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How to encourage Sixth Form students to study effectively

How to encourage Sixth Form students to study effectively

4 min read
  • Study skills & exam prep

Cognitive science is making its mark in the education world, with findings suggesting it can help students learn more efficiently and effectively. Sixth Form is an important stepping-stone into further education and life beyond, which arguably makes using cognitive science research-based strategies even more important. And yet, many students prefer less impactful strategies.

So why is this the case? And how can we prompt them to better choose learning strategies that may enhance their learning.

What is Cognitive Science ?

Cognitive science is the study of mental processes that we use to learn and understand information. It covers many higher order processes and executive functions, including:

  • Memory
  • Attention
  • Thinking
  • Word processing

Check out our guide here to learn more about cognitive science.

How to get your Sixth Form students to use Cognitive Science-informed learning strategies

The grades that students receive in Sixth Form have a very significant impact on their lives. It may not be life defining, but they can be life-altering. And one of the best ways to boost academic performance is to use effective, cognitive science-approved studying strategies.

So, why are students avoiding this? There are a number of factors – here’s why this happens, and what you can do to help your students use more research-based learning strategies…

Retrieval Practice

The problem: Sixth form can be a pressurised, high stress environment. This can reduce the benefit of retrieval practice.

The solution: Tell them the benefits of retrieval practice, show them how to do it, give them feedback on how they are doing, and above all keep it low-stakes.

Retrieval practice is any activity that forces students to recall information from their memory (i.e. generating an answer to a question). It has been repeatedly shown to help students’ knowledge and exam performance. It can take many forms, such as verbal q&a, quizzes or multiple-choice tests for example.

However, the nearer students get to their exams towards the end of Sixth Form, the more pressure they may feel. Given that stress can hinder learning, a trap to help them avoid is doing retrieval practice in a high-stakes environment. Arguably one of the biggest benefits of retrieval practice is felt when it is done in a ‘low-stakes’ way. For example, this study that split students into high- and low-stakes groups found that despite no initial difference in the students’ quiz performance, those in the low stakes condition significantly outperformed those in the high stakes condition when tested a week later.

A good way to help you implement a low-stakes environment is to make it the norm. When Retrieval Practice becomes an established routine, it normalises the process and makes it feel less pressurised (as it is not a ‘one-off’ event).

Cramming vs Spacing

The problem: Busy Sixth Form students leave studying to the last minute.

The solution: Get them to commit to a well-planned study schedule.

It’s a tale as old as time: students pushing back their study time until near their exams. The life of a sixth form students can be very busy, but unfortunately research suggests that cramming is not an effective way to study for long-term memory. A study found that those who spaced out their revision scored higher on average (74%) than students who crammed their revision (49%). So why do students procrastinate? There are a range of reasons, ranging from potential distractions, poor time management and the planning fallacy.

For both better learning and peace of mind, it therefore makes sense for students to start spacing their study. Spacing, which is much more effective in the long term, refers to studying little but often. We do not know what is the optimal amount of time to leave between study session, though this study may offer an interesting starting point.

How Far Away The Test Is7 Days35 Days70 Days350 Days
Gap Between Revision Sessions3 Days8 Days12 Days27 Days

Studying in silence

The problem: When revising, listening to music makes it more fun. Unfortunately it can hinder learning.

The solution: Explain the research to students to encourage them to study in silence.

Sixth Form students have more freedom in their study. They often do what they prefer during this time, which unfortunately doesn’t tend to be what’s best for them. A great example of that: many students listen to music during revision, believing it helps improve their learning.

However, research has consistently suggested that students who revise in quiet environments perform best academically. If they absolutely must listen to music, encourage them to pick music without lyrics – while this has still been shown to hurt recall compared to studying in silence, it had a lesser impact than music with lyrics. In our experience, students have tended to not realise just how impactful this is, so making them aware of these sort of findings can be helpful.

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

Final thoughts

The greater freedom that students have in Sixth Form could potentially see them being less likely to use cognitive science-approved learning strategies. Given that it is such an important window in their life, we need to guide them on how to do so. From keeping Retrieval Practice low stakes, to better planning of their revision to blocking out distractions, hopefully their independent studying can be less stressful and more effective.

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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