How Do Students Study?

how students study

Most students arrive in our classrooms without particularly strong study skills. They procrastinate and overestimate what they know or can cram into their heads before the exam. If they read, they spend lots of time haphazardly highlighting long passages. And they equate memorization with understanding.

I think we need to be more explicit in our efforts to make students aware of themselves as learners. We need to regularly ask not only “What are you learning?” but also “How are you learning?” We need to confront them with the effectiveness (more often ineffectiveness) of their approaches and offer alternatives.

The study below looks at commonly used study strategies.

The study

Blaisman, R. N., Dunlosky, J., & Rawson, K. A. (2017). The what, how much, and when of study strategies: Comparing intended versus actual study behavior. Memory, 25(6), 784–792. 

The research questions 

  • How do students study? Specifically, what specific strategies do students use to learn, comprehend, and remember course content; how much time do they spend studying; and at what points during the course do they study?
  • What are the reasons for students’ poor study choices? Do students intend to use effective study behaviors but then don’t actually use them? Or do they lack knowledge of evidence-based study approaches?

Interesting background information

Since 1999, 13 different research analyses looked at students’ study behavior. They are highlighted in Table 1 (p. 785) and included in the reference list at the end of the article.

The study cohort

The cohort consisted of 268 undergraduates at a regional campus of a large university who were enrolled in courses in 11 different fields, including psychology, sociology, composition, statistics, physiology, and biology.

Methodology (a succinct summary)

The research team used surveys, starting with an initial one that asked how much time students planned to study each day for two weeks prior to each exam and how often they planned to use each of 10 study strategies. Six identical follow-up surveys were administered over the course of the semester. Students indicated how much time they had spent studying on each of the seven preceding days and how often they had used each of the 10 study strategies.

Key findings

  • Students intended to rely most on rereading and copying their notes, using flashcards, and taking practice tests.
  • Despite intentions to use some of the more effective strategies, such as doing practice tests and flash cards, students ended up rereading their notes and the texts, which are among the least effective strategies.
  • As for their understanding of the utility of study strategies, these students did realize that highlighting, outlining, and rereading the text were not the most effective strategies.
  • Still, they rated rereading their notes as the most effective strategy.
  • Students intended to study at 30-minute intervals across the six days before the exam for a total of 5.5 hours. In fact, on average they studied for 2.5 hours, and most of that was on the day before and the day of the exam.
  • “Our results indicate that during the semester, students rely on relatively ineffective strategies and mass their studying the day or two before an exam” (p. 784).

Cautions and caveats

Most of the courses used in this study were at the introductory level. Maybe as students gain experience, their understanding of the most effective ways to study begins having a greater impact on how they actually study. Additionally, course sizes were too small to explore whether the study strategies intended and used changed as a function of course content or structure.

Practical implications (what you might want to do about the findings)

First, if students (or teachers) do not understand the effectiveness of certain study strategies and the benefits of distributed practice, then teachers need to share that information with them. Study strategies can be demonstrated in class. Start or end class (or both) by having students generate potential test questions, which they could exchange and answer in groups or as a class. After exploring concepts, ask each student to write a brief explanation they could share with someone not taking the course.

Second, students cram for exams because, well, it works. They get the grades they need. But material that students memorize without understanding it well isn’t as useful for answering essay and short-answer questions. Finally, students may still cram for cumulative exams, but every exam gives them practice retrieving material covered earlier in the course. Cumulative exams promote distributed practice.

Related research

Morehead, K., Rhodes, M. G., & DeLozier, S. (2015). Instructor and student knowledge of study strategies. Memory, 24(2), 257–271.

  • Instructors knew more about evidence-based study strategies than students but not much.