Why the most common study method is the least effective…and what to do instead

Writing with highlighterRe-reading class notes and/or textbooks is one of the most common methods students use to study for exams.  Unfortunately, research also shows that this is one of the least effective study methods for improving students’ performance on exams (Dunloski, 2013).

Why is re-reading so ineffective?  One reason is that it’s extremely passive….and passive study methods do very little to hold students’ attention.  As a result, students often end up reading over a page of notes only to realize they have no idea what they just read, and needing to go back and re-read the same page again.  As a study method, this is boring, frustrating, and a big waste of time.

So, why do students use passive study methods like re-reading when they’re so ineffective?  One reason is that they seem easy, and take very little effort.  Of course, if students end up having to re-read their notes and/or textbook several times in a row, this may take them more time than would be required for other study methods.  But the illusion of ease is still there.

Another reason why students can be drawn to passive study methods like re-reading notes and highlighting is that these methods trick students into thinking they know more than they do (Karpicke et al. 2009).  When students re-read their notes, it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security and conclude that – since the material looks familiar – they must know it.   But familiarity is not the same as understanding, and being able to recognize information does not necessarily mean that you will be able to recall it from memory.

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-young-female-student-studying-sitting-her-desk-classroom-reading-her-notes-file-concentrating-her-work-image39549816If you want a real-life example of this, try passively looking over a map of the United States for a few minutes…then putting it away and seeing how accurately you can re-draw it, complete with state boundaries and names. Most adults find this to be quite challenging!  And this is a map of the United States, which you’ve seen hundreds of times before.  How much easier would it be for your teen to look over a list of dates from their history class and think “oh yeah, I know this”…only to get into the test and not remember the answers to the questions?

Rather than passively re-reading notes and textbooks, students will get much better results if they use active study methods, especially practice testing, to engage with the material.  For example, active study methods could include:

  • Taking a practice test
  • Creating & using flash cards
  • Teaching the material to a friend
  • Making up and answering their own test questions

Practice testing gives students far better results than passively re-reading material, and most students also find that it is much easier to stay alert and engaged when testing themselves on the material as opposed to passively re-reading it!

How you can help:

Encourage your teen to try out more active study methods.  For example:

  • Volunteer to quiz your son on his notes from history class.
  • Ask your daughter to teach you the main concepts from her chemistry class, and ask her lots of “why” and “how” questions to test her understanding of the material.
  • Offer to help your teen put together a practice exam with questions from the teacher’s study guide, the textbook, and websites online – and use it to test his knowledge.
  • Host an AP bio study session for your teen and some of her classmates where they form teams and take turns trying to stump each other with hard questions.  (If possible, set this up so that individual students are responsible for answering the questions, so one or two well-prepared students don’t end up dominating the game.)

Or, rather than choosing one of these ideas yourself, you could simply offer to help your teen brainstorm potential active study methods so he has some more options for ways to study for his exams.

Encouraging your teen to find more active and creative ways to study will not only increase their understanding of the material and improve their grades, it will also make the whole process more interesting and enjoyable!


Dunlosky, J. (2013) Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning, American Educator, 37(3): 12–21.

Karpicke, J., Butler, A., and Roediger, H. (2009), “Metacognitive Strategies in Student learning: Do students practice retrieval when they study on their own?, Memory, 17(4): 471–479.

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By |May 1st, 2014|Categories: Study skills|0 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit http://creatingpositivefutures.com/contact or email support@creatingpositivefutures.com

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