Teaching Strategies

5 Ways to Teach Students the Skill of Active Studying

Explicit instruction on studying is invaluable for students, who often choose ineffective methods of reviewing material.

May 23, 2024
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As students progress through their schooling, they are exposed to concepts that vary significantly in the content and skills needed for comprehension. A student first learning fractions, another in middle school English language arts, and an AP Biology student are all undergoing quite different educational experiences. While these classes will ask different things of the students, they all require the development of study skills. Unfortunately, while all teachers recognize the importance of these skills, they are rarely, if ever, explicitly taught.

This is something that I have taken more seriously in recent years, and I have explicitly worked to teach all of my students better ways to study. In order to properly teach this, I think it’s helpful to understand why certain strategies work. If you want to learn the basics of the neuroscience of learning and memory, you might take a look at an article I wrote on that for my students. In essence, there are two general types of thinking: System 1 (which uses long-term memory and is easier) and System 2 (which uses working memory and requires more effort). Strategies that center on using System 2 thinking result in stronger neuron ensemble formation, meaning better recall and learning.

Active studying is the name of practices that involve more System 2 thinking. A lot of people think of studying as simply reading over one’s notes, which is a passive form and results in minimal learning. Active studying includes retrieval, synthesis, and analysis of the material. As these methods take longer, students are often resistant to using or attempting them. However, research has shown that these techniques result in greater recall of the studied material. As such, I believe that, along with teaching strategies for active studying, you should design lessons around their incorporation.

5 Active Studying Practices

1. Teaching others: It’s as simple as it sounds. When students work to teach others, they are coming up with information from memory (rather than just reading it), and they often need to think of new ways to explain something. This not only helps students figure out what they do or don’t know but strengthens and reinforces the memories.

2. Pure retrieval practice: This is when students retrieve the information from their memory. It can be something simple like using flash cards, but my personal favorite method is when students use a whiteboard, a piece of paper, or a tablet to write out and draw everything they can about the topic. They should then check their notes to see what they missed or got wrong before trying again later.

I like to combine the above two in class by having students work in small groups. Students take turns, with one student having a small whiteboard and teaching the others a topic, while the other students use their notes to correct their classmate or ask clarifying questions about missed aspects. We call these “whiteboard days,” and students have reported finding these days to be very helpful as a review before tests, and many use these strategies at home now.

3. Study guides: Study guides are a common form of studying and a lot of times are given to students by their teachers. Students often fall into a pit of copying definitions word-for-word from their notes, which might aid in memorization of certain terms or facts but limits understanding and the ability to apply the information.

I teach my students how to make a good study guide, where they synthesize and summarize the information into their own words. I don’t require these every unit, but once students have developed the skill, they are able to apply it to any course, and some choose to make them even if not required because they find them helpful.

4. Concept maps: These are visual representations of the connections and relationships between concepts. Although not as helpful for some subjects or topics, these cause students to think more deeply about the material and strengthen their memory of the topics, as they have to think more deeply to come up with connections they may not have otherwise thought of.

While you can assign specific words and require everyone to form maps with the same list as an in-class or homework assignment, my personal favorite way to do this is to gamify it—students draw random cards with vocabulary words on them and compete to develop the most connections.

5. Practice questions: Practice questions are a tried-and-true and very helpful way to study, especially in certain classes. The most helpful practice questions are application-based and allow students to test how well they truly understand the material, as opposed to having just memorized certain facts or definitions. I like to have students study sometimes by making their own and then trading those questions and trying to answer each other’s. By developing their own application-style questions, the students are thinking about the material in a deeper manner to put it into new contexts. They can study both by developing their own questions, attempting to answer another’s, and explaining the right answer for the other students.

There are a variety of ways to work these methods into your course, with some of my ways mentioned above. Whichever you choose, make sure you also emphasize the importance of getting enough sleep and having shorter but more frequent study sessions, as these both are necessary for maximizing retainment of concepts. By teaching these techniques, and also requiring their use, you will help to reinforce and build good study habits within students that can help them in all their future academic endeavors.

Do you teach your students strategies for active studying? Let us know what they are in the comments!

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