What students get wrong about studying

By Raunak Pillai

BOSTON — Take an open textbook, a notebook with lecture notes, some highlighters to mark key points, and throw in a source of caffeine for good measure. Many college students might consider this night of reading and re-reading to be a fruitful way to review what they’ve learned. But research by cognitive psychologist Henry Roediger and his colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis suggests this approach may be overlooking the most important component of proper studying — testing one’s memory.

Bubble test

Tests and quizzes may be a vital part of the learning experience, research suggests. Credit: wecometolearn/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

“I taught undergraduate psychology for many, many years and I would give an exam and the idea of exams, for me, at the time, not anymore, was that they were just like a dipstick — you drop it into the student’s head and say ‘OK, how much do they know?’” Roediger said during a Feb. 17 topical lecture at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting. Now, he says, tests and quizzes can be a vital part of the learning experience itself.

Research on this “testing effect” can provide insight into how our memory operates, and help improve the way students are taught.

College students report re-reading as their primary means of studying. Additionally, instructors from all educational levels commonly assume that testing and studying are two separate events, with testing functioning as a metric for studying, rather than an accompaniment.

This learning framework, however, began receiving serious challenges in the 1990s, when studies showed that the more often students were tested after exposure to new material, the better they remembered the content in the long term.

These studies were not conclusive. The question still remained — is this improvement in memory a specific result of testing, or just a byproduct of exposing students to information multiple times?

Work by Roediger and his colleague Franklin Zaromb at Washington University in St. Louis points to repeated testing as the cause. For instance, when asking individuals to memorize a 50-word list by reading over the words and definitions eight times, they got, on average, 17% of words right. However, reading the list only six times and recalling the definitions when presented with the word twice improved memory of the list to 25%. Even further, increasing the instances of recall to four times improved memory to 39%.

“Testing not only assesses what we know, but changes it, makes it better recalled,” Roediger said.

He and colleagues Mark McDaniel and Kathleen McDermott, also of Washington University in St. Louis, are now testing new high school and middle school curricula that incorporate frequent exercises requiring students to practice recalling the subject matter. So far, they have been able to demonstrate that such a curriculum improves student performance.

But, these teaching methods have yet to be widely adopted. Roediger chalks it up to reluctance to embrace what is called “desirable difficulties” such as repeated testing, which, in the short term, can appear to slow down learning and cause students to underestimate their abilities, but in fact, serves to improve learning, memory and transfer of knowledge in the long run.

But what if students are willing to take the challenge but don’t have access to testing-based curricula?

“They can do it themselves,” Roediger said in an interview after the lecture. “When you do the reading, create questions.” For instance, he suggested students look for key terms, and ask themselves to define or provide examples of those terms.

So, students might be better served pairing their late-night coffee with practice tests and flashcards than with just textbooks and notes.

Raunak Pillai is a sophomore studying neuroscience at Vanderbilt University. He runs a YouTube channel called QHat, where he makes animated videos on unique topics pertaining to math, psychology, and philosophy. He also works on MedTalks, which seeks to showcase a variety of medical research through engaging video presentations. He can be reached at raunak.m.pillai@vanderbilt.edu.