‘Study Smarter, Not Harder!’ by Bill Hooper, Head of Curriculum

For students who think ‘cramming’ the night before an exam or simply highlighting key words in fluorescent colours are recipes for study success, the latest research says otherwise! At Matthew Flinders Anglican College, we want to help our students learn how to study efficiently and effectively to ensure they achieve deep learning and to make every minute of precious study time count.

This ‘study smarter, not harder’ approach is never more important than with the introduction of the new Queensland Certificate of Education, which has seen a number of changes introduced around curriculum and assessment.

Introduction of External Exams 
One of the changes to attract the most interest from teachers and students is the introduction of external examinations. These exams will be set and marked by the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority, and contribute 50% towards a student’s final grade in Mathematics and Science subjects, and 25% in all other subjects.

The introduction of external exams has renewed interest in exam preparation processes and efficient study techniques that support robust learning.

What Cognitive Science Research Reveals 
Decades of cognitive science research has focussed on evaluating the effectiveness of the various study strategies that students employ. And the results are very interesting! Research reveals that the study strategies with limited effect - especially if the goal is deep understanding and long-term retention of content - are those of highlighting key words, re-reading information and ‘cramming’ the night before the exam.

Dr Jarad Cooney Horvath, Educational Neuroscientist from the Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne, urges students to “study smarter, not harder” by employing some of the study strategies best supported by cognitive science. Cooney Horvath argues that reviewing and re-reading material, re-copying notes and re-viewing lessons taught at school will have limited effect. The key to strong and enduring memory formation is the strategy of recalling information; using those strategies that force students to ‘call-up’ information from memory.

In his review of the research of the effectiveness of various study methods, Professor of Psychology at Kent State University, John Dunlosky, identified two methods that seem to have the greatest effect in boosting student achievement; practice testing and distributed practice.

Practice Testing 
Practice testing, put simply, is using tests and quizzes to force the brain to recall and retrieve information. Practice testing, also known as formative assessment, is a common strategy used by teachers to reinforce understanding but it is also a strategy that can be employed by students in their preparation for exams. Great habits for students to get into are such activities as posing questions for peers or building a bank of flash cards, each with review questions, as they take notes in class or from text books that they can later use to test themselves with.

Using flashcards with questions from across a course of study provides students with instant feedback. If they can accurately recall the answer to a question, the card can be removed from the stack. If they can’t, they know the areas they need to review more closely. The process takes persistence but will certainly help their chances of recalling information accurately when exam day arrives. The bottom line is that, when it comes to forming strong memories, active recall trumps passive review.

Distributed Practice 
Distributed practice refers to the process of recalling information across a period of time. It stands in distinct contrast to massed practice, more widely known as ‘cramming’. An athlete or a musician will instinctively know that building a skill is best done through regular practice over a period of time before the event. Few would just practice the night before their big contest or concert, thinking that would be sufficient to ‘nail’ it the next day. Unfortunately, students don’t typically use distributed practice as they work towards exams, many preferring to ‘pull an all-nighter’ the day before.

Research shows that a student is much better prepared for an exam when they do, say, 20 minutes of one subject on a given night, followed by 20 minutes of another subject, interspersing all their subjects in short bursts across all nights of the week. Dunlosky encourages students to set aside these blocks of time throughout the week to study the material from each of their classes. Parents can help their children map out their week so that all subjects get at least two short study blocks per week. Ideally, given what we also know about practise testing, each of these distributed sessions should involve taking practise tests (as opposed to passively revising material).

The research around memory retention allows us to challenge some of the things we might hear a student say when they are preparing for an exam, statements like, “I’m doing biology tonight, I’ll study French on Tuesday before the exam” or simply, “I’m studying”. It encourages us to do away with the highlighters and sticky notes in favour of distributed practice calendars and flash cards.

In summary
For smarter study habits and more robust learning: 

  • Don’t cram, highlight or re-read when studying - this has limited effect
  • Do recall information and use strategies that ‘call-up’ information from memory
  • Do use practice testing:

- use tests and quizzes to force your brain to recall and retrieve information

- pose questions for peers

- build a bank of flash cards with review questions using notes in class or from textbooks. Test yourself.

  • Do use distributed practice - to recall information across a period of time

- set aside blocks of time throughout the week to study material for each subject

- map out your week so that all subjects get at least two short study blocks per week, for example

- plan your study sessions each day, for example, 20 minutes of one subject on a given night, followed by 20 minutes of another subject, interspersing all your subjects in short bursts across all nights of the week.


For those interested in knowing more about what cognitive science has to say about learning and the teenage brain, Dr Jarod Cooney Horvath will be speaking at the Flinders Speaker Series in the Flinders Performance Centre at 6.30pm-8:00pm on Tuesday, 17 March. Refreshments are available from 6:00pm-6:30pm. RSVP via https://www.trybooking.com/BITHL


Bill Hooper | Head of Curriculum

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