01/31/2013 06:12 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2013

Highlight this Blog Post at Your Own Risk


How did you study? It's question I often find myself asking college students during office hours when they come by to talk about a disappointing exam score or ask for suggestions for improving future performance. One thing you learn when you ask this question is that people approach studying in very different ways.

Flashcards for key terms. Underlining. Diagrams for major themes. Writing summaries. Re-reading before the exam. There's no shortage of study strategies available to the diligent student. And, quite often, there's no shortage of confidence that the tactics each of us chooses are effective.

But ask yourself, where do your study strategies come from? Maybe a teacher gave you specific instruction on how best to learn material? Perhaps you watched how other successful students studied and adjusted your tendencies accordingly? Simple trial-and-error? All reasonable possibilities. However, here's some food for thought: it's also worth considering what psychological science has to say on the matter.

In an article in this month's Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of researchers led by psychologists at Kent State University published a thorough review of empirical research on 10 commonly used learning techniques, including old standbys like highlighting, using mental imagery, and practice tests. For each technique, they explored the assumptions underlying the strategy, and then assessed what empirical research has to teach us regarding actual effectiveness.

Some of the findings may surprise you. Writing summaries of what you've read? Not particularly effective. Re-reading those chapters the night before the exam? Not the best use of your time.

Take highlighting, as another example. I see many a student in my courses leafing through colorfully annotated textbooks before exams; indeed, I did the same in my college days. The idea behind highlighting -- as well as underlining, its less aesthetically pleasing cousin -- is that the act will lead you to read more actively, not to mention make it easier later on to find and review the most important aspects of a long reading.

But studies indicate that highlighting has little to offer in the way of subsequent performance. In various studies, respondents have been assigned to different groups in which they read identical information a) without highlighting, b) while highlighting, or c) using reading material already highlighted by someone else. The typical outcome of these studies is that the highlighting groups rarely outperform the control. In fact, on higher-level reading tasks that require students to draw inferences, highlighting can actually undermine subsequent performance.

What's the problem with highlighting? One issue is that devoting effort and cognitive energy to the process leaves fewer resources for more productive strategies. Moreover, as the authors explain, many of us highlight poorly, usually in the form of marking far too much information. Research indicates that when students are instructed to mark as little information as possible -- or to identify a section's main ideas before highlighting -- the practice becomes far more useful.

What strategies were found to be more effective? For one, distributed practice: spacing out your study activities over a longer period of time is far more effective -- not to mention healthier and less stressful -- than a last night cramming session. Practice testing is another high-utility strategy, leading to increases in performance despite not being particularly time consuming.

The article also identifies strategies you may never have considered before. Take, for example, the idea of interleaved practice, defined as mixing different types of material or problems within a single study session. For example, let's say you're a student trying to learn how to calculate volume for four different geometric shapes. One strategy would be blocked practice: read a tutorial on one shape followed by practice problems about that shape, then follow the same procedure for each of the remaining three shapes.

On the other hand, in an interleaved strategy you would read the four tutorials all at once, and only then start doing practice problems, with questions for each of the four shapes intermingled together. This interleaved strategy doesn't necessarily feel more effective: respondents perform worse on the practice problems when taken all at once like this. But after two interleaved practice sessions, respondents in one study performed almost 50 percent better on their final test than did respondents who went through blocked practice.

The article is a worthwhile read for students, teachers, and parents everywhere. It's full of practical tips and interesting studies, serving as an informative empirical check on many untested lay assumptions. And while it's not a brief article, it's written in an accessible, modular style that allows readers to take it in as a whole or go straight to the sections of greatest interest. Just make sure you don't highlight or underline it as you go.

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