The Scientific Way to Study

By: Lucas Wittenburg ('24)



There are many types of studying habits. Here are some of the good and bad ways to study.

Whether it's 11:00 PM the night before the big test or a month in advance, students seem to always be studying. Some students use color-coded notes, some use flashcards, and some students relearn the course the night before from someone on Youtube. There are numerous best and worse ways to study, yet, school usually doesn’t teach students how to learn. So, what is the best way to study, and what do so many teachers and students get wrong?


For anyone looking for a quick answer, here are the most and least effective strategies. It's best to avoid highlighting/underlining and rereading. The most reliable scientifically proven study methods are distributed practice and testing on the material to maximize learning. However, many other study strategies like generating explanations or interleaving practice are still useful. That's why it's a good idea for someone to choose methods they resonate with.


This article will cover why these are the best and worst ways to learn explicit knowledge. That means memory that someone can consciously bring to mind and describe verbally. Implicit knowledge is skill learning, or "muscle memory," like biking or swinging a golf club.

The Worst Ways:

Highlighting/Underlining: In a study conducted by Robert Fowler and Anne Barker, undergraduate students were asked to study scientific articles about boredom and city life. Group A read the article without highlighting it, Group B read the paper while highlighting, and Group C read an already highlighted article. Students who highlighted more did worse than students who highlighted less.


Another study conducted by Sarah Peterson found that students who used underlining performed worse on inference-based testing (testing where the student makes assumptions based on given information). Highlighting caused them to overlook connections and ideas for factual data. This means that highlighting/underlining can be useful for emphasis but shouldn't be relied on as a primary study technique.


Rereading: Jeffrey Karpicke and his colleagues Andrew Butler and Henry Roediger surveyed 177 undergraduate students. Rereading was the most common study strategy among them. However, a study conducted by Ernst Rothkopf found a lack of evidence for rereading. He tested different groups' ability to fill in missing words in a passage. The group that reread the text once did better on fill-in-the-blank questions by about 10%. Although there is a slight advantage to rereading once, it's only been shown to work for factual information. There is a lack of evidence supporting that rereading improves the understanding of inference-based questions.


Additionally, students who reread too much get the impression they've completely understood the material. Being able to remember reading something is much easier than being able to recall something for an assessment. In summary, rereading can be useful but also shouldn't be relied on.


Another common misconception about learning is the idea of individual learning styles. A learning style is the way of learning that best fits a student. These can range from auditory learning to hands-on learning. There's significant controversy over learning styles, as most of the ones identified are personal and inconsistent. Plus, when learning styles are measured, they’re easily biased. Students will choose the learning styles they prefer, not ones they find effective. In other words, a student may want to learn from a study group, but that doesn't mean they'll learn better from one.


The Best Ways:

Distributed practice: Distributed practice means spreading out studying over time with breaks in between. A study conducted by Harry Bahrick compared how well students could learn the translations of Spanish words. Group A had all 6 sessions on the same day. Group B had each session a day apart, and Group C had each session a month apart. 30 days after they completed their sessions, each group was tested. Group A got about 68 percent right. Group B got about 86 percent right, and Group C got 95 percent right. This evidence suggests that students are better off studying all their classes for a few minutes every day than cramming for a class the night before. This may be due to the study phase retrieval theory or contextual variability. But regardless of how it works, distributed practice is a highly effective tool to maximize learning.


Mr. Peter Kuzma, a counselor at SBHS, agreed, stating that “spacing out assignments and studying is a key to success and letting others see your true potential."


Practice testing: Consistent testing is where a student tests themselves to better understand the topic. The strategy is to take a test every time one wants to review a subject or study recently learned material. Several studies have shown that students tested on a subject repeatedly understood it more than students who reviewed the topic. Plus, practice tests can relieve test anxiety and improve mental stamina. Consistent testing is proven to be the most effective method of study.


Another proven strategy for effective learning is using visual information. People remember visual information (pictures, videos, etc.) much better than verbal information. Drilling facts or concepts verbally has been proven to be inefficient. In fact, visual information seen a week ago is as recallable as verbal information seen the same day. This can be incorporated into studying through flashcards with pictures or the method of loci, a memory technique where you picture a familiar space/building and fill the rooms of that space with striking visual scenes that represent a list or reminder.


But regardless of what study strategy you choose, there are a few key ingredients to getting that A grade. For one, it's essential to maintain sleep. Research has found that sleep is the best GPA predictor among college students. It's also crucial to keep a balanced work schedule and lower stress because although short-term stress can strengthen memory, long-term stress impairs it. In fact, the dendrites of hippocampal neurons (part of the brain with a significant role in memory) can shrivel and retract after chronic exposure to stress hormones.


"Make sure there is a balance between work and social time. Being a dedicated student is always a great asset, but not having the time to decompress and relax can cause burnout," Mr. Kuzma advised.


Beliefs can be much more important than ability when it comes to learning a subject, meaning students should choose to learn material they're passionate about. Overall, how effectively someone learns is up to them and their choices, but a few tips never hurt anyone. Hopefully, this article has made it a bit easier to study when the next test rolls around.

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