How to study: Stop highlighting, cramming and rereading notes. Start taking practice tests and using flashcards.

A new study challenges many of our assumptions about how to study. (AJC photo)

A new study challenges many of our assumptions about how to study. (AJC photo)

Time to retire those yellow highlighters.

A new report on the most effective studying techniques found that highlighting and underlining don’t do students much good. Nor does cramming as the information slips away too quickly. The authors say it’s more effective to space study sessions.

Another common learning technique that didn’t make the grade in the research was summarizing, which my twins are required to do a lot with middle school reading. (I am not a fan as I find that extracting the most important ideas from a reading passage and summarizing them reduces reading to drudgery.)

In the biggest surprise, the report didn’t find much benefit from rereading materials or notes, the most common studying technique reported by students.

The report states: One advantage of rereading is that students require no training to use it, other than perhaps being instructed that rereading is generally most effective when completed after a moderate delay rather than immediately after an initial reading. Additionally, relative to some other learning techniques, rereading is relatively economical with respect to time demands (e.g., in those studies permitting self-paced study, the amount of time spent rereading has typically been less than the amount of time spent during initial reading). However, in head-to-head comparisons of learning techniques, rereading has not fared well against some of the more effective techniques discussed here. For example, direct comparisons of rereading to elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, and practice testing have consistently shown rereading to be an inferior technique for promoting learning.

The authors spend a lot of time touting the benefits of testing. Not the sit-in-class testing, but practice testing, which the authors define as a low-stakes or no-stakes practice or learning activity outside of class…For example, practice testing could involve practicing recall of target information via the use of actual or virtual flashcards, completing practice problems or questions included at the end of textbook chapters, or completing practice tests included in the electronic supplemental materials that increasingly accompany textbooks.”

The authors explain that practice tests enhance retention by triggering retrieval processes in the brain and improve the ability of students to mentally organize information.

I am sharing the detailed release on the study from the Association for Psychological Science. But take a look at the entire study if you have time. (If you don’t have time but are interested, look at Annie Murphy Paul’s column for

Students everywhere, put down those highlighters and pick up some flashcards. Some of the most popular study strategies — such as highlighting and even rereading — don’t show much promise for improving student learning, according to a new report published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

In the report, John Dunlosky of Kent State University and a team of distinguished psychological scientists review the scientific evidence for 10 learning techniques commonly used by students.

“Schools and parents spend a great deal of money on technology and programs to improve student achievement, even though evidence often isn’t available to firmly establish that they work,” says Dunlosky. “We wanted to take a comprehensive look at promising strategies now, in order to direct teachers, students and parents to the strategies that are effective, yet underused.”

Based on the available evidence, the researchers provide recommendations about the applicability and usefulness of each technique.

While the 10 learning techniques vary widely in effectiveness, two strategies — practice testing and distributed practice — made the grade, receiving the highest overall utility rating.

Most students are probably familiar with practice testing, having used flash cards or answered the questions at the end of a textbook chapter. Students who prefer last-minute cram sessions, however, may not be as familiar with the idea of distributed practice.

Dunlosky and colleagues report that spreading out your studying over time and quizzing yourself on material before the big test are highly effective learning strategies. Both techniques have been shown to boost students’ performance across many different kinds of tests, and their effectiveness has been repeatedly demonstrated for students of all ages.

In contrast, five of the techniques received a low utility rating from the researchers. Notably, these techniques are some of the most common learning strategies used by students, including summarization, highlighting and underlining, and rereading.

“I was shocked that some strategies that students use a lot — such as rereading and highlighting — seem to provide minimal benefits to their learning and performance. By just replacing rereading with delayed retrieval practice, students would benefit,” says Dunlosky.

So why don’t they? Why aren’t students and teachers using the learning strategies that have been shown to be effective and inexpensive?

Dunlosky and colleagues found that the answer may have to do with how future teachers are taught.

“These strategies are largely overlooked in the educational psychology textbooks that beginning teachers read, so they don’t get a good introduction to them or how to use them while teaching,” Dunlosky explains. As a result, teachers are less likely to fully exploit some of these easy-to-use and effective techniques.

To help address this gap, the researchers organized their report in distinct modules, so that teachers can quickly decide whether each technique will potentially benefit his or her students and researchers can easily set an agenda on what we still need to know about the efficacy of these strategies.

“The learning techniques described in this monograph will not be a panacea for improving achievement for all students, and perhaps obviously, they will benefit only students who are motivated and capable of using them,” Dunlosky and colleagues note. “Nevertheless, when used properly, we suspect that they will produce meaningful gains in performance in the classroom, on achievement tests, and on many tasks encountered across the life span.”

