Self-study strategies

Not every learning or teaching strategy is equally effective, especially for long-term learning. Here we will explain several learning strategies which have been shown effective for long-term learning. Importantly, this is very much different from trying to make students do more, which is based on the assumption that when students do more, they will automatically learn more. This notion might be appealing, but the relationship between invested hours and learning gains is substantially lower than what might be expected. By itself, the amount of study time is rarely a large predictor of academic success in schools and is even negatively related to some measures of academic success, such as SAT scores (Plant, Ericsson, Hill, & Asberg, 2005). In other words: It is not so much how much students do, but what they do which is important.

Retrieval Practice

Tests are often exclusively used to assess what a student has learned and/or to assign a grade. An intuitive, but incorrect, assumption is that learning only occurs during study sessions while tests are simply measurements which do not directly affect learning. As early as over a century ago it was shown that testing has a profound positive effect on subsequent recall attempts (Abott, 1909). Ever since, this so-called ‘testing effect’ or ‘retrieval practice’ has been studied and further validated. For example, after watching a video students remember more when they are asked questions about the video content than when they simply re-watch it (Johnson & Mayer, 2009). Furthermore improves long-term learning (Karpicke & Roediger, 2008), and outperforms popular study methods such as note-taking and restudying (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, & Willingham, 2013). When it comes to the type of tests, productive tests such as open-ended questions and short-answer forms are preferred over multiple-choice tests. The reason is that multiple-choice tests only require the student to passively recognize the correct answer, while production tests require active reconstruction of knowledge from memory. This is why production tests generally outperform recognition tests, and should be the preferred format if long-term learning is the main goal (Butler & Roediger III, 2007). Although tests are typically employed by teachers, students can use self-testing or test each other. Contrary to popular belief, retrieval practice is not only suitable for learning isolated facts, but also stimulates deep learning and the transfer or knowledge to other types of problems (Roediger & Butler, 2011).

Elaborative self-explanation

Elaborative self-explanation is a study strategy which requires students to ask questions to themselves about the content and their knowledge thereof. It is beneficial for learning in general as well as transfer (i.e., the application of knowledge to new problems) (Rittle-Johnson, 2006) (Dunlosky et al., 2013). A straightforward method of using this study strategy is to present students with a prompt to come up with ’why’ questions about the content, which is beneficial for learning (Davey & McBride, 1986). Using questions to guide elaborative self-explanation and stimulating recall from memory also triggers retrieval practice, further enhancing the benefits of this study strategy. When doing this, it is important to focus not only on questions about facts, but to especially focus on critical thinking questions aimed at getting a deep understanding of the material. Examples of such critical thinking questions are: ‘what would happen if …?’, ‘explain how … can be used to …?’ and ‘what are the plausible explanations of …?’ (Maudsley & Strivens, 2000; McMillan, 1987).

Distributed Practice

Distributed practice consists of using a schedule that spreads out repeated study activities over a longer period of time (Dunlosky et al., 2013). Importantly, this is not related to ’how long you should study’ but to ’how you should schedule your studying’. Typically, many students prefer to mass their study time, for example in the hours before an exam. Instead of massing study time, it is much more effective to distribute the same amount of time over a longer period (Cepeda et al., 2009). An important advantage of distributed practice is that it does not require you to do more, but to learn better by merely re-arranging study time. Alternatively, students can reach the same goal with less invested time and effort. Note that it is not so much the distribution of any study activity, but primarily the distribution of repeated study of the same content. As such, students should be advised not to restudy a video or text multiple times in a row, but to distribute their study time.

Interleaved Practice

While distributed practice is centered around how and when you should learn from the same materials, interleaved practice is concerned with how you should schedule different sets of learning materials. Instead of presenting similar study problems in blocks (e.g., AABBCC), long-term learning is improved when they interleaved (e.g., ACBCAB) (Taylor & Rohrer, 2010). This is especially relevant for problem- or case-based courses, such as when different math problems or medical cases are to be understood. This study strategy can both be used by students to schedule their learning, as well as by teachers to promote better learning through a more effective sequencing of problem types. Note that interleaving task types is more effective than only interleaving different representations of the same task type (Rau, Aleven, & Rummel, 2013). 


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