Study Skills: Engagement and Retrieval

This post acts as an introduction to the webpage betterteaching.ie/studyskills and is also the first link on that page.
It also complements a previous post on the same topic: Misconceptions about how students learn  – otherwise known as How to Study Hard and Still Fail.

Why might this post help make me be a better teacher?

  • Teaching students how to study more effectively at home should be a normal part of every teacher’s job description (but isn’t). The benefit of developing a student’s study skills is self-evident.
  • Many of the these skills also relate to how a student learns best in the classroom and so should form an intrinsic part of your teaching methodology.

Key Points

  1. Students don’t know how to study because nobody has ever shown them – and even if they have attended a study seminar, chances are that it didn’t make much difference because we teachers don’t follow up it with them.
  2. This is due in no small part to the fact that we don’t know what constitutes effective study.
  3. All study techniques are not equal
    One half hour of effective studying is much more beneficial than two or three hours of ineffective study.


Students don’t know how to study because nobody has ever shown them. Only we – their teachers – can help in this regard. Our first step is to familiarise ourselves with the knowledge. Knowing how students learn should dramatically alter our approach to our classroom teaching.

The fact that students don’t know how to study may come as a shock, but when you think about it it shouldn’t. After all, nobody has ever taken the time to show them what techniques are effective and just as importantly what techniques are ineffective.

So what constitutes ineffective study?

  1. Highlighting material
  2. Writing out notes from a textbook or copying from teachers’ notes
  3. Reading over material covered in class
  4. Looking at mindmaps
  5. Cramming the night before the exam
  6. Making flashcards

Whaaaaaat?
These are not completely ineffective (and some are slightly more beneficial than others) but by in large they should be avoided. Of the six techniques outlined above, writing out notes is the greatest scoundrel in that it takes an inordinate amount of time, whereas highlighting, though equally ineffective, at least doesn’t waste that much time. It doesn’t help that the student may well believe that he has a good grasp of the material after writing it out; the point is that he is much less likely to remember the material long term using this technique.

Having said that, if you are highlighting or writing out material as a first step in the learning process (i.e. with a view of going back over the material using the effective learning techniques outlined below) then that’s a different story.

So what constitutes effective study?
Answer: anything which involves engagement and/or retrieval

  1. Testing yourself (and following up in an appropriate manner)
  2. Teaching others
  3. And you need to have set specific targets (both short and long-term

The ideal way to go about testing yourself is to first read over the material to confirm that you understand it. Then answer as many questions as you can on the topic, whether they be from the book or from exam papers.

Now you have to go back and check the answers.

The purpose of the test is two-fold; it acts to highlight what you don’t know but also – and this is the key point – it is in the act of retrieving the information that it becomes more securely stored in the long term memory. In short, it’s all about retrieval.

Aside – how your brain stores information
Your brain is not an empty vessel into which you can pour and store information. In so far as it can be considered to be a vessel of any type it should be seen as being a leaky one. You could also make comparisons to the memory in a computer; it seems to store information in either its hard drive (long term memory) or RAM (short term memory). In both cases there is one critical difference between the computer’s memory and yours; yours is leaky. The challenge for students is to ensure that the information is stored as securely as possible in their long-term memory. So how can they do this? Two words: Engagement and Retrieval.

Why are some techniques ineffective?
The six ineffective techniques outlined above all fail simply because there is little if any engagement with the material. While this is obviously context dependent, writing out notes can often (but not always!) consist of simply transferring material from one page to another with very little thinking going on in the process. The same goes for most of the other techniques in this category.

Consider the following:
Think of how difficult it is to remember the names of a group of people you’ve just been introduced to in some social scene.
If it was just one new name (one item of information) then there’s a good chance that you might remember, but if the number is closer to ten then you have no chance. Why not?
Because the information has passed over you without you having any chance to engage with it.

Think of it from another perspective. Your brain can remember an incredible amount of information, but not an infinite amount. So it needs some signal to determine whether information it is currently exposed to (notation for Boyle’s Law or hair-colour of a passing student) needs to be remembered or not. What signal does it use?
Answer: Engagement.
The more you engage with the material the more the brain realises that this is not just some random factoid than should be discarded as quickly as possible. But what does the word ‘engagement’ mean? I think of it as anything that causes the brain to come out of its ‘Sleep Mode’. Hence testing yourself and teaching (or even better arguing) with others.

So this helps the brain store the information in the first place. But bearing in mind that the memory is a leaky vessel, how do we keep the information there?
Answer: Retrieval.
To go back to the analogy used above, if you’re at the party and were introduced to just one man then you may or may not be able to recall his name one minute later. If however you have  no subsequent dealings with him then you’re much less likely to remember the information a week later. Why not? Because the brain works on the (reasonable) assumption that if you haven’t recalled the information over a relatively long period of time then it’s probably not important. So how do you ensure that the brain keeps the information? By retrieving it every so often (revision tests are therefore ideal). If you’re retrieving it then you’re ‘telling’ your brain that this information is worth hanging on to.

When is the best time to retrieve the information?
The research seems to be still out on this one, but one strong possibility is that the best time for retrieval is when the information is just on the point of being lost (the old ‘it’s on the tip of my tongue’ feeling). Of course there’s no way of knowing when a student is at this point, but it’s not a bad rule of thumb to go by.

This explains why cramming is not an effective learning technique. It may well get you past the short chapter test which you have the following day, but because there was no engagement and no regular retrieval going on, the information isn’t likely to remain in the memory for long.

This of course can serve to open up a bigger debate: from a student’s perspective doing well on a short test without ever understanding the material is still a perfectly valid objective. The challenge is for us as teachers to persuade students of the futility of this. The phenomenon is most easily identified when you look at a student who averages 80% or 90% in class tests at Junior Cert level, but then bombs an end of year exam. Now you (and hopefully they) can understand why.

It’s worth noting that most of this relates to studying factual information. Studying a language or a practical skill does of course rely on lots of practice. But even here you could fall foul of some misconceptions. Practicing without engaging (or without getting feedback) is of limited use. So for example if you want to improve your typing speed, practice by itself will bring your speed up to a certain level but it will then plateau. To increase it further you need to engage with what you’re learning and this is where a typing program comes in.

Spacing and Interleaving
Two other important concepts when studying are Spacing and Interleaving.

Spacing
When learning new material or new skills, spacing the learning episodes over large periods of time will improve the long-term retention.

Interleaving
If studying 3 subjects over one night, it’s much more effective to interleave them rather than studying subject 1 then subject 2 then subject 3 (which is the default but also ‘lazy’ way).

For more information on spacing and interleaving click on the links that I uploaded to the following webpage: http://www.betterteaching.ie/studyskills.html

So how do I use this information in the classroom?
If your subject is fact-based then testing should be a regular feature of your classes. But you need to stress that the function of the test is not to come up with a percentage at the end (in fact this is actually likely to be counterproductive); it is to identify what is and is not known or understood, and also (possibly more importantly) the act of retrieval serves to store the self-same information more securely for the future. So rather than spending the first ten minutes of your class checking and correcting homework (see this link for my post on the dubious benefits of setting homework), and a better policy may be using this time to run a short quiz covering important points from the previous class or classes. Only you can ascertain the best way of doing this, but don’t be afraid to experiment and don’t expect to get it write first time or every time.

Once I became aware of the importance of engagement  in student learning (otherwise known as ‘deep processing’) it changed how I try and teach every single lesson of every single day.

I give a version of this post to students but include a series of questions at the end (it helps them to engage).
🙂

Ask and you shall receive

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