Research conducted by John Dunlosky at Kent State University and associates described how certain study techniques could accelerate learning, while others simply do not. For example, the highest performing learning technique is quizzing. This includes practice tests done by students on their own outside of class. Flashcards can be used to test recall or simply answering the same questions at the end of the textbook ranked highest. One study asked students to memorize word pairs, half of which where included on a recall test. One week later students remembered 35 percent of the words they had quizzed themselves on at home, but remembered only 4 percent of those words which they had not included in their self-quizzing. Why does self-quizzing work? Practice at testing oneself triggers mental searching of long-term memory that activates related information forming multiple memory pathways for easier access, Dunlosky found. The bottom line was that all students can benefit from the practice of testing; the benefits may last for months to years. If nothing else, self-testing can give a student experience for the real tests to follow.

The second highly rated technique is called distributed practice. Students usually mass their studies or cram. Instead, with distributed practice, students who practice over time were more effective in the tests that followed.  Researchers had students learn the English equivalent of Spanish words, and then reviewed the material in six sessions. One group did the review sessions back-to-back, another one day apart and a third did the reviews 30 days apart. Students in the 30-day group remembered the translations the best. Of 254 studies involving more than 14,000 subjects, students remembered more after spaced study scoring 47 percent, versus 37 percent for students who massed their study.

The third-highest-rated technique is elaborative interrogation. These two big words, elaborative and interrogation, suggest that students use “why” questions to facilitate learning. Why questions produce explanations for facts. Why is it true? In one factual test, students who used elaborative interrogation answered about 72 percent of questions correctly, compared to about 37 percent for other questions that had not used elaborative interrogation. Also, why questions get students to think out of the box, which is good for tapping into the higher centers of the brain.

Self-explanation was ranked fourth among best techniques. Students can develop explanations for what they learn with such questions as: “What new information is provided here for greater learning?” “ How does it relate to what I already know?”  Self -explanation is said to be beneficial for solving math problems, logical reasoning, and for learning from narratives etc. In younger children, self-explanation can help with basic ideas such as learning numbers or for recognizing patterns. In addition, self- explanation is said to improve memory, comprehension and problem solving.

What doesn’t work? At the top of the list is highlightingwhich showed little or no improved performance. The problem is that highlighting zeros in on individual items rather than connecting across items reducing a student’s ability to actually think. At the very least, highlighting could be useful for self-tests. In short, if you are going to highlight, then over-mark sparingly and try to connect the information to successful learning techniques as mentioned above.

Another overrated technique was re-reading used by 84% of students. The researchers were skeptical that rereading would not increase comprehension because the results were based on levels of ability or knowledge. Still, it could work for recall and better results occurred with the second rereading with diminishing returns thereafter.

Schools of education need to take the lead and teach future teachers effective learning techniques. Maybe a class in preparing for tests for all incoming freshmen?

David Sortino Ph.D., a Graton resident, is the director of The Neurofeedback Institute. E-mail him at

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