GUEST POST: What does it take for students to exchange bad study habits for good?

GUEST POST: What does it take for students to exchange bad study habits for good?

By Rich James


Rich James is a Human Resources Program Coordinator, for Columbus State Community College, who has specialized in faculty development and workplace learning. He, along with Psychology faculty Ron Elizaga and Mary Lewis, designed, piloted and studied an intervention to help students practice evidence-based study strategies. A resource page for the project is at Rich’s twitter handle is @rjames01.

This is the story of what we tried and learned from our pilot “Unlocking the Learning Code” project. We attempted a distributed approach to teaching study skills and conducted pre- and post-intervention surveys with the students. While we haven’t (yet!) seen tremendous results, along the way we’ve gained insights and ideas that may help students learn and adopt the “Six Strategies for Effective Learning” advocated by the Learning Scientists. We welcome readers’ ideas and feedback, particularly those at community colleges.

Our Assumptions and Starting Place

The disconnect between cognitive science and educational practice is old news to readers of this blog, but we recognized that consideration of this research was mostly absent from the “completion agenda” community colleges. Here the focus is on streamlining academic pathways and student support services to improve retention and graduation rates (For a sampling, visit the student Persistence, Completion and Transfer publication page of the Community College Research Center). Studies have shown that comprehensive and integrated study skills instruction can significantly improve these outcomes (1). The impact of pathway strategies will be limited if students lack fundamental learning skills.

But what skills do we need to teach? We believe our students do not know how to study well because they have poor conceptions about how we learn. We surveyed nearly 400 students who, given a list of 22 study behaviors, indicated those they do regularly and most often (2). Figure 1 sorts responses by behaviors consistent with the Six Strategies or common ineffective practices. These distributions are consistent with those found in other studies (see Dan Willingham's blog post).

Figure 1. Frequency chart for study behaviors.

Figure 1. Frequency chart for study behaviors.

We also asked questions with open-ended responses that we coded for effective and ineffective studying, study resources, beliefs, and attitudes (see Figure 2). When unprompted, far fewer students volunteered evidence of effective practice, suggesting such practices are not part of what students naturally think about or do when studying (3).

Figure 2. Non-cued indication of the six principles from open-ended responses.

Figure 2. Non-cued indication of the six principles from open-ended responses.

Moreover, as illustrated by this frequency-weighted word cloud of most common words and phrases (Figure 3), students lean heavily toward re-reading of material and notes. This is consistent with the metacognitive bias most of us have: that the sense of fluency that comes from repetition and exposure feels like the best way to learn (4).

Figure 3. Frequency-weighted word cloud of most common words and phrases.

Figure 3. Frequency-weighted word cloud of most common words and phrases.

Why is this the case? All schools claim to be developing “lifelong learners”, yet most students reach college with poor habits and assumptions. How we teach study skills may matter as much as what we teach. Typically, colleges take an “inoculation” approach: a unit or two in a first-year experience course or haphazard, non-required workshops offered by an academic skills center. It was not surprising – yet still disappointing – that 80% of our students said they have not been influenced to change their study habits with none saying they were influenced by our first-year experience course. Building a better study skills mousetrap is a necessary but, as our experience and research demonstrates, difficult goal.

One reason for why this goal is so difficult to achieve is that many faculty do not have a better theory of learning and are equally unaware of cognitive principles. We quizzed faculty on common misperceptions and concepts related to the Six Strategies. A significant majority of the faculty chose an incorrect response on five of the nine knowledge questions. More interesting is why: 65% to 85% said “it feels right” or “my experience tells me.” The same was true when the majority answered correctly. Few said “I know the relevant research.”

We are all susceptible to the fluency illusion and poor metacognition (see Ulrich Boser's article about this). It’s disappointing, however, despite years teaching and studying, that myths and bad habits persist. Without an evidence-based foundation, faculty urge students to “study more” or “harder,” without diagnosing what’s not working well (5), and students misattribute success or failure to luck or innate aptitude instead of how they studied. The matrix below visualizes this dynamic (Figure 4). We could substitute “instruction” for “studying” to model metacognition for teaching.

Figure 4. Study practice by theory of learning matrix.

Figure 4. Study practice by theory of learning matrix.

Lessons Learning from the Unlocking the Learning Code project

We hypothesized that switching from an “inoculation” to a distributed model for teaching study skills was more likely to change behavior and improve learning. We were inspired by the behavioral science concept of “nudges:” designing choices and providing reminders that nudge people to make better choices. An example includes texting students during their senior year of high school to nudge them to complete applications for college and financial and, ultimately, to enroll. Could we influence study behaviors the same way?

Our pilot intervention

We recruited 14 faculty to invite their students to opt in to receiving study tips via texts. We used the Remind messaging service to schedule and automatically send 140-character tips every three to four days. (Eg: “After class or reading a chapter, don’t just summarize what you learned, ask yourself questions about it.”) Each message linked to a web page about the underlying principle where we embedded the Learning Scientists’ videos, brief explanations in a Q&A format and links to supplemental reading. We encouraged faculty to discuss the principles in class to the extent they felt comfortable. We provided them with slides, flyers and bookmarks from the Learning Scientists. What were the results?

With the caveat that our post- sample was small, the chart below (Figure 5) shows the percentage change in responses to the survey question on study behaviors. It hints at modest reduction in bad habits but not an increase in effective ones. It also reflects our challenges in implementing the project and the stickiness of ingrained habits.

Figure 5. Difference in study behavior.

Figure 5. Difference in study behavior.

Despite the seductive appeal and ease of text nudges, messages alone were not enough. Of the 400 students invited, no more than 100 followed through to register at a given time. Web traffic stats show far fewer clicked through to the web site. In the post- survey, only 8% of students said they “always” looked at texts and 25% said “sometimes.” We asked them, via free recall, to name and describe the principles. Only 10% could both name (close approximation) and define the principles. One reported that texts, flyers and web site were “very helpful” yet described a principle as “Look over notes - reread go back.”

Why did this happen when 96% reported that the strategies were discussed in class? A shortcoming of the project was the lack of preparation time for faculty to learn and integrate the Six Strategies into their teaching. Those entering the project with knowledge of the Six Strategies could make explicit connections to course work while others made only one or a few mentions. Creating time and space for faculty to study and work together to identify course-specific applications could turn text messages into reminders rather than micro lessons (6).

Anecdotally, faculty reported that if students perceived the study tips as “nice to know,” rather than “need to know,“ they would tune them out, as evidenced by discarded flyers at the end of class. Students may have “advice fatigue” from the steady stream of (sometimes ineffective) advice they have received throughout their