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How we help students to learn more effectively

How we help students to learn more effectively

6 min read
  • Study skills & exam prep

We have worked with thousands of students at hundreds of schools in the UK and abroad to help them to learn more effectively. And over the years, we’ve often encountered some common learning mistakes in students. So, we thought we’d share some of the tips we share with them in our study skills workshops.

To help you gain a deeper understanding of which study skills are and aren’t effective for your students and how we help students learn about them, keep reading and uncover:

  • What good independent learning looks like
  • Some common learning mistakes
  • The studying strategies we recommend instead
  • A few other habits students can develop for effective learning

What is independent learning?

Independent learning refers to students’ ability to take ownership of their learning journey, actively seek knowledge and engage in self-directed activities. Independent learners can take initiative and study without needing your help. Learning more effectively can empower your students to become better independent learners.

Much of the time, students struggle with revision because they rely on teachers for support and studying material. This may explain why students prefer support sessions and studying in groups.

However, research has shown that independent learning can help develop metacognition and self-regulation. This is important for effective learning because it can help students plan, monitor and evaluate their performance.

This personalisation of the learning experience leads to increased engagement, deeper understanding and better long-term retention of knowledge. It is also a helpful way for students to explore the strategies that work best for them.

2 common study strategies, and why they don’t work

Some student-favourite techniques may not be ideal for effective revision and learning. As a teacher, understanding these common mistakes may help you better guide your students towards better alternatives…

1. Highlighting and re-reading

    Do you flick through your students’ notebook and see loads of highlighting? While this approach may seem intuitive, research suggests that it is not the most effective way to retain information. Merely highlighting and reading the material over and over again does not engage students’ critical thinking. It relies solely on repetition without actively processing the content, which leads to fluency – not learning.

    Research has shown that this approach tends to be passive and does not promote deep understanding. Highlighting, as a stand-alone strategy, provides minimal benefits for learning, instead creating a false sense of mastery without promoting deeper engagement with the material.

    To overcome this limitation, encourage your students to adopt more active learning strategies such as Generative Learning. This can look like creating concept maps by brainstorming related terms rather than highlighting words that appear to link. By actively participating in these activities, students can reinforce their understanding of the subject matter and foster meaningful learning.

    2. Cramming

      Have your students ever said they’ve spent the night rushing to learn all the information before their exam the next day? One survey found that 99% of students admit to cramming and 72% of students think cramming is beneficial.

      Whilst cramming appears to be a logical step when your students have left revision last minute, research supports the idea that attempting to absorb a large amount of material in a short period of time is ineffective for long-term retention. It leads to shallow processing, making students more likely to forget the information as soon as they walk out of the exam.

      We also have to mention that cramming can have consequences on your students’ well-being. It often leads to increased stress and anxiety, which further impairs learning and cognitive functioning.

      To overcome this limitation, encourage your students to revisit content as they progress throughout the year. You can help by providing mini test questions at the start of each lesson for example, allowing your students to revise content and identify gaps in their knowledge.

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

      2 study strategies we recommend instead

      In a review article, researchers explored which strategies were best for students for long-term learning. They came up with two: Spacing and Retrieval Practice.

      1. Spacing

        Spacing is where students review learnt material in separate sessions over a period of time rather than cramming all at once.

        To apply this strategy effectively, students can adopt a structured approach. Instead of dedicating long hours to a single study session at the weekend, they can break it up into shorter, more focused sessions over several days or weeks. This method allows for better retention as it strengthens memory recall through repeated exposure.

        In one highly influential experiment, students were tasked with learning and relearning English-Spanish word pairs under varying conditions:

        • Back-to-back
        • One-day gap between sessions
        • 30-day interval between sessions

        The findings showed that the group with the longest, 30-day Spacing interval effectively recalled more word pairs than the other groups. This that not only does Spacing improve memory recall, but it can also enhance long-term retention.

        2. Retrieval Practice

          Retrieval Practice involves recalling information from memory instead of passively reviewing it, by generating an answer to a question.

          This encourages your students to engage more deeply with the material. There are many ways to effectively apply Retrieval Practice: past papers, multiple-choice questionnaires, flashcards… They all help students recall and demonstrate the application of their knowledge.

          Through regular testing, students reinforce their memory pathways and strengthen their understanding of the material, because they need to actively think about their answer. As an added bonus, this also helps them identify gaps in their knowledge to address with further studying.

          In an experiment, participants were asked to read several passages about different topics before either being tested on what they could remember or instructed to simply revisit the material. They were then tested on the material a week later. The findings demonstrated that participants in the first group, who engaged in Retrieval Practice, remembered significantly more information than those who merely read the passages over.

          Some other ways students can boost their learning

          While they play a large role, effective studying strategies aren’t the only factors influencing students’ long-term learning and exam preparation. We also share the following tips with students during our study skills workshops…

          1. Focus on good quality sleep

            Getting sufficient quality sleep is vital for successful studying, academic performance and overall student well-being. Poor sleeping patterns deprive students from learning and absorbing new information. It also becomes harder to focus when studying, decreasing their chances of receiving good grades.

            The recommended amount of sleep for students is around 8 to 10 hours per night. This optimal range helps ensure your students are well-rested and prepared for the cognitive demands of their academic pursuits. However 73% of students do not get enough sleep. Some of the key benefits of adequate sleep for learning that we share with them include:

            • Improved memory consolidation
            • Enhanced cognitive functioning
            • Increased attention span
            • Better problem solving

            2. Avoid multi-tasking

              While multi-tasking is seen as a skill to master, it is not effective when it comes to revision. In fact, multi-tasking is considered a myth: it actually consists in quickly switching between tasks, as opposed to completing them at the same time. Trying (and inevitably, failing) to juggle multiple tasks at once can disrupt the brain’s ability to process and retain information efficiently and in a clear way.

              This constant shifting can cause cognitive overload, leading to mistakes and less effective learning. Some of the benefits of focusing on one task at a time for learning include:

              • Improved quality of learning
              • Increased productivity
              • Better retention of information
              • Reduced stress levels

              Final thoughts

              It is important for your students to prioritise effective study habits. Whether it’s spacing out their study sessions, retrieving information, actively engaging with their learning or focusing on their sleep, adopting these techniques can lead to more effective learning. Encouraging students to embrace these strategies will set them on a path towards academic success and help them reach their full potential.

              To stay up to date with the latest research and receive extra tips on how your students can learn more effectively, book our Studying With The Brain In Mind student workshop today.


              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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