The report, “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology,” is published in the January 2013 issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest and is authored by John Dunlosky and Katherine A. Rawson of Kent State University, Elizabeth J. Marsh of Duke University, Mitchell J. Nathan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Daniel T. Willingham of the University of Virginia. The research included in the report was supported by a Bridging Brain, Mind and Behavior Collaborative Award through the James S. McDonnell Foundation’s 21st Century Science Initiative. The report also features an editorial written by Henry L. Roediger III of Washington University in St. Louis.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

43 comments Add your comment

Private Citizen

January 11th, 2013
2:59 am

Another common learning technique that didn’t make the grade in the research was summarizing, which my twins are required to do a lot with middle school reading.

Thank you for addressing some of this “how to teach” doctrine.


January 11th, 2013
5:33 am

Thank you, Maureen, this article is very useful. I have taught many of these strategies, but it helps me to know what to focus on for the students.


January 11th, 2013
6:20 am

Oh for heaven’s sakes. The way to teach a child is to let them prepare the tests. When I was a child, the thought of grading papers was second only to the thought of Hoola Hoops. Every child feels like that (dont they?): how cool it would be to be (or not to be) the one grading the papers. Use that. I mean, even Lassie knew he din’t have to keep barking once they pulled Timmy out of the well. I mean the whole things so Zero Dark Thirty. Go Falcons!

I love teaching. I hate what it is becoming...

January 11th, 2013
6:28 am

I am curious as to what “highlighting” means in this study. I “highlighted” a great deal in school, but it wasn’t to study…it was to identify the most important information in the text that I would then go back later and review. Of course, just highlighting isn’t going to help you retain information. It is more a method to eliminate additional details which are not the core of the text so you don’t have to study everything – which is vital when you are trying to study huge amounts of material. I am not sure why it is considered a “studying” technique in itself… Of course, rereading isn’t akin to studying either, if you are not rereading for retention. I think a better conclusion of this study would be that many students really do not know what studying IS!

drew (former teacher)

January 11th, 2013
6:52 am

To say there is a best way to study, is like saying there’s a best way to learn. Studying, like learning in general, depends on the learner. Different people learn and study in various ways…what works for one might not work for the other. While some methods might be more efficient than others, to each his own. I’m all for exposing learners to various study methods, but to say one is better than another doesn’t take into account the individuals learning styles of the learner. And regardless of the method of study, motivation, discipline, and capability have more to do with effective study than any methodology.

And if we’re talking college (specifically GRADES…not to be confused with learning), the best approach is to find out what your professor wants to hear, and give it to them (this I learned through observation and experience). With some professors, good note taking is the key…the stuff that comes out of their mouths is the important stuff. I took college courses where the ONLY thing you really needed to know could be found in class notes from lectures. Many times, it’s not HOW you study that’s important…it’s all about WHAT you study.


January 11th, 2013
6:58 am

I think rereading your notes is much more effective if you are a GOOD notetaker. Few of our students are taught this skll. When I was in school, we had to summarize and outline chapters, and in some classes we were required to write down everything the teacher said. She dictated the notes (thank you, Miss Baldwin). So you got quicker with it.

As far as highlighting, I think if you realize that is ALL that you have done, that it is only a first step to studying instead of the end, you will be fine.

Progressive Humanist

January 11th, 2013
7:33 am

I regularly have my students (undergraduate and graduate pre-service and in-service teachers) read the following:

Rohrer, D. & Pashler, H. (2010). Recent research on human learning challenges conventional instructional strategies. Educational Researcher, Vol 39, No. 5, 406-12..

The Rohrer article, while shorter and not as detailed as the Dunlovsky one above, covers the same information- testing as a form of studying, spacing to increase retention, and a technique that is particularly helpful for math instruction- interleaving. I urge all educators to read it. Too often simple techniques that are the most effective for learning go unused.

Progressive Humanist

January 11th, 2013
7:50 am

Drew, former teacher- I know you’re commenting from what you perceived during your experience in the classroom, but you’re giving an anecdotal account, and very often there is little accuracy in such accounts. Psychological research examines trends amongst large samples of students and then applies statistics to generalize that information to the greater population. Many people think that they learn best a certain way (due to a lack of metacognition), but when those assumptions are tested, it turns out that they respond better to the techniques supported by research (quizzing, spacing, etc.), the ones that most other people respond best to.

You mention learning styles, and this is an extremely popular hypothesis, but research suggests that learning styles have no basis in reality, along with Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence (actually a shaky, unsupported hypothesis). Read the brief article that I cite below and then go out and see if you can find any empirical research at all (not a text written by an “expert” or how-to manual) that finds evidence, through the implementation of an experiment, that matching instruction to a student’s preferred “learning style” improves learning. You likely won’t find any but will find quite a few that suggest that it doesn’t. It’s a myth.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.

