Five concrete strategies that help students “study better”

October 27, 2015

A student comes to your office with his most recent class exam. He is not happy. He says he “studied hard” for this exam. He thought he knew the material. How can he do better on the next exam?

What advice can you give this student? Study more? Study harder? Do students understand how to “study harder?”

Fortunately, Stephen Chew (2010) describes five concrete study strategies we can suggest to students who want to improve. All of these strategies are based on substantial bodies of memory research on how humans encode, retain, and recall information over long periods of time.

  1. Elaborate on new information – connect it to prior knowledge. We quickly forget isolated facts. If students want to retain new information they must connect it to information they already know. They should connect new ideas to ideas they learned in previous lectures, readings, and related courses. When we think about the material in different ways and connect it to many concepts and contexts, we create multiple paths for retrieving the information. If we only think about information in one way, we have only one way to remember it. If we create multiple retrieval paths, one retrieval path might fail but a different path might work and allow us to recall the information.
  2. Make new information distinctive. We notice differences and remember things that stand out. Students should discover ways to make new information distinctive. What makes this new concept different from other concepts discussed in this class? What is unique about this new information?
  3. Make the information personal. Students should connect the new information to personal experience. They might think about how they can apply the information to a problem or experience in their everyday life. They should find examples from their daily experience that illustrate how the new concept operates or how it explains why an event occurs.
  4. Practice retrieving the information and apply it to a new problem. Students often “study” by reading and re-reading material without thinking about it in new ways. Most students recognize the value of self-testing to determine if they have “studied enough.” But self-testing serves a more important purpose. Unlike re-reading, self-testing gives students practice at retrieving new information. Each time a student retrieves his/her ID number, they strengthen their memory for their ID number. Self-testing has the same benefit. Repeated testing improves the strength of retrieval paths for the new information.
  5. Practice using the information in the ways you will use it on the test. Students need to understand the expectations for learning and practice the skills they will use when they take an exam or complete an assignment. Study strategies must match the activities required when students complete graded assignments. A student who reads the text, memorizes definitions of bolded terms in the text, and self-tests on these definitions will not do well if the exam contains many questions that require the student to solve problems, apply concepts to specific situations, or make predictions about the outcome of an experiment based on a specific model.


Chew, S. L. (2010). Improving classroom performance by challenging student misconceptions about learning. APS Observer, 23, 51-54.  

10/30/15 ecr