Misconceptions about how students learn

Otherwise known as “How to study hard and still fail”

We’ve all come across the student who works hard in class and puts in the hours at night doing homework but never quite does well in class tests. Or perhaps it’s the student who does ok in class tests but then bombs the end-of-term exam and can’t understand why. The following may help in this regard.

Rate the following study techniques on a scale of 1 – 5 for effectiveness (5 being the most effective)

1.      Highlighting important material

2.      Writing out notes from a textbook or copying from teachers’ notes

3.      Reading over material covered in class

4.      Testing yourself

5.      Looking at mindmaps

6.      Creating mindmaps

7.      Making flashcards

8.      Testing yourself using flashcards

9.      Cramming the night before the exam

We’ll come back to these in a minute, but in the meantime here’s another task for you:

You have a Science test on Friday.
You have given yourself two hours to prepare for this over the course of the week, consisting of a half hour on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night.
Which of the following four options is the most effective and which is the least (try it yourself before looking for the answer)?

Study  Study  Study  Study

Study  Study  Study  Test

Study  Study  Test     Test

Study  Test     Test     Test

The key to how the brain remembers information is retrieval. The more times it has to retrieve certain information, the more it ‘realises’ that this information must be important and therefore it stores it more securely (think of it as the brain’s hard-drive).

Care to re-evaluate your answers to the tasks above?

For study techniques the most effective option is testing yourself.
This is not only so that you can check your answers to see what you got wrong, but also (and this is the bit most people don’t realise) because the mere act of retrieving the information results in that information being stored more securely from then on.

What about highlighting important material?
You might as well be watching the Simpsons

What about reading over your notes (and your teacher may even have told you to do this for homework)?
You might as well be watching the Simpsons

Making flashcards?
You might as well be watching the Simpsons

Using flashcards?
Here you are testing yourself in a way that requires retrieval of information, so yes – very effective.

Interestingly, the research here shows that using mindmaps is relatively ineffective (no retrieval) but making them in the first place can be beneficial once you’re not merely copying it from elsewhere. If you have to think about how various concepts are related then the brain is constantly retrieving information, but once it’s done then it is of little further use. It may however help another student see the connections if he cannot make them for himself. So reading somebody else’s mindmaps may be a useful starting point on the journey of learning, but it’s not much more than that.

Writing out notes
Lots of students like to do this but unfortunately – you’ve guessed it; you might as well be watching the Simpsons.


I may be guilty of exaggerating slightly for effect and there may be contexts where some of these techniques are more useful than I’m suggesting here, but it’s only to emphasise the main point; students (and teachers) labour under some serious misconceptions when it comes to study.

So all study techniques are not equal.

And just because Moira is spending three hours up in her room every night ‘studying’ does not mean that this will automatically translate into good grades. It may also explain why her friend Jane, who only spends one hour a night studying, can outperform her when it comes to exams.

You have been warned.

A few points which we left dangling:

  • Why aren’t students aware of this?
  • To what extent are teachers aware of this, and if not why not?
  • How can we get students to change their study techniques?
  • What can teachers do to encourage students to change how they study at home?
  • What can teachers do in class to incorporate these ideas?
  • Why is it so hard for teachers to change their teaching styles to adapt to new ideas?

For another day.

Also for another day: how effective is cramming?

Finally, back to Friday’s Science test.
Most students go with option one.
Option 4 is the correct answer.

This is the second in a series of blogposts to accompany the new website betterteaching.ie. Over time, every webpage on the site will have an introductory post at the top. This post acts as an introduction to the Student Learning page. The various ideas above have been sourced from the posts on that page, in particular the work of Daniel Willingham is worth reading. It will take time to browse through all the information, so it may be worthwhile to bookmark the page and come back to it when free.

The following is one of a series of videos which discusses various study strategies, and in particular the importance of ‘deep processing’ when learning material or as the speaker says; how to study hard and still fail.


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