Knowledge is the essence of smart thinking. No matter how much raw intelligence you have, you are not going to succeed at solving complex problems without knowing a lot. That’s why we spend the first 20 (or more) years of our lives in school.
Robert Bjork and fellow PT blogger Nate Kornell have explored some of the study habits of college students in a 2007 paper in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. Research on memory provides a number of important suggestions about the most effective ways to study. One of the most important tips is that students should study by testing themselves rather than just reading over the material. It is also important to study over a period of days rather waiting until the last minute to study. Kornell and Bjork’s studies suggest that only about 2/3 of college students routinely quiz themselves, and a majority of students study only one time for upcoming exams.
Of course, guidelines from memory research come from studies in idealized circumstances. Researchers bring participants (many of whom are college students) into a lab and ask them to learn material. Perhaps the recommendations drawn from these studies are not that helpful for real students dealing with real courses.
To address this question, Marissa Hartwig and John Dunlosky related the study habits of college students to their grade point average (GPA) in a 2012 paper in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. They asked students about a number of study behaviors. They also had students report their current GPA.
The students with the highest GPA were more likely to study by testing themselves than the students with lower GPAs. What is the most effective way to test yourself, though? It turns out that most students report using flashcards, and the use of flashcards does not predict a student’s grades. However, flash cards usually allow people to learn basic aspects of a domain like key vocabulary. Really understanding something new requires practice with explaining it. So, self-testing needs to involve deeper questions than the ones that are usually written on flash cards.
All college students tend to focus their study on upcoming assignments. That is no surprise, because college is a busy time. The most successful students, though, also schedule time to study for classes even before the exam is coming up. The students who make a schedule and stick with it tend to get better grades than those who just work on whatever is coming up.
Finally, the time of day that students study also matters. College students are notorious night owls. Indeed, few students reported studying in the morning, or even in the afternoon. Most students study in the evening and late at night. One of the interesting results of this research, though, is that the students who study late at night tend to get worse grades than those who study in the evening.
It is always nice when studies of real-world behavior mesh with recommendations from basic research. In the case of studying, though, it seems particularly important to ensure that basic research influences behavior. People invest several years and thousands of dollars in a college education. That education has an enormous effect on their future productivity. Cognitive science can ensure that students maximize the value of that experience.