Ineffective learning strategies

Students underperform and learn less when they use ineffective learning strategies. Research indicates that college students vary in their knowledge and use of effective learning strategies, and often use ineffective strategies. Studies have found that

Students often use ineffective learning strategies such as rereading, highlighting, underlining and cramming.

Practice testing is a relatively effective learning strategy. Students tend to underuse it or use it ineffectively.

Spaced or distributed practice is an effective way to promote long term learning. Students tend to cram or mass their study before exams, allocating most of their study time to one or two days before tests.

There are discrepancies between students’ intended use and actual use of strategies. That is, students may intend to use effective strategies, but don’t. The discrepancies are especially large for practice testing and using flashcards.

                               Blasiman, Dunlosky, & Rawson, 2017

Students do not use optimal learning strategies for a number of reasons:

  1. They have not been taught or exposed to effective learning strategies. In one study, 80% of undergraduates reported that they had not been taught how to study by their teachers (Kornell & Bjork, 2007).
  2. They believe their strategies are effective or at least adequate for their learning (Karpicke & Blunt, 2011).
  3. It is difficult for students to change study habits and routines that have been established over a long period of time. Even when they become aware of better strategies, students may not be able to adopt them consistently (Hora & Oelson, 2017).
  4. They may not be aware of when and how to use specific strategies effectively. For example, using flashcards can be an effective way to engage in self testing. But students may use flashcards ineffectively by dropping cards from study prematurely and not re-testing themselves in future study sessions (Miyatsu, Nguyen, & McDaniel, 2018).
  5. Misconceptions about learning. Students tend to equate the ability to remember material at the moment of study with being able to know the material on a future test. Consequently, they tend to use strategies such as rereading that produce a quick sense of knowing at the time of studying, and fail to recognize they may not know the material several days later on a test (Kornell & Bjork, 2013).

Recommendations to help students use effective learning strategies

Teachers have two basic options to help students use more effective learning strategies. One is to teach them how to use learning strategies appropriate to the course and subject matter. The second is to incorporate learning strategies into the course itself.

Option 1: Teach students how to use effective learning strategies in your course. Because students receive little formal instruction in how to learn, instructors should teach them how to use learning strategies best suited to their courses and subject matter. Research has shown that instruction in learning strategies is most beneficial if it focuses on helping students understand how, when and why to use specific strategies (Donker, de Boer, Kostons, van Ewijk, & van der Werf, 2014; Winne & Marzouk, 2019). The outline below describes instructional steps in strategies instruction.

  • Administer a learning strategies survey to your students at the start of the course. A survey can help identify the types of strategies students use and reveal their beliefs about the best ways to learn (reference several study skills inventories). Based on gaps in students’ strategies, teachers can decide which strategies would be most appropriate for their courses.
  • For each strategy
    1. Model how to use each strategy in class. Show students how you would do it. Describe what to expect when using the strategy. For example, point out it may take practice before they can see positive results in their learning.
    2. Provide a rationale for using each strategy. Explain why the strategy supports learning, and report evidence of its effectiveness.
    3. Explain how and when to use each strategy, e.g., use self-testing regularly to expand and consolidate memory of the material; use elaboration and self-explanation when reading new material to help work out an understanding of the concepts.
    4. Use homework and class time for guided practice in which students try out the strategy and then receive feedback, e.g., start each class with a five-minute practice test over the assigned readings. Give corrective feedback and guidance about how to use self-testing when they study on their own.

Miyatsu, Nguyen, & McDaniel (2018) propose an approach that builds on the strategies students already prefer and use—rereading, highlighting and underlining, note-taking, outlining and flashcards. Rather than try to persuade students to give up their preferred strategies, they recommend ways students can implement them more effectively. For example, to improve learning from rereading, students should allow lag time between readings, and also engage in self-testing between readings.

Option 2: Incorporate learning strategies into your course. There are numerous ways to engage students in effective learning processes in a course. Options for practice testing include using clicker questions during lecture, short quizzes at the start or end of class, and questions embedded in homework readings. Below are several examples in which teachers have successfully incorporated learning strategies into their courses.