Beverly Fraud

January 11th, 2013
7:59 am

You mention learning styles, and this is an extremely popular hypothesis, but research suggests that learning styles have no basis in reality, along with Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence (actually a shaky, unsupported hypothesis).

@Progressive, if educrats the world over where given training to recognize that…in this case I wouldn’t be morally opposed to them being given Clockwork Orange type training.

APS has an effective study technique. The old “ABCD” alphabet song with a slight twist.

Theirs is “A,B,C,C,D,A,B…” and so on. Oddly enough, it changes every day during test week. Not sure why.

Mary Elizabeth

January 11th, 2013
8:39 am

An effective Read-Study method that has been taught to students since the 1930s is SQ3R. This study method helps in retention of material read, over time. One of my posts on my personal blog was centered upon this study method. I will post the link, again, on this blog for any interested reader.

Below is an excerpt from my post of February 6, 2012 on “MaryElizabethSings”:

“When the student is able to keep the entire SKELETAL FRAMEWORK, or outline, of the whole chapter in his mind, he will better be able to remember or recall the information and ideas within the chapter. He can see how headings and subheadings relate to one another in progression of ideas throughout the chapter. Seeing this overview of ideas, with cohesion, helps the student to store the chapter’s content in his memory, thus aiding his retention of the content long-term, as well as increasing his test-taking skills.”

10:10 am

January 11th, 2013
8:43 am

If your child is lucky enough to have a teacher who still believes in homework and “pencil and paper” testing—two excellent online flashcard utilities are: and


January 11th, 2013
9:00 am

I used myself, later taught my students…..two column notetaking. This is a good way to quiz yourself when studying.

intown parent

January 11th, 2013
9:57 am

To Oldtimer – what is two column note taking? Never heard of it, and i’m sure my darling would be interested to know… thanks!

Progressive Humanist

January 11th, 2013
10:27 am

The two-column note taking approach sounds like the Cornell method or a double entry journal where one side is for facts and the other side is for interpretations or reflections that go along with the corresponding facts across the page.

Michelle-Middle School

January 11th, 2013
10:59 am

Telling a student HOW to study is just about as realistic as the notion that all teachers can teach the same. All of us are individuals, and all of us deserve the right and opportunity to learn and teach as it best fits us. This is a great study, but there are hundreds of other studies that are equally great, all depending upon the author and the setting. We need to stop “cookie-cutter” teaching learning and studying. To each his own.

Mary Elizabeth

January 11th, 2013
11:03 am

When I taught the two-column note-taking practice to college-bound juniors and seniors in high school, below were the steps to that read-study notetaking method:

1. Before the student takes notes on a teacher’s lecture, he should draw a long line down the blank sheet of notebook paper. The line should be approximately 2 1/2 to 3 inches from the left side of paper.

2. The student should take notes on the right side of the line. He should repeat that line-drawing process for any subsequent pages that he might need to use to take notes from the lecture.

3. Immediately after the lecture, or soon thereafter, the student should re-read his notes on the right side of the line, and insert either (a) key words or (b) simple questions (which he has generated from the content of his lecture notes) in the left-side of the line drawn on each page. The key words or questions should correspond to the content that the student had taken previously in his notes.

4. For reviewing the content of his notes later in studying for a test, the student should fold the right side of the paper to the line on the page, exposing only the questions or key words (or cover the right side of the line with a book or paper) so that only the key words or questions appear vertically down each page.

5. The student, then, attempts to answer the questions he had previously generated on the left side of the page (or he should respond to the key words), while not looking at the content of his lecture notes on the right side of the page.

6. The student checks himself by unfolding the paper on the right side of the line to see if he had answered all of the specific questions correctly. If he did not answer a specific question correctly, he should re-read his notes that referred to that specific question on the right side of the line. He should put that specific content into his memory so that he can later answer that question correctly – when he self checks himself a second or third time.

7. This process helps the student more easily recall his lecture notes for questions that might be generated by his teacher on quizzes or tests over the content the teacher had covered in class.

[...] How to study: Stop highlighting, cramming and rereading notes. Start taking practice tests and using… ( [...]

Old timer

January 11th, 2013
11:16 am

Two column……main ideas….etc on one side detail in other. Then you can review by looking at main ideas…vocab….etc and detail on the other side. Makes it easy for parents to help review. I taught history, but my girls found it useful in science lit notes and bothe used it through college. I think it was developed by Cornell University.

Old timer

January 11th, 2013
11:20 am

ME …exactly, also when complete you can add in reflections, questions, students did complain it used lots of paper…but it works. I used something similar all through college, didn’t know it had a name….very useful.

