Despite research describing new and effective study techniques, students are either unaware of them, or prefer to stick to their tried-and-true homework habits. Many of these classic techniques can be made more effective by avoiding some common pitfalls and making a few tweaks.

We’ll highlight how and when each of these five study strategies will be most effective based on a research review from Washington University published earlier this year. To read the full study, click here and download the PDF.


Of the five strategies described here, rereading is by far the most used by students. 78% of students surveyed say they reread to better understand a text. Is it effective?  The answer is yes and no. It can help with more immediate retention of material (say, for a test) and new facts can be learned that may have been overlooked during the first read. But, as a strategy, rereading is a rather passive one.

Do This!  To get more from rereading, it’s best to try to recall the contents of the passage before rereading. This retrieval practice gives the reader insight into what they already know and what they need to brush up more on and gives better focus to the rereading.

Avoid That!  Don’t be lulled into the false sense of understanding a passage just because it grows more familiar with rereading. Recognizing concepts is not the same as remembering and using them.

Underlining/Highlighting (Marking):

Many students use underlining and highlighting (also called marking) because it’s so easy. It helps the student by making them decide what’s most important in the text and to find it again later. Ample research exists to support that marking helps students do better on many types of tests and also improves recall assuming students are underlining or highlighting effectively.

Do This!  One great strategy that improves the effectiveness of marking is to withhold any underlining or highlighting until reading the material through to understand which are the most important points. By doing so, the student is taking a more active role in extracting the salient information.

Avoid That!  Try not to mark too little (which provides little benefit) or too much (which can become mindless and difficult to review). Mostly, refrain from marking noncritical information.

2017 Holiday Read/Watch/Listen List


Taking notes benefits a student’s learning in two ways. It helps them encode the information by actively identifying the key points and recognizing them later when reviewing the notes. Summarizing, paraphrasing, organizing, and outlining are all good note-taking strategies. These all appear to outperform verbatim note-taking. Research shows that taking notes on a computer may be less effective than longhand notes.Typing is faster, so more notes can be taken, but they tend to be word for word. In contrast, taking notes by hand produces fewer words, but forces one to focus on the critical ideas.

Do This!  Engage in generative notetaking where one synthesizes the material as they take notes. And be sure to review the notes!  All note-taking strategies are much more effective when the notes are reviewed.

Avoid That! Steer clear of verbatim notes and don’t forget to review.


Creating a hierarchical organization of material to be learned – or outlining – is both popular and effective. That’s why most word processing programs include an option to display an outline of a document.

There are two methods of outlining and both support better learning: learner-generated and instructor-generated outlines. Those created by the instructor give structure to the material and can help a student to organize their understanding within a framework of the important points. When a student creates their own outline, they are cementing the important elements as they learn the material.

Do This! Outlines created by students after exposure to the material better capture the main ideas. Pay attention to the structure of the text by noting the table of contents and headings. This will facilitate understanding the organization and likely improve understanding and retention.

Avoid That!  Outlining as you read without paying attention to the structure of the text or to an instructor’s outline is a missed opportunity.

Using Flash Cards:

Self-testing using flashcards is extremely helpful for remembering specific, detailed information. The self-testing aspect is what makes them useful. Simply reading the flashcards is not as helpful – recall is important to flashcard review. Also useful is repeated self-testing. When students increased testing themselves with a set of flashcards from one to four times, they improved their recall two days later from 31% to 71%.

Do This!  Review flashcards multiple times. Only drop a card if the information was remembered correctly three times.

Avoid That! Simply reading flashcards helps little. It’s also unhelpful to review flashcards just once.

How iLs Helps:

All of these five study techniques are “top-down” strategies. That is, they start at the top of the Learning Pyramid. Learners who have a weaker foundation for learning can benefit greatly by adding an iLs Focus Program to improve body and brain organization and strengthen neural pathways. After a Focus Program, all of these top-down strategies will be far more effective.

Sleep is important! Be sure to give your brain time to process all of the new items you’re learning with these strategies. The Dreampad has been shown to help you fall asleep faster and reduce the number of times you wake up in the night.

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