Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do, responds:
So glad you asked! Scientists have a lot of practical information on this topic, but most students do not know about it. Research investigating how students learn was first conducted at highly competitive institutions such as the University of California, Los Angeles. Even students at these top schools used terrible strategies.
For example, students commonly highlight what they read, but research shows that it does not help memory. Most students highlight as they are reading text for the first time, when they do not know what is important enough to highlight.
Another ineffective comprehension method is rereading. Doing so makes the student feel he or she is getting to know the material better and better. Rereading is like someone explaining the same thing repeatedly. It all makes sense, so you say, “Yes, yes, got it.” But reviewing an explanation is not the same as being able to explain something yourself.
The flaw in rereading—failing to know if you have learned the material—points to our first good study technique: self-testing. Self-testing may involve flash cards, it may mean answering questions at the back of a book chapter or it may be fielding questions lobbed by a study buddy.
There are two main benefits to self-testing. First, in contrast to rereading, self-testing offers an accurate assessment of what has been learned and whether one needs to keep studying. Second, scores of studies show that self-testing is a great way to cement material into memory. It is even better than equivalent time spent perusing the material.
Another useful technique is to periodically pause when reading to ask why a statement in the text is true. We have all had the experience of passing our eyes over words but not really thinking about what we have read. Pausing every few paragraphs to ask, “Why does that make sense?” prompts thinking and learning.
A third technique is to spread out study sessions instead of cramming. Much research shows that memory is more enduring when material is reviewed days or even weeks apart. This is a practice that teachers can promote by giving more frequent assignments and quizzes that require a review of material covered earlier in the course. Even brief memory refreshers can result in big returns in learning.