Progressive Humanist

January 11th, 2013
11:35 am

Middle School Michelle @ 10:59: Are you saying that you know of empirical studies that suggest that rereading and highlighting promote better retention than quizzing, spacing, etc.? If there are hundreds out there could you cite one or two? I suspect you’re confusing opinion-based articles and textbooks written from an anecdotal perspective and scientific experimental research (with control groups, statistical analysis, etc.).

Mary Elizabeth

January 11th, 2013
11:52 am

@Old timer . . .I hope my entry at 11:03 am will help a few students. Thank you for suggesting the two column note-taking practice, to begin with.

Many of my former students found this note-taking process beneficial. One more suggestion:

If the student cannot think of the answer to a specific question on the left-hand side of the notebook paper, then – when he opens the folded page to reveal the answer to that question in his notes on the right-hand side of the notebook page – he can thereafter highlight that part of his notes in yellow marker (easy to read through) which gives the answer to the missed question. Later, he will be able to review, additionally, by re-reading the previously missed highlighted yellow parts of his notes – specifically to reinforce the answers to all of his previously missed self-generated questions.

Old timer

January 11th, 2013
1:54 pm

M E ….we practed that in class. Itmismrathermoldmfashionedmand the last few years I taught one admin thoughtnit not hands on enough. Of course MY tests scores were outstanding and he backed off. Some of us old ladies know what we’re are doing.

Old timer

January 11th, 2013
1:55 pm

It is rather old fashioned…….


January 11th, 2013
3:55 pm

Oh good grief, the author merely listed several different study strategies. To say one is better than the other is a bit of a stretch, IMHO.

I don’t think you would study for a History exam in the same manner as a Calculus exam. One emphasizes recall while the other requires an understanding of principles.

Left brain, right brain. You’ve got to find the method that works best for YOU.

Atlanta Native

January 11th, 2013
5:02 pm

Get the psychologists out of the school systems once and for all. “Educational psychology” is hogwash, and relying on the falsified ideas of psychology to serve as the backbone of true education is dangerous. Psychologists are the same folks who come up with fake diseases every year and condone prescribing all those dangerous medications for school kids so they can “study better”. Dangerous as hell. One can even correlate the downtrend in graduation rates and test scores in this country with when the psyches broke in as self-appointed experts.


January 11th, 2013
6:06 pm


Survey — Look at major headings and visual aids — this is military RECONNICENCE and scouting the territory.———————————————-this is spelled correctly AJC—^

Question — Make a list of questions that you think must be answered in the section
It is OK to mark a textbook with a PENCIL– small marks for key ideas and what the teacher points out as important. Can be later erased.
NO magic markers !!!!!!!!!!!!

Read — Can’t avoid a detailed reading, but you now have targets and goals for your effort
Look for answers to your questions as you go.

Recite — Think you know i ?. Tell it to mom, dad or study partner. If they can understand what you tell them — OK
If not do some more reading.

Review — Go over the material ahead of scheduled tests You have notes your outlines to help.

I added a 4th R — Record.

Put highlights on a portable tape recorder for study on the bus and travel times.

This is an effective study method, I recommend reading the Virginia Tech writeup. It is short and easy to use. Others are available on GOOGLE too.

Former school teacher. <-:)

While you are at it, GOOGLE — SPEED READING

There is an online test to take.
Don't worry about absolute speed, shoot for 80% or BETTER COMPREHENSION of the material.
Work slowly but steadily toward faster reading. Most folks read less than 200 wpm. You can easily double that. Cuts your reading time by HALF.

Start in 5th or 6th grade. By the time you are in high school you should be well ahead of any others in your group.

USS Enterprise CVA 6


January 11th, 2013
6:15 pm


Didn’t see your post. Great.

Google S Q 3 R — I like the Va Tech writeup
I added a 4th R Record — Portable tape recorder to use while on the bus and other times while traveling.



There is an online test to take.

Atlanta Mom

January 11th, 2013
6:23 pm

” completing practice problems or questions included at the end of textbook chapters”
Isn’t that what we used to call homework? And it works? Who woulda thunk?

Another comment

January 11th, 2013
6:51 pm

My High School Senior is taking Dual Enrollment right now her senior year, since she only needed two high school classes to graduate. I was not going to agree to the lazy guidance counselor and her plan at 17 to only attend High School Part-time with early release. Since, she was a senior it was her time to relax. luckily the school got a new counselor who was much more professional, even though they only started her out for part-time with a full time load. She agreed to the Dual Enrollment.

