Students need to learn how to study

Students don’t know how to study, writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham. Most “take notes in class, color the readings with a highlighter, and later reread the notes and the highlighted bits of the text.”  Unfortunately, “rereading is a terribly ineffective strategy.” Only about 11 percent of students use the best strategy, self-testing.

Willingham recommends an article on studying smart on the website of the American Psychological Association.


About Joanne


  1. When I taught CC students (and will soon do when I teach at a homeschool co-op), I tell students to take notes, then rewrite as ‘cliff notes’, making sure to look up or ask about anything that they don’t understand. Rereading notes and thinking ‘How did that work?’ every time is a waste of time, so make sure that you understand everything that you have. After you’ve spent some time with that, making flow charts, lists, or whatever works for the material, get a blank piece of paper or a whiteboard and start writing. Ask yourself to trace a pathway, explain how membrane transport works, etc. Write it down and check against the notes. Repeat until you know everything that you need to learn. The students who do this (or some variation) swear by it and do well (and learn a lot). Others say that they don’t have time…I try to convince them that it’s more time efficient than retaking the class another semester.

  2. I carried a very heavy load during college (18 credits as freshman and 21-22 thereafter, with 12-22 hours of practicum every week) have 2 grad degrees (not in education and with 2-4 young kids) and was always considered a successful student. I re-read all my text/journal assignments, with highlighting, but I also made margin notes (wish I’d had post-its). I re-read all my class notes that day (immediately after class, if possible), made additions and clarifications, noted questions (got answers from book or prof) and noted anything else that seemed useful – particularly what the prof stressed. Close to exam time, I’d re-read a lot and make serial notes, consolidating what I needed from both notes and texts, until I had all of the exam material condensed to a few index cards. I found writing everything down very helpful. However, I did also think about possible exam questions and worked out answers to them. One fine day, I hit the jackpot; for an advertised all-quotes exam (poem, author, significance) on the Romantic poets, I had picked 100% of the quotes on the exam. I had fun with that one! I taught my kids the strategy and they found it useful, also.

  3. Hahahahahahaha!

    About half of my students don’t even know how to write! I don’t mean write serviceable prose, I mean form legible symbols comprising words. And you think you can teach them to study?


    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Your picture is next to your name.

      Your students may be reading this.

    • Regrettably, you’re probably right that kids don’t know how to write, let alone take really good notes from a lecture. I used to have at least 12-15 pages of small-sized outlined notes from a 3-hour history class – other subjects varied, but I could be sure I hadn’t missed anything significant (with additions per my last post). I really wish that schools understood that it takes the entire k-12 time frame to teach most kids to write decently and that ALL composition (regardless of subject) should be corrected. Back in the dinosaur era, we started first grade (no k) by copying, then progressed through dictation before we did any composition on our own. By then, we had learned what proper sentences looked like; capitalization, punctuation and spelling of familiar words.

  4. Far too many teachers pay lip service to the idea of teaching students how to learn, as opposed to what to learn. Instead, class becomes all about the content, and it’s simply a read-the-book-listen-to-lecture-copy-the-powerpoint exercise which is ineffective for all but the top quarter of students.

    This problem is the worst at high school, where all teachers – but especially content area teachers – simply assign reading and writing instead of teaching students how to read, write, and think at the high school level. It amazes me to encounter high school teachers who don’t use exemplar models of essays to instruct.