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Effective Study Habits: Modesty is More Effective!

How to Study Effectively

An article in Education Week cites new research on study skills from Williams College. The bottom line is, when students have to work harder to remember material, they are able to retrieve it more effectively.

In one study, students were asked to memorize 35 Swahili vocabulary words for a test.

  • One group of students organized the words into five stacks, studying each group in turn. These students felt confident about their studying and predicted they would remember 60 percent of the words – but they got only 17 percent correct on the test.
  • The other group of students studied all the words together and were less confident that they would do well, predicting they would get 46 percent correct. In fact, they got 43 percent right.

Researchers say the first group of students’ overconfidence comes from “stability bias” – people’s tendency to think they will remember better when the initial task feels easy. In fact, people remember better and longer when there are “desirable difficulties” in the study process – when they self-test themselves on big chunks of material and space out study sessions over days and weeks before an exam.

Stability bias leads students to choose easier and less ineffective study strategies – studying short chunks of material or cramming in one long session the day before an exam. As students move from elementary school to secondary school to college, they need to learn increasing amounts of material through homework and independent study, and if they’re using ineffective strategies, the research suggests they’ll do worse and worse.

The ideal thing is to put students in a situation where they are challenged. You want them to eventually feel something is easy to process, but only because they’ve worked through it. The more students have had to flex their mental muscles, the stronger their memory and learning will be. Teachers need to communicate to students the counterintuitive fact that even through they’re struggling and making mistakes and not feeling successful at first, the more difficult strategy works much better than other strategies that feel easier and more satisfying.

“Studies Find ‘Desirable Difficulties’ Help Students Learn” by Sarah Sparks in Education Week, Apr. 27, 2011 (Vol. 30, #28, p. 6),


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By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom

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