What this program has allowed is my daughter to realize I might have to study for a college course. Many of the top students come out of High School lacking study skills,even if they have taken Honors and AP classes. I have tried to tell my daughter that college is part of the bigger game of life. That she has to use the add/drop period at the beginning of the semester to make sure that a Professor’s teaching style is compatible with learning. I told her that I would Drop/add in a second if I encountered a Professor with a heavy foreign accent that I would not understand. She has looked over the names on the class sign up lists to try to avoid this. Then I have told her that I would find out which professors would have an exemption policy for finals, say If you had all A’s on the 4 test going into the Final, they would exempt you from the final.

She encountered in her first semester one class that she took that the Professor had them do Primarily group projects. Then the catch she the high school senior ended up being the group leader on these group projects and on each one she had at least one of the college boys not submit to her their part for exclusion. So she ended up doing the work in the middle of the night. In one case she bought the guy’s lame excuse and put his name on the project. This semester she told me she would drop any class that relied on group projects as they weren’t fair and cost her an A. ( One problem I saw is that the individuals of these groups all think they can split up the work and just e-mail each other their results. That is not a group project, you are suppose to physically get together and work on the project together. That is why you don’t assign those at a commuter school, but at a school where Freshman are required to live on campus.)

Then I try to counsel her on the most important factor, is that some people can teach and you can sit in the class and barely have take a note or anything. I have told her that their is no study trick or gaming trick of college to replace having one of those rare truly great teachers.

I Teach Writing

January 11th, 2013
9:01 pm

It’s interesting to me that the underlying assumption of the study (and most of these comments) seems to be that learning = data retention. All of the techniques being discussed focus on maximizing information recall.

While the ability to pull out relevant facts is certainly important to learning (and testing), it’s just as important to master conceptual-level understanding of disciplinary conventions in your subject. At the university level, at least, most of us aren’t interested (much) in regurgitation; we want you to be able to process and synthesize new information rapidly, seeing what conclusions may be drawn from complex and conflicting data.

Flashcards don’t help with that.

Progressive Humanist

January 11th, 2013
11:48 pm

@ Atlanta Native- You seem to have a misunderstanding of the different fields of psychology. Educational psychologists don’t deal with diseases or medications at all. They tend to specialize in statistics, cognition, or behaviorism, none of which address the issues you cited. You also seem to have a misunderstanding of correlation. A correlation is a number (r = ?). So what’s the correlation coefficient that suggests that psychologists are related to graduation rates or tests scores? Many variables correlate with graduation rates and tests scores, but correlations do not prove causation, and it’s certainly silly to suggest that psychologists have a causal effect on those variables. And if psychologists are not the ones who can measure learning and identify the most beneficial instructional techniques through research and scientific methodology, then who are the ones to make those determinations? You? Teachers with bachelor’s degrees? Principals? Parents whose only experience in education was the 12-16 years they spent sitting in a classroom looking out the window?

Mary Elizabeth

January 11th, 2013
11:59 pm

@ I Teach Writing, 9:01 pm

Actually, the read-study method of SQ3R helps the student to understand the progression of ideas, and their relativity to one another, when he/she reads many textbooks. The below is from my 8:39 am post:

“When the student is able to keep the entire SKELETAL FRAMEWORK, or outline, of the whole chapter in his mind, he will better be able to remember or recall the information and ideas within the chapter. He can see how headings and subheadings relate to one another in progression of ideas throughout the chapter.”

Understanding the relativity of, and progression of, ideas is a better way to remember what has been presented than is a simple drilling to oneself of facts to which one does not make correlations and associations. Practicing SQ3R can help the student “process and synthesize new information rapidly, seeing what conclusions may be drawn from complex and (even) conflicting (information and) data.”

Atlanta Mom

January 12th, 2013
8:58 am

Another comment—
Just so you know, that’s the way all group projects are done in college these days. The kids are simply too busy to get together.
Sounds like your child is going to be a five year graduate at best if he/she is only going to take classes with teachers with compatible teaching styles, teachers that are easily understood, no group projects. You know, sometimes you just have to suck it up.

Atlanta Mom

January 12th, 2013
8:59 am

Another comment–
As for dual enrollment–it was the best thing that ever happened to my kids. My last child would have been kicked out of HS had she not dual enrolled. She was sooooooooo bored.


January 12th, 2013
11:49 am

@ Progressive Humanist, Jan. 11, 11:48 pm. Cheers.

@ Another comment, Jan. 11, 6:51 pm, “Then I have told [my daughter] that I would find out which professors would have an exemption policy for finals, say If you had all A’s on the 4 test[s] going into the Final, they would exempt you from the final.”

