study techniques and their relative effectiveness
- Elaborative Interrogation
Generate an explanation of why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true.
Explain how new information relates to known information or explain the steps taken when solving a problem.
Write summaries (of varying length) of texts to be learned.
Mark potentially essential parts of texts to be learned while reading.
- Mnemonic keywords
Use keywords and mental images to associate verbal material.
- Imagery for text
Attempt to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening.
Revisit a text after an initial reading.
- Practice testing
Self-check or take a practice test on the material to be learned.
- Distributed practice
Implement a practice schedule that spreads out study activities over time.
- Interleaved practice
Implement a practice schedule that mixes different types of problems or a study program that mixes different materials in a single study session.
Another finding: “Active” techniques more effective than “passive” ones
It is interesting to note that the study techniques that emerged here as the most effective are rather active. There has been a growing emphasis on the superiority of “active” pedagogical approaches to learning over “passive” ones in recent years. This is due in part to the insights into the learning process provided by neuroscience. In the brain, learning takes the form of changes resulting from new neural connections or the strengthening, weakening or breaking down of existing connections. This incredible ability of the brain to change – at any age! – is called “brain plasticity.” Activating the neurons related to the desired learning is imperative for the learning to occur, and it is “active” pedagogical approaches that are most effective in this sense. Such an approach requires the learner to produce an answer, an explanation or a process in order to solve a problem. In contrast, in a passive approach, the learner is limited to listening or reading.
It is important to note that highlighting, rereading, and using mnemonic keywords are among the techniques most used by learners, although their effectiveness for learning was low in this study. That said, passive approaches are not necessarily to be ruled out, as they also have certain advantages. A good example is the perpetuation of the lecture as a pedagogical approach, which has the advantage of allowing the learner to receive a lot of content in a short time and be guided through this content (relevant explanations, links to be established, etc.). However, a winning strategy is to make sure to include active study techniques as well!
Dunlosky et al., Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology, 2013.
Steve Masson, Éviter d’utiliser fréquemment des approches passives, chaîne Cerveau et apprentissage, 2019.
Stanislas Dehaene, L’engagement actif, la curiosité, et la correction des erreurs, Cours Collège de France, 2015.