Study Habits

By Anna Alvarado | UTS Staff Writer | SQ Online (2013-14)

Week Ten is upon us and that means that the sweet smell of summertime fun is a mere few weeks away. But before we enjoy the fruits of a long break we must endure the grueling task of finals week. This is the time when students begin perusing through study guides and planning how to attack multiple finals within the span of five days. In order to find out how students handle this daunting task and to discover different ways to approach it, SQ Online surveyed students asking them about their best study habits. Common themes arose like study times, summarization techniques, and the use of study aids. These same study habits were examined in a review article by Dr. John Dunlosky, from Kent State University, which compiled multiple studies and analyzed their data and efficacy. This comprehensive review can shed insight on the efficacy of these study tactics.

The Right Time to Study

When asked when students start studying for their upcoming exam, most participants answered “a few days before”. This makes sense especially since our quarter system introduces students to plenty of material in a short amount of time. However, studying the material all within the span of a few days is not always the best way to study. According to the article by Dr. John Dunlosky, distributed practice in which review of material is spread out over the course of a few weeks is a better tactic for retention. This is why having midterms throughout the quarter is an effective teaching tool because it ensures distributed practice. Dunlosky and his team believed that testing often is a successful way to implement distributive practice in classes. The article states, “less frequent testing led to massed study immediately before the test, whereas daily testing effectively led to study that was distributed over time.”

Study Practices

When students were asked what studying techniques they used while preparing for an exam, many answered organizing concepts in a logical manner through the use of whiteboards or flowcharts. One student wrote, “I use whiteboards to diagram pathways and take pictures of them for later reference.” Another wrote, “[I] organize the whole class material in a logical flow on one piece of paper.” Both techniques utilize summarization of concepts in a manner that makes the most sense to the students. According to the article by Dunlosky there are many reasons why this technique works. His study states, “writing about the important points in one’s own words produced a benefit over and above that of selecting important information; students benefited from the more active processing involved in summarizing and note-taking” (see fig. 1).

Summarizing allows for the compartmentalization of content and the identification of important topics as you study, making it a great tool especially on subjects that are highly conceptual. However, restating the content by itself is not sufficient to understand the material. An important appendage of summarization is to explain the content in your own words and writing. One student wrote, “I had a twelve hour study group session where I ended up giving some of my friends a crash course in immunology. I remembered what I said best when we took the exam the next morning.” Teaching peers required a deep understanding of the material ensuring complete comprehension and retention. This technique of self-explanation was also studied in Dunlosky’s article. The article states, “virtually every study has shown self-explanation effects on near-transfer tests in which students are asked to solve problems that have the same structure as, but nonidentical to, the practice problems.” This shows that students are able to answer a wider range of questions because of the deeper comprehension brought upon by self-explanation.

Study Aids

A common study aid seen in the survey was the use of mnemonic devices such as the use of acronyms and songs. When asked of interesting ways to study a student responded, “making fun acronyms for lists (ex: King Phillip Over For Good Soup–the levels of organization in biology).” Another responded, “songs are super helpful, but hard to write yourself. I use acronyms quite a bit to remember how to group things.” These devices are extremely useful for memorization of facts and keywords. Dunlosky’s study states, “the overwhelming evidence that the keyword mnemonic can boost memory for many kinds of material and learners has made it a relatively popular technique.” Fun little stories and songs make it easy to remember facts. However, according to Dunlosky’s study this study aid is not the best for retention and is subject to “accelerated forgetting” (see fig. 2). Therefore, it is best to couple this study technique with ones that emphasize conceptual understanding such as summarizing and self-explanation.

Another common study aid is the use of self-testing techniques such as practice exams and problem sets. The survey has found that this technique is the go-to strategy when students are pressed for time. Some common responses include: “do as many practice problems as possible”, “redoing homework problem tests” and “skim the problem set solutions or the practice exams”. This technique is very effective according to the study by Dunlosky. The study states, “Practice testing may enhance how students mentally organize information and how well they process idiosyncratic aspects of individual items, which together can support better retention and test performance” (see fig. 3). Doing practice tests requires recalling information and use it in different applications, making it easier to retain the content. It is also an excellent way to see a preview of how the test is formatted and graded. One student says, “always do the practice midterms! Getting to know the professor’s style of testing is half the battle!”

These study techniques will come in handy with exams fast approaching. It is necessary to find which techniques work best for the subject and the time frame you have. More importantly, with stress levels rising it is imperative to try to stay calm and get enough sleep before the exam. Sleep allows for greater retention of the material and allows you to have a clearer mind come test day. The best way to avoid last minute cramming sessions is to plan ahead and avoid procrastination. Good luck with finals week Tritons!


Study Citation:

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(1), 4-58. Retrieved from