It might be better not to suggest to your college-bound daughter how she can game the system, for the gaming might backfire. If she uses the add-drop period to professor-shop, she could find herself unable to add any courses near the end of this period, for nowadays courses are only allowed to run if they are at near-capacity from the beginning. Professors with foreign surnames very often have inherited those surnames and learned English quite well.

And if a student asked me the question you suggest about skipping the final, I would privately classify the student as someone who was going to be pressuring me for high grades whether or not she had earned them. Not a good initial impression for a professor to have of a student.


January 12th, 2013
11:59 am

P.S. @ Another comment. If your daughter is one of those college students who come to class and never take notes, then I can just about guarantee she will be a five-year graduate, if that. What will she have to study for the tests, which usually are on more than just the textbook assignments? No-one has total recall. Also, looking back over several weeks’ worth of notes, the student often can see themes and topics developed by the professor that aren’t apparent day by day.

In my own observations of several decades, the undergraduates who don’t take class-notes are the ones who get C’s or lower, usually lower. Graduate students always take notes.

I Teach Writing

January 12th, 2013
1:25 pm

@Mary Elizabeth — I’ve now done a bit of background reading on SQ3R. Here’s my take: seems like a smart, commonsensical approach to learning information packaged in textbooks. It moves beyond mere data retention to actual engagement with the material. But it has severe limitations as a method (though not an idea — more on that in a minute) when the student moves into classes the focus on primary texts / data or even secondary scholarly materials. Textbooks are tertiary texts: primary data has been examined by various scholars, all of whom have produced their own secondary texts founded upon the data; the textbook compiler comes along and skims from the top of this ongoing conversation ideas on which there’s general agreement (or at least some “greatest hits” ideas) and then emplots those ideas into a logical overview of the topic. The result is nourishing for young minds but still the equivalent of the half-digested fish coughed up by parent penguins.

Primary texts don’t have convenient headings or study questions. If one “surveys” in the SQ3R sense, then one almost invariably misses key information (which tends to be tucked in odd corners AND odd documents). Careful reading and copious annotation need to take the place of surveying at that point. Questioning & review remain critically important, but not in the pre-fab style of the SQ3R as constructed and not with the aim of reducing the complex idea to flashcard-able points. That’s the opposite of useful in these situations.

I said, though, that the fundamental idea behind the system is good. It asks students to engage actively, physically with texts that they read instead of remaining passive, sieve-like vessels who can only hope that chunks of useful knowledge are bigger than the holes in their sieves. Physical annotation of the text (in the form of conversation) is crucial to avoiding sieve-syndrome. Here’s an interesting take on the subject:


January 12th, 2013
2:18 pm

I would argue that notes on a professor’s lectures belong in this learning process somewhere, for surely his or her years of mastery of the field and continuing to keep updated on the latest research provide something that textbooks cannot.

Mary Elizabeth

January 12th, 2013
3:51 pm

@ Prof, 2:18 pm

You are certainly correct. I have incorporated my post on this blog at 11:03 am, 1/11/13, regarding the two-column notetaking process, into my newest post on my personal blog. Here is the first sentence of that lastest entry on my own blog: “An effective method for taking notes from a high school teacher’s lectures, or from the lectures of a college professor, is called the “Two-column Notetaking Method.”

The lectures of an erudite, scholarly professor, such as yourself, may be even more valuable than textbook reading for college students, as I recall from my college and graduate classes.


@ I Teach Writing, 1:25 pm

I do not disagree with your comments. My post to you last evening was not meant to contest your thoughts but to inform readers of this blog that SQ3R can be a valuable tool to teach, especially to high school students, how to understand and to store into memory relationships between ideas in the reading of their textbooks. The process can be as rudimentary or as advanced as one wishes to make it. When the process of SQ3R becomes no longer valuable as a study-read method for advanced students in college, then I am not advocating that it be utilized.

In terms of storing information into one’s long-term memory, I was taught that SQ3R contrasts with repeated recitations of facts (rote memory) such as occurs when teaching students the multiplication table in 3rd grade. To store knowledge into the student’s long-term memory, from his short-term memory, by repetition or rote memory takes much longer to accomplish than through understanding the framework of relationships between ideas (as SQ3R provides). Remember it took most of 3rd grade to learn the multiplication table by rote memory?

I have written often of a continuum of reading skills existing from the most basic skills (phonics, word attack) to the most advanced comprehension skills. Those comprehension skills do not stop with senior year in high school. As you have pointed out, those comprehension skills advance through post-graduate curriculum.