  • Rawson, Dunlosky & Sciartelli (2013) used a procedure called successive relearning that combines practice testing with spaced practice. During the semester students took practice quizzes that were spaced apart to optimize learning. Moreover, questions from early in the semester were repeated later in the term. Students in the successive relearning section of the course scored higher than students in the non successive learning course section.
  • In a statistics course, instructors gave a low stakes quiz at the end of every class period. Exam scores were substantially higher in the low stakes quiz section of the course than in a no-quiz section. Moreover, students liked the procedure and believed it increased learning (Lyle & Crawford, 2011).
  • In a study with medical students, researchers found that students who were prompted to generate self-explanations of cases were better able to diagnose unfamiliar cases than students who were not instructed to generate self-explanations (Chamberland and colleagues, 2011).

Regardless of the strategies teachers incorporate in their classes, it is important to explain how and why they enhance learning. Using effective strategies as part of the course is an opportunity for students to better understand how, when and why certain learning strategies work. This may increase the chances that students will adopt the strategies in their independent study.


Students learn how to learn from a variety of sources such as personal experience and reflection, adopting their peers’ strategies, reading about how to study, and in some cases following the advice and guidance of their teachers about how to learn. Research with college students indicate that many students are not very effective learners. Teachers can promote better learning by providing targeted, specific guidance about how to learn, and by building effective learning strategies into their courses.

Recommended Reading

Chew, S.L. (2014). Helping students to get the most out of studying. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:

Chiu, J.L. & Chi, M.T.H. (2014). Supporting self-explanation in the classroom. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:

Pyc, M.A., Agarwal, P.K., & Roediger, H.L. (2014). Test enhanced learning. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:

Carpenter, S.K. (2014). Spacing and interleaving of study and practice. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:

Successive Relearning. 18-minute video about how to combine practice testing with spaced practice in a large lecture class.

Is testing the friend or foe of education? TEDX talk by Dr. Katherine Rawson


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

Donker, A.S., de Boer, H., Kostons, D., Dignath van Ewijk, C.C., & van der Werf, M.P.C., (2014). Effectiveness of learning strategy instruction on academic performance: A meta-analysis, Educational Research Review, 11, , 1-26,

Chamberland, M., St‐Onge, C., Setrakian, J., Lanthier, L., Bergeron, L., Bourget, A., Mamede, S., Schmidt, H. and Rikers, R. (2011), The influence of medical students’ self‐explanations on diagnostic performance. Medical Education, 45: 688-695. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2923.2011.03933.x

Donker, A.S., de Boer, H., Kostons, D., Dignath van Ewijk, C.C., & van der Werf, M.P.C., (2014). Effectiveness of learning strategy instruction on academic performance: A meta-analysis, Educational Research Review, 11, 1-26,

Dunlosky, J., & Rawson, K. A. (2015). Practice tests, spaced practice, and successive relearning: Tips for classroom use and for guiding students’ learning. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1(1), 72-78.

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.

Hora, M.T. & Oleson, A.K. (2017). Examining study habits in undergraduate STEM courses from a situative perspective. International Journal of STEM Education, 4:1 DOI 10.1186/s40594-017-0055-6

Kornell N. & Bjork R.A. (2007). The promise and perils of self-regulated study. Psychonomic Bulletin Review 6:219–24.

Bjork, R.A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-Regulated Learning: Beliefs, Techniques, and Illusions Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 417-444.

Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 331, 772–775.

Lyle, K.B. & Crawford, N.A. (2011). Retrieving essential material at the end of lecture improves performance on statistics exams. Teaching of Psychology, 38(2), 94-97. DOI:10.1177/0098628311401587.

Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Blasiman, R., & Benjamin Hollis, R. (2019). Note-taking habits of 21st Century college students: implications for student learning, memory, and achievement, Memory27(6), 807-819, DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2019.1569694

Miyatsu, T., Nguyen, K., & McDaniel, M. A. (2018). Five popular study strategies: Their pitfalls and optimal implementations. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13, 390–407.

Rawson, K.A., Dunlosky, J., & Sciartelli, S.M. (2013). The power of successive relearning: Improving performance on course exams and long-term retention. Educational Psychology Review, 25(4), 523-548.

Winne, P. H.  & Marzouk, Z. (2019). Learning strategies and self-regulated learning. In J. Dunlosky & K. Rawson (eds.). The Cambridge Handbook of Cognition and Education. Cambridge University Press.