Students learn less when they use ineffective learning strategies. College students vary in their knowledge of effective learning strategies, and often use ineffective strategies such as rereading, highlighting, underlining, cramming and rote memorization (Blasiman, Dunlosky, & Rawson, 2017).
Assessment can identify gaps in students’ learning strategies, study habits, and knowledge about learning. Teachers can then intervene to help students develop more effective ways to learn and study in their courses.
Background. A learning strategy is a mental activity people use to acquire and use new information. The term applies broadly to almost any technique intended to aid one’s learning such as:
- Memorizing new information through repetition
- Highlighting text while reading
- Drawing a diagram of a complex process
- Using flashcards to learn and remember new concepts
- Creating a schedule to study on specific days and times
- Rereading material
- Elaborating and explaining material to yourself as you read
- Working with a study partner to quiz each other
Research indicates that college students are not taught how to learn or study, and use a variety of techniques, some of which are ineffective.
More effective versus less effective learning strategies. Some strategies tend to be more effective than others. For example, self-testing is a particularly potent learning strategy. It involves testing oneself by trying to recall previously studied material. Rereading, which is popular among college students, is a relatively weak strategy. Rereading material one time does produce a bump in learning, but additional rereading does not improve learning. In contrast, self-testing which involves testing oneself on course material produces more robust, durable knowledge than rereading. Students may use self-testing to check whether they know the material but not as a learning strategy.
Learning requires cognitive processes that involve considerable mental effort. Students often perceive these as harder, slower, and not as effective as more superficial processing. Table 1 identifies general characteristics that differentiate less and more effective learning strategies.
Table 1: Characteristics of Less and More Effective Strategies
|Less effective strategies||More effective strategies|
|Goal is to remember new information||Goal is to make sense of new information|
|Superficial processing involving repetition or re-exposure to the information||Generative processing involving selecting, organizing and integrating new information|
|Emphasis on verbatim memorization||Emphasis on building knowledge|
|Require less difficult/complex mental effort||Require more difficult/complex mental effort|
In addition, even strategies deemed effective, may be more or less effective depending upon how they are used. Flashcards are a good example. Learning with flashcards involves retrieval practice – recalling previously learned material from memory – which is a very potent learning strategy. Research shows that students undermine the strategy in several ways. See Table 2.
Table 2: Least and Most Effective Ways to Use Flashcards
Another important consideration is that strategies deemed relatively ineffective can be enhanced to make them more effective. See Table 3.
Table 3: Ways to Improve Weak Learning Strategies (Based on Miyatsu, Nguyen & McDaniel, 2018)
Assessing students’ use of learning strategies. To help students use more effective learning strategies, instructors need information about what strategies students tend to use and the extent to which students use strategies effectively.
Assessing which learning strategies students use in your course.
- Learning and Study Strategies Inventory (LASSI) – A 60-item questionnaire that includes questions related to learning skills, motivation, and self-regulated learning (Weinstein, Palmer, & Acee, 2016). There is a per student charge for the LASSI.
- Motivated Learning Strategies Questionnaire (MLSQ) – A 44-item questionnaire that focuses on cognitive strategy use as well as motivational beliefs and self-regulated learning strategies (Pintrich & de Groot, 1990).
- Study Strategies and Habits Survey – A 12-item questionnaire on the use of specific learning strategies such as practice testing and rereading, and also includes questions about when, where and why students study (Hartwig & Dunlosky, 2012). Several research studies have used the survey to investigate students’ study strategies and habits (Kornell & Bjork, 2007; Yan et al., 2014; Hartwig & Dunlosky, 2012; McAndrew et al., 2016; Geller, et al., 2018).
Assessing how well students use learning strategies.
Students may use appropriate learning strategies but do so ineffectively. Studies have investigated how well students use specific learning strategies, but there are no standardized instruments that assess effective use.
- Students’ Learning and Study Strategies – A questionnaire that focuses on students’ use of common learning strategies, notetaking strategies and habits, reading strategies and habits, and what students do when they do not understand course material (Cerbin, 2020).
Recommendations for assessing students’ learning strategies in your course.
- Start of the course. Consider assessing students at the start of the course. You can identify potential weaknesses in students’ approaches to learning and studying. A limitation is that students have not yet adapted their studying to your course.
- Before exams. Administer assessment 1-2 weeks before the first exam. This allows you to identify potential weaknesses and follow up with specific study recommendations to students before the exam.
- After exams. Assess students immediately after exams. Students who have not met their learning or grade goals may be receptive to study recommendations about how to study more effectively. The questions could be combined with an exam wrapper assignment.
- When you have reason to believe students may need study strategies guidance based on your observation of them in class or their coursework.
- When students ask explicitly for information and recommendations about how to do well in the course.
- Informal assessment. At the end of a class period ask students to answer in writing (anonymously) to questions about their study strategies, e.g., Describe in 1-2 paragraphs how you plan to study for the next exam; What, if anything, do you think you need to improve about the way you study.
For recommendations about how to help students use more effective learning strategies see Ineffective Learning Strategies
Blasiman, R.N., Dunlosky, J., & Rawson, R.A. (2017) The what, how much, and when of study strategies: comparing intended versus actual study behavior, Memory, 25(6), 784-792, DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2016.1221974
Cerbin, W. (2020). Students’ Learning and Study Strategies, unpublished questionnaire.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4–58. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266
Geller, J., Toftness, A.R., Armstrong, P.I., Carpenter, S.K., Manz. C.L., Coffman, C.R., & Lamm, M.H. (2018). Study strategies and beliefs about learning as a function of academic achievement and achievement goals, Memory, 26(5), 683-690, DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2017.1397175
Gurung, R. A. R. (2005). How do students really study (and does it matter)? Teaching of Psychology, 32(4), 239–241.
Hartwig, M.K., Dunlosky, J. (2012). Study strategies of college students: Are self-testing and scheduling related to achievement? Psychonomic Bulletin Review 19, 126–134. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-011-0181-y
Kornell N. & Bjork R.A. (2007). The promise and perils of self-regulated study. Psychonomic Bulletin Review 6, 219–24.
McAndrew, M., Morrow, C. S., Atiyeh, L., & Pierre, G. C. (2016). Dental student study strategies: Are self-testing and scheduling related to academic performance? Journal of Dental Education, 80(5), 542–552.
Miyatsu, T., Nguyen, K., & McDaniel, M. A. (2018). Five popular study strategies: Their pitfalls and optimal implementations. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13, 390–407. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1745691617710510
Pintrich, P. R., & de Groot, E. V. (1990). Motivational and self-regulated learning components of classroom academic performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(1), 33 -40. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-06126.96.36.199
Weinstein, C.E. Palmer, D.R. & Acee, T.W. (2016) User’s manual: Learning and study strategies inventory, 3rdEdition. Retrieved from https://www.hhpublishing.com/LASSImanual.pdf
Yan, V. X., Thai, K. P., & Bjork, R. A. (2014). Habits and beliefs that guide self-regulated learning: Do they vary with mindset? Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3(3), 140–152.