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How do study habits impact students' exam performance?

How do study habits impact students’ exam performance?

4 min read
  • Study skills & exam prep

Students spend a lot of their time learning in the classroom, but it doesn’t end there – they also need to study on their own.

But not all study strategies are created equal, and it can be hard for students to know where to start when it comes to revision. Therefore, they need awareness of the strategies that will support their achievement.

So, to help you understand which study strategies are most efficient and how to explain them to your students, let’s look at how much of a difference study habits actually make in student achievement…

What the research says

One recent study looked at how active learning techniques, Spacing, and distractions influenced student performance.

The researchers found that students who used active learning strategies such as self-quizzing and explaining concepts achieved exam results that were up to 10% higher than students who did not. Generally, the more time students spent participating in active learning, the better their performance.

Surprisingly, they found that Spacing did not make a positive or negative difference in exam results. However, it is important to note that they didn’t directly measure students’ Spacing habits; they only estimated “Spacing potential” based on when students started studying and how consistently they studied. So, it is best to take this result with caution, as research consistently shows that Spacing is an effective technique that improves memory and achievement.

Additionally, on average, students reported that they were distracted for around 20% of their study time, and those who were more distracted when studying tended to perform worse on their exams.

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How can you help students create healthy study habits?

These results give us insight into how different study habits influence students’ academic progress. And from this, we can see the importance of reducing distractions and giving students awareness of productive study habits. So, here’s how you can help your students use strategies that support high academic achievement…

1. Tell students about the benefits of effective learning strategies

Active learning involves students directly engaging in the content with a hands-on approach rather than simply listening or reading. Even though it positively influences academic performance, research shows that students mistakenly believe that they learn less when taking part in active learning compared to passive learning.

A lot of the time, students’ perception of learning does not match with reality, as they often prefer the least effortful approach even when it is the least effective. However, telling students about the advantages of active learning can help them have a more positive outlook on it and be more willing to put in the effort. So, share the results of the above study with them – this will hopefully spark an interesting discussion.

2. Use active learning in your lessons

Using these active learning strategies in your lessons as well will give students extra practice, and in turn, they could see an even bigger boost in their results.

Modelling active learning in your lessons also helps your students see these strategies as valid learning techniques that they can use for their own independent study. For example, giving practice papers to your class and tasking them to summarise a topic in a few words are methods they can use outside of the classroom too. This should hopefully encourage them to make these strategies an integral part of their study habits.

3. Help students organise their revision timetables

Students may need your assistance when it comes to structuring their revision timetables, as it takes a lot of effort, which can put them off even trying.

Also, it can be difficult to figure out the length of time to leave between study sessions. The research-based guideline in this blog gives a rough idea of how big the gaps should be based on how far away an exam is – however, it is more of a suggestion than a rule.

Alongside using Spacing, encouraging your students to incorporate Retrieval Practice in their revision schedules can help them make the most of their study sessions. Retrieval Practice is a form of active learning and combining it with Spacing can enhance student recall. 

4. Advise students on how to minimise distractions

When students are distracted, their minds wander away from the task at hand. However, students need to stay focused during their study sessions so that they can fully engage with the content. This is because the harder they think about something, the more likely they are to actually learn it. You can help your students minimise distractions by encouraging them to:

All these points are applicable both inside and outside of the classroom, so giving parents and guardians awareness of distractors can help keep students accountable when they revise at home.

Final thoughts

The study habits that students choose now can make a significant impact on their final results. So, spending time engaged in active learning, creating a spaced revision timetable and reducing potential distractions may bridge the gap between the grade they are working at and the grade they are aiming for.


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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