Learning Strategies

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 (Geller, Toftness, Armstrong, Carpenter, Manz, Coffman, & Lamm, 2018).

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 (Karpicke & Blunt, 2011).

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 weak strategies 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)

The table below provides guidelines and background information for both instructors and students. The student tip sheets and guidelines are intended to be templates. You can use or modify these as handouts or incorporate them in your course to best suit your students.

Instructor Guidelines, Background Information Student Guidelines, Tip Sheets, Resources
Retrieval Practice, Practice Testing, Practice Quizzes Self-Testing Tip Sheet

Flashcard Guidelines

Spaced Practice Spaced Practice Tip Sheet

Spaced Practice Study Plan

Explanation and Elaboration Self-explanation Tip Sheet
Worked Examples
Learn by Teaching Learn by Teaching Tip Sheet
Interleaved Practice
How to Learn More Effectively from Notetaking
How to Learn More from Reading How to Learn More from Reading
Learn by Drawing Drawing Tip Sheet (forthcoming)
Learn by Visualizing – Concept Maps and Matrices Visualization Tip Sheet (forthcoming)

Guidelines for learning more effectively from . . .

Student version

Student version

Instructor version
Student version

Instructor version
Student version

Study Groups
Student version

Review Sessions
Instructor version


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

Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 331, 772–775. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science .1199327

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