A Serious Question: How Do You Study?

The author studying her favorite topic (desserts).
The author studying her favorite topic (desserts).
By Liz Renner
March 04, 2014

Graduate students experience various facets of pedagogy simultaneously. For their own studies, they are expected to master a vast literature in a particular field of interest. They read primary publications and consider the implications of researchers’ findings as well as critique methods, statistics, or conclusions.

In addition, graduate TAs guide undergraduate students through course events like exams and papers. When effective, TAs can help undergraduates improve their specific knowledge in a field, as well as facilitate the use of efficient study techniques.

A graduate student who wants to be a good learner as well as a good teacher might ask: are some learning or study techniques superior to others? Should a minimally enterprising student search the internet for study tips, zie* would encounter millions (literally—try it yourself!) of websites, from universities to news sites to nonprofit organizations, that purport to give authoritative advice. Many such sites dispense obvious advice: don’t skip class, don’t forget to sleep enough at night, and don’t study in a single cram session before an exam.

Once a student has “mastered” these basics, zie may desire to know not only of don’ts, but also of dos. In this case, further searching might yield “helpful” bulleted lists of items to have when studying: a highlighter, index cards, a neat study space. After a few more minutes of searching, it will likely become evident that few would-be sources of advice on study techniques can offer substantive guidelines of what to actually do during study sessions.

But here is where science comes in! Psychologists and education experts have spent years evaluating various methods of note-taking and studying. Although study-advice websites may not yet have caught up with the science, this important information is available if one knows where to look.

For example, one of the first steps of being able to study effectively is taking good notes from a lecture or discussion. Laptops are growing more common in classrooms; but is note-taking on a laptop more effective than handwritten notes? New research shows that students who take notes using their laptops during a lecture do not learn the ideas as well as students who use pen-and-paper note-taking. Especially useless is verbatim transcription of a lecturer’s words.

In more bad news for laptop users, it turns out that using a laptop to multitask during a lecture not only impairs learning of the presented material, but also distracts nearby students from learning as well. The websites were right! The first step of effective study techniques therefore involves attending class; whether one chooses to take notes by hand or on a laptop or tablet, it is advisable to close any open Chrome tabs, and refrain from mindlessly typing all of the words of an instructor.

As for actual study techniques, a team of researchers recently evaluated a large set of them. They found that giving oneself practice tests—which can take many forms, including the use of flash cards—is highly effective. Another useful method is distributed practice, in which brief study sessions (that should include practice tests) are scheduled throughout a week or month, even when no test is imminent. Instructors can facilitate distributed practice by encouraging students to establish a study plan well in advance of an exam.

Although few students consciously train themselves to take high-quality notes and study effectively, it is a worthwhile effort that can pay off throughout an undergraduate or graduate career. Armed with empirical knowledge from the field of education, students should be able to improve their learning strategies.

*For more on the use of gender-neutral pronouns see this page.