12/06/2010 03:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Study Block

It's finals week at many colleges across the nation, so students will be pulling all-nighters to study for exams. But will they actually study, or will they spend most of their time texting friends? And if they do open their books, will they be studying effectively?

A recent survey reveals that today's college students study 14 hours a week, compared to 24 hours a week in 1961. America's high school seniors fare even worse, with two-thirds reporting that they spend less than 6 hours per week studying.

The biggest reason for this decline in studying seems simple enough: one-third of those surveyed admit that they just don't know how to sit down and study.

The sad irony is that we now know more about how the mind works and learns than we ever have in human history. Cognitive scientists have mapped out what renowned psychologist, John Anderson, calls the "architecture of cognition" while advances in MRIs and PET scans have provided deeper insights into the neural circuits that make up that architecture. Educational research abounds with findings about how to study and learn.

Yet too many students leave high school for college or the work force without the basic study skills necessary for success.

In 2000, the National Reading Panel reviewed hundreds of studies on reading comprehension and identified seven strategies that are scientifically proven to improve reading and studying. For 25 years, I have been using some of these strategies to help my students. I can report that they work remarkably well for students with learning differences or AD/HD. While leading numerous training sessions, I have also witnessed teachers from across the country discover that these techniques can help any student who wants to study more effectively.

Here are three of these strategies, all of which any teacher or student can implement:

  • Generate your own questions about the information you are reading or studying. "Why" questions are known to be particularly effective because they encourage you to analyze cause and effect.
  • Create visuals, such as pictures or diagrams, to represent what you read. Pictures tap into your mind's ability to think in images; diagrams, such as flow charts, help you to understand how ideas relate to each other.
  • Summarize the information you want to learn. You can only hold a limited amount of information in working memory, so distilling important ideas down into a condensed form will help you in the storage and retrieval processes of memory.

These are "active" study processes that demand a high level of cognitive engagement from students. Most of us, when we were in high school or college, simply wrote down as much as we could about what the professor said in class. Or, we underlined and highlighted what we thought to be the important information from a reading. Such strategies promote a superficial level of learning, as we only focus on the ideas being delivered by the professor or the author.

But when students have to generate their own questions, visuals and summaries of the information, they are focusing on what they themselves think about the information -- they don't just restate the professor's ideas. When we put ideas into our own words or pictures, we tend to understand those ideas better and remember them.

My students use planners to manage their study time and to break down larger assignments into manageable units. They also enroll in courses that offer theories of learning and memory and how to apply those theories to their own individual learning needs.

These are strategies that work with diverse learning styles and abilities, but the reality is that they are based on solid empirical evidence, they cost next to nothing to implement and they can be incorporated into any classroom, from middle school through college.

With strategies like these, we could greatly reduce or eliminate the problem of one-third of today's college students saying they just don't know how to sit down and study.