Do Study Strategy Interventions Work?
By: Yana Weinstein
As many of you know, we’ve been busy creating materials to teach students how to study effectively: there are presentations that teachers can show in class, posters that can be hung around the classroom, bookmarks and stickers to remind students to use the strategies, as well as blog posts and videos that students can access on their own time. All in all, we have built something that could serve as a multi-faceted intervention to teach students how to use effective study strategies. But do such interventions actually work?
To find out, I looked for meta-analyses. These are not individual studies, but summaries of many studies that were all designed to address a similar question. The most recent meta-analysis I found was from two years ago (1), and included 95 interventions from studies published between 2000 and 2012. The majority of the interventions addressed some combination of cognitive strategies (rehearsal, elaboration, and organization) and metacognitive strategies (planning, monitoring, and evaluation). Only intervention studies that included an experimental design with a control group were included in the meta-analysis, which is important in order to exclude possible effects of natural improvement. Importantly, the outcome examined in each study was academic achievement, as opposed to subjective feelings of improvement.
The Good News
The overall meta-analysis found that study strategy interventions were moderately successful in improving academic performance relative to control groups that did not engage in the intervention. Importantly, these benefits were found regardless of student characteristics: low-ability students were able to benefit just as much as high-ability students. This finding is encouraging, particularly because it contradicts a previous meta-analysis that found no benefits of interventions to low-ability students (2). This suggests that over time, study strategy interventions have improved to accommodate a more diverse population of students.
Another piece of good news is that the most effective interventions were those that included retrieval practice exercises. For example, one successful reading intervention involved having children play games with flashcards to learn new vocabulary (3).
The Bad News
The interventions that appeared to be most effective may have been somewhat biased, because the outcome measure was designed by the same researchers that implemented the intervention (the dreaded phrase “teaching to the test” comes to mind). But interventions with independent outcome measures were also effective – just somewhat less so. The authors recommend that future intervention studies include standardized tests to measure academic achievement.
Characteristics of Effective Study Strategy Interventions
In a follow-up meta-analysis (4), the same authors dug deeper into the interventions in order to identify specific factors that determined whether an intervention was successful. Here are a few highlights:
- Interventions delivered by the researchers themselves were more effective than those delivered by teachers.
- Longer interventions (e.g., 20 weeks) were no more effective than shorter interventions (e.g., 10 weeks) – if anything, there was a small effect in the opposite direction.
- The number of sessions per week dedicated to the intervention did not matter, but a slight advantage was found for interventions that took up more class time.
- Having students work collaboratively produced no benefits, and in fact somewhat reduced the effectiveness of the interventions.
An Unanswered Question
One problem with this meta-analysis is that multiple strategies were lumped together. For example, the “elaboration” category included effective strategies (e.g., elaborative interrogation), but also less effective strategies (e.g., summarizing). Part of the problem is that many of the interventions were designed before the field of cognitive psychology had crystalized on just a few key learning strategies that are known to be effective across a wide variety of learning situations. What would happen if an intervention was based entirely on strategies that are known to be most effective? We hope to find out soon!
(1) Donker, A. S., de Boer, H., Kostons, D., Dignath-van Ewijk, C. C., & van der Werf, M. P. C. (2014). Effectiveness of learning strategy instruction on academic performance: A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 11, 1–26.
(2) Hattie, J., Biggs, J., & Purdie, N. (1996). Effects of learning skills interventions on student learning: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 66, 99–136.
(3) Bruce, M. E., & Robinson, G. L. (2001). The Clever Kid’s Reading Program: Metacognition and Reciprocal Teaching. Paper presented at the Annual European Conference on Reading, Dublin.
(4) de Boer, H., Donker, A. S., & van der Werf, M. P. (2014). Effects of the attributes of educational interventions on students’ academic performance: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 84, 509-545.