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4 strategies students like but aren't actually good for them

4 strategies students like using that aren’t actually good for them

5 min read
  • Study skills & exam prep

When learning, students often choose learning strategies that require less effort. The path of least resistance leads to the conflation of them doing “what they like” as opposed to “what’s best for them”. This provides a considerable challenge for us as educators, because the decisions students make around their independent study becomes more important to their academic achievement as they progress through the schools years.

Doing what you prefer, as opposed to what is best for you, usually results in ineffective and inefficient learning. Furthermore, these strategies can actually have a negative effect on their well-being too.

Let’s take a look at four things that students like doing that aren’t actually good for them, and what they could be doing instead…

1. Re-reading

Re-reading is the act of simply reading over your notes as a revision technique. This is a well-liked technique, with researchers reporting that 84% of students have admitted to using re-reading as a revision strategy, and 55% of students stating it was their favourite strategy to use.

However, research has suggested that re-reading is not the most effective learning or revision strategy. In one study, students were given a text and asked to study it. They then either took a free recall test or simply re-read the text. When tested 5 minutes, 2 days and 1 week after studying, students who took the free recall tests recalled more information than those who just re-read the passage. Interestingly, even though students who self-tested performed better, students who re-read the passage reported feeling more confident.

This research shows that re-reading is not great at helping students retain information in the long term, and self-testing may improve long-term information retention.

Another name for self-testing? Retrieval practice. For tips on how to actually use retrieval practice, check out this blog.

2. Blocking revision

Blocking involves studying one topic entirely before moving on to the next. One way that students sometimes block their revision is when they cram all of their studying the night before a test. Research suggests that students who do this perform between 10% and 30% worse than students who space out their revision.

Research suggests that blocking is not a very effective way to revise. Over 8 weeks, one study looked at the effect of blocking versus interleaving, a learning technique where study topics are mixed rather than studied one by one.

Students were asked to complete a homework task three times per week. Each homework task contained problem solving tasks that were either interleaved (where each task had a mix of topics) or blocked (where each task covered a singular topic).

They were then given two surprise tests where they had to solve new and more challenging problems, similar to those in the homework tasks. Results showed that students who did interleaved homework remembered more information and produced correct solutions more often than students who did the blocked homework.

Similarly to the research on the effectiveness of re-reading, students believed that they had performed worse on the tests when they had completed the interleaved homework, rating it as more difficult. So in essence, they don’t like doing the interleaving, and yet it clearly helped them learn more.

3. Listening to music

Many students do their homework and study while listening to music, with most saying that it helps them focus on the task at hand. Research suggests that many factors have an effect on whether music helps or hinders learning, including:

  • The type of music
  • The type of task
  • The type of student

One study assigned students to one of four groups. They either had students:

  • Study in silence
  • Study while listening to music with lyrics they liked
  • Study while listening to music with lyrics they didn’t like
  • Study while listening to music with no lyrics

When participants were tested on the content, students who studied in silence performed 60% better than those who studied while listening to music with lyrics – regardless of whether they liked the lyrics or not. Students who revised while listening to music with no lyrics performed better than students who listened to music with lyrics. Results also suggested that it did not make any difference whether students liked the music they were listening to while revising.

Although students seem to have a preference for listening to music with lyrics that they like, research suggests this may diminish learning and exam performance. This is because music and lyrics may require more cognitive processing, and studying at the same time may be overwhelming our cognitive load. Students should therefore try to avoid studying with music.

Boost your students’ study skills and give them the best chance at academic success, with an evidence-informed workshop.

4. Using their phone in bed

For many of us, the first thing that we see when we wake up in the morning and the last thing that we see before going to bed is our phone. But does this have an effect on our brains, and more specifically, our sleep?

At night, our brains release melatonin, often referred to as “the sleep hormone”. The darkness acts as a trigger for this release and the melatonin makes us feel sleepy. Research has investigated whether the light from our electronic devices tricks our brains into thinking it’s daytime and slows down or prevents the release of melatonin.

In one study, researchers asked students to use their tablets at 11 PM, doing whichever task they wanted. At midnight and at 1 AM, participants had saliva samples taken, and researchers measured their melatonin levels. The study found that being on a tablet late at night for 1 hour did not have a significant effect on the amount of melatonin released at night. However, when tablet use reached 2 hours, participants released 20% less melatonin.

Sleep has many benefits, including improvements in health, mood and academic performance. Using your phone at night can significantly impact your sleep and , as a result, your performance, yet students still do it. Even though they may view using their phone as time to wind down, phone use at night rarely seems to have any benefits. Students should limit night time phone use to a maximum of 1 hour, not just before bed time, or even better: avoid it all together.

Final thoughts

Sometimes, students can have the best intentions when revising, but may not know the most effective ways to study. The good news is, some simple strategies are here to help fix this.

Using retrieval practice instead of re-reading, using interleaved revision instead of blocked revision, and avoiding listening to music when studying allows students to make the most out of their learning. Avoiding using electronic devices for longer than 1 hour at night may allow students to optimise their sleep, making studying easier in turn.

If you want to learn more about using effective revision strategies, read our guide about the best ways to revise, and to learn more about optimising sleep, read our guide about the benefits of sleep.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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