The best study techniques are ‘practice testing’ and ‘distributed practice’

by Grace

The most effective study strategies–practice testing and distributed practice–are not sufficiently taught or emphasized by teachers.  That is the conclusion reached by John Dunlosky of Kent State University, who lead a team of researchers that included Daniel Willingham in reviewing the efficacy of various learning strategies.

Part of the problem lies with schools of education, where “teacher preparation typically does not emphasize the importance of teaching students to use effective learning strategies”.  This seems ironic, considering how fervently educators promote “lifelong learning” as a 21st century skill.


Details about the two most effective study techniques:

1. Practice testing: self-testing or taking practice tests on to-be-learned material.

Students and teachers can use practice testing in several ways.

… First, student learning can benefit from almost any kind of practice test, whether it involves completing a short essay where students need to retrieve content from memory or answering questions in a multiple-choice format. Research suggests, however, that students will benefit most from tests that require recall from memory, and not from tests that merely ask them to recognize the correct answer….

Second, students should be encouraged to take notes in a manner that will foster practice tests. For instance, as they read a chapter in their textbook, they should be encouraged to make flashcards, with the key term on one side and the correct answer on the other. When taking notes in class, teachers should encourage students to leave room on each page (or on the back pages of notes) for practice tests….

Third, and perhaps most important, students should continue testing themselves, with feedback, until they correctly recall each concept at least once from memory. For flashcards, if they correctly recall an answer, they can pull the card from the stack; if they do not recall it correctly, they should place it at the back of the stack. For notes, they should try to recall all of the important ideas and concepts from memory, and then go back through their notes once again and attempt to correctly recall anything they did not get right during their first pass….

Not only can students benefit from using practice tests when studying alone, but teachers can give practice tests in the classroom….

I notice that some local high school math teachers don’t give quizzes or grade homework, both of which would help student learning and serve as valuable formative assessment by providing feedback that could improve instruction.

2.  Distributed practice: implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time.

Students use this method naturally in other endeavors such as sports or music.

… In these and many other cases, students realize that more practice or play during a current session will not help much, and they may even see their performance weaken near the end of a session, so, of course, they take a break and return to the activity later. However, for whatever reason, students don’t typically use distributed practice as they work toward mastering course content.

What teachers can do:

To use distributed practice successfully, teachers should focus on helping students map out how many study sessions they will need before an exam, when those sessions should take place (such as which evenings of the week), and what they should practice during each session. For any given class, two short study blocks per week may be enough to begin studying new material and to restudy previously covered material…..

Teachers can also use distributed practice in the classroom. The idea is to return to the most important material and concepts repeatedly across class days. For instance, if weekly quizzes are already being administered, a teacher could easily include content that repeats across quizzes so students will relearn some concepts in a distributed manner. Repeating key points across lectures not only highlights the importance of the content but also gives students distributed practice….

I’m a little surprised that summarization is not a very effective study technique.  While it might seem to be a form of practice testing, in reality it only helps “with training how to summarize”.


9 Comments to “The best study techniques are ‘practice testing’ and ‘distributed practice’”

  1. And that is why I started giving my students practice tests about 2 years ago!

    I actually think that almost anything that forces the students to be active about the material rather than passive (and I consider techniques like highlighting to be passive) will help.


  2. Active is better than passive — that’s a good way to put it.

    Do you grade the practice tests? If so, how much do they count towards the student’s grade.

    I have a serious problem with HS math teachers who don’t have time to grade homework, who do not give quizzes, and who declare they have no way of really knowing what a student does or does not understand. Pretty useless teaching, IMO.


  3. I don’t grade the practice tests because then they wouldn’t be “practice”. But I go over the answers in class, and post them on Blackboard. I also give a weekly quiz which is graded and most importantly, they do a lab in class each week which gets lots of feedback. Remember for my courses, being able to create a program is the main outcome, rather than answer questions on a test, so the labs are preparation for the programming projects. The norm in my field is now nearly constant assessment – the days of one midterm, one final, and a project are long gone.


  4. I wonder, though, what will become of the students when they hit the real world, where managers are too busy to offer much feedback at all, and where many subscribe to the swoop n poop method of managing (leave underlings to themselves for long periods, then suddenly swoop in with lots of criticism on a project that is nearly done)


  5. From what I’ve read and heard, there are many complaints that today’s young college graduates expect too much hand-holding and feedback. Not sure if it’s a true trend.

    OTOH, I think the K-12 system is dysfunctional and acts to prolong hand-holding by parents and teachers. It starts out with elementary students being given too many assignments that virtually require heavy parental involvement (online research, for example). It continues through middle school with the mixed-up combination of pushing student to “take charge” of their own learning while expecting them to handle complex procedures and projects on their own. Then, high school courses are structured like college courses, grading is 90% on exams, with no formative assessment, with the school’s explanation being that they’re preparing them for college. But now it seems college course might have more hand-holding than high school courses do.

    It’s a mess.


  6. College courses do not grade 90% on exams. Even when I was in college! And definitely not now. Usually it is a mix of tests, projects (papers or presentations or programs or whatever makes sense in an area), quizzes, class participation, homework, labs, and so on.


  7. Of the three courses I taught at the university last year, only one had an exam, and it was only 1/11th of the grade. Most of the grade in my courses is based on weekly papers, lab reports, and computer programs. One course was a senior thesis wand was graded on just the final paper, but the students went through 5 drafts, with detailed feedback every 2 weeks.


  8. “The norm in my field is now nearly constant assessment – the days of one midterm, one final, and a project are long gone.”

    Yeah, this is probably true in other fields, also. I’m going to quiz my college kid, but I do seem to hear about lots of grades problem sets and papers in the courses he’s taken. But IIRC, the midterm and final usually count for the majority of the grade. Not many projects.

    So this makes me even more unhappy that high school math classes have virtually no formative assessment.


  9. Gasstation and I are both in engineering fields, which may make a difference. But my colleagues in the humanities seem to be requiring a lot of papers and student presentations


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