Again, when SQ3R stops becoming valuable as a learning tool for students on that continuum of reading comprehension skills, I am not pushing for its inclusion. However, it is valuable as a learning tool for helping many students learn how to start weighing ideas, and the relativity of importance of some ideas to other ideas. A useful analogy to what I am trying to communicate might be to point out that, in English grammar, complete and simple subjects/predicates are taught in 3rd grade and that they are, also, taught in English grammar in every grade through high school English courses, but the content in which subjects/predicates are taught is much more advanced and complex in 11th grade English courses than in the English content in 3rd grade. Likewise, reading comprehension skills will advance from primary school level through post-graduate level (and beyond), as you have described. We are not in disagreement.


January 12th, 2013
4:11 pm

I’m with those who think everyone is different. Studies like this warrant personal experiments.

For many, note taking distracts from listening and absorbing. I had a good memory and took very limited notes. That worked well for me. Where I found I did best studying was working with someone else and explaining things to them. When you have to be able to explain it, that drives it in more. But that’s not the most time efficient method.

Mary Elizabeth

January 12th, 2013
4:34 pm

P.S. to “I Teach Writing” and “Prof”

I Teach Writing, the depicted college textbooks in your link at 1:25 pm remind me of how my college textbooks looked when I had finished with them. :-) Those annotated texts are reflective of students’ practicing interaction with their textbooks, which we both endorse. In fact, I would not sell my reading textbooks from graduate school after the reading courses had been completed, because I had made those textbooks my “own” through my annotations in their margins and elsewhere, for deeper understanding of what the texts were communicating.

Regarding the students’ college lecture notes from their professors’ lectures, students should be made aware that they can also interact with their notes from their professors’ lectures in the same way that they do with their college textbooks, both by marking their notes, later, with meaningful written associations and other annotations, and by verbally (if silently) reacting to their notes on their college professors’ lectures. In order words, they should be active and engaged readers of their lecture notes taken from their professors’ lectures, just as they are with their textbooks. As I had taught my college-bound high school students, a college professors’ lecture notes will often later become a college textbook because many professors will later publish their lectures (and the research involved in building those lectures), or they will rely heavily upon their lecture notes in creating their subsequently published books.

Home-tutoring parent

January 14th, 2013
12:52 pm

@ Mary Elizabeth and Old Timer RE your Friday comments. Spot on!

I was unaware of Walter Pauk’s Cornell published note-taking and college study methods, but independently “reinvented the wheel”, during college.

Essentially, in my high school, tests were predominantly Multiple-Choice (including 2-choice True/False), fill-in-the-blank, and short free-response.

It was feasible to passively absorb lecture information sans note-taking, do some textbook reading, and “cram for exams”, in order to utilize cue-based-recognition processes.

College was a shock. I’d never seen a “Blue Book”. Tests that had 3-5 questions and required 150-300-word essay answers were, in a word, intimidating. If the subject interested me, I could cobble together decent responses, in a hit-or-miss fashion. If a subject did not pique my interest, my essays were, sad. I only passed courses because most of my classmates’ essays were even sadder.

My profs conveyed information that differed greatly from courses’ designated textbooks’, their test questions were based on their lectures, and questions changed every year, so perusing and momorizing answers to prior years’ tests was ineffective.

Essentially, I learned to write comprehensive notes, ala the Cornell method. Not knowing shorthand, and not being a fast writer, I learned to jot down keywords and abbreviated partial sentences. In many classes I often did not try to mentally absorb information during lectures, I merely transcribed it.

I learned to pick up cues, such as profs’ ending a “ramble” by pausing to look at their notes. I left a several-line space between the finishing comments, and the new ones, making sure to record the latter.

ASAP after lectures–often immediately after they concluded (not feasible in HS)–I sat down, looked at my notes, “mentally replayed” the profs’ statements, and added info I hadn’t previously written down.

In the evening, I reorganized (rewrote) my day’s notes, in a header/subhead format. The reexamination and rewriting process activated learning pathways.

In instances where my notes led to questions, I wrote them down and posed them to profs, after the next lecture, or if the profs had to run off, during office hour visits. (Profs disdain post-exam “grade-grubbing”, but are amenable to exam-question re-scoring if a student can show that he or she made a cogent argument that the test-grading grad-student TA did not “get”, but the prof appreciates. Most profs are happy to receive subject-interested students who ask well-informed questions, which is to say students who start making periodic visits early in the semester.)

I reviewed my week’s notes every weekend, looking at each heading or subheading line, and mentally elaborating the statements I had written that followed, then I checked my mind’s statements against what I had written.

Before finals, which were administered the week after classes ended, I reviewed my notes again, particularly focusing on several-weeks-earlier lectures, to refresh myself, and rehearse what I would say in the exams. The night before a final exam, I retired at 11 PM and got a good night’s sleep.

This regimen would be “overkill” for not-extended-essay tests, as the time-and-effort “margin of ‘investment’ return would be too small, but for tests in which organized, elaborate arguments and supporting statements were required, the preceding study routine converted passing “Bs” and “Cs” into “A’s”. Moreover, the knowledge I acquired was retained long-term.

To wit, “C’s” in the pre-grade-inflation era implied that no remediation was necessary. They connoted some subject knowledge, with large “gaps” and misapprehensions. “B’s” connoted “good” subject knowledge, but some still-significant confusion. “A-’s” represented very strong subject comprehension. Full “A’s” connoted extraordinary comprehension, very enjoyable student-prof office-hour visits, and sometimes profs’ offering student-research opportunities, which is to say, mentoring.

Essentially, students were being selectively categorized into: A. Find another major (or “easier” college), this one is not for you, B. You can get through here, and find a fine job after college, C. You have graduate/professional degree potential, D. You may even have college-teaching potential, at some level, E. You show unusually strong scholarly attributes and at this stage demonstrate signs of future research-university-faculty qualification

In the last instance, the student completes his or her major-requirement courses early, takes some graduate courses in “senior” year; he/she spends long hours in the main library stacks, and satellite departmental libraries digging up and perusing primary research papers and monographs written for the academic community, the student stocks up on index cards for library study, writing authors’ names, titles, dates and publisher names (cities too for book references) at the top, then jotting notes (incl page numbers of book-source material) to compose “A+”-grade term papers, and even to perhaps gain veritable subject expertise. The student hooks up with a prof to be his or her research assistant for a year or more; the prof will not just write pro forma rec letters, but personally contact colleagues to promote the student’s candidacy, in the 1, or 2, or 3 programs the student selects as his or her “top choice(s)” for grad school.

E-category undergraduate students learn that large “impersonal” universities are comprised of small, personable departmental and research-group communities, that they are very welcome to join, if they demonstrate requisite intellectual talent, field interest and outstanding commitment in their studies.

Home-tutoring parent

January 14th, 2013
3:24 pm

A few “take-home” lessons from Dunlosky et al’s review of many education research reports are worth mulling over. (These are my personal THL’s, YMMV.)

Self-testing is good. This can range from at-home flash-card usage to using W. Pauk’s two-column note-taking, with self-written questions being answered, then checked by looking at one’s note passages.

These also represent practice testing, which Dunlosky et al endorse, specifically if students receive error-correction from the teacher/tester to overcome initial misconceptions, for better performance on re-testing.

Distributed learning, i.e. revisiting material, is useful. Interleaving related topics is helpful. For example, college students were better able to later remember volume formulas for four different geometric solid types if a tutorial was given covering all the types, and then a formula question was given for each type, than if four separate tutorials and question sets were given, one for each type.

Pauk’s Cornell lecture-note regimen requires re-reading, but it involves an active, engaged notes-revision, f/b question and answer process. So Dunlosky et al. endorse this. Simple during-lecture note-taking, and passive reading, particularly if done just prior to exams, is not a great idea. In the latter instance, students can’t even comprehend their own writings.

Re-reading texts does not appear to be useful. I would note that I found it necessary re-read several of Dunlosky et al.’s passages. More than half the students at Washington University in St. Louis re-read texts. Some things warrant multiple perusals. For example, in writing a reference/citation class paper, it is usually good practice to double-check your sources.

The authors do not condemn highlighting. They admit it is popular, and not likely to go away. So they recommend that teachers provide training in intelligent, selective highlighting.

Highlighting’s main criticism is students’ using it indiscriminantly. Researchers found test-score boosts for experiments’ participants who had received experts’ selectively-highlighted material, relative to participants who received the exact same material to study, but in all-plain-text.

One experiment showed highest scores for Group A, self-highlighters, relative to two control groups that were not allowed to mark up their study materials: Control group B read plain-text passages; Control group C studied Group A’s previously marked up passages. (It’s conceivable Group C was informed that other students had done their study-materials’ highlighting, and they chose to ignore their peers’ markups as non-authoritative.)

I’ve used highlighting. It’s very useful in compiling research reports, for example to designate other authors’ articles’ important points that are to be later revisited for quotation, paraphrasing or summarizing. For textbooks, marking is useful if you know how to identify important material, and plan to revisit it in the future. Highlighting may provide a small, but important, concentration boost, to slow down one’s reading, and carefully mark self-selected passages.

It might be best to train intelligent highlighting before college, however this would be problematic for public schools in which several children must use the same books. In private schools, training is feasible, but parents must absorb the costs of buying one-user books, or reduced resale/sell-back values.

I personally don’t buy used books that other people have highlighted, unless the prior owners have posted interesting and enlightening margin notes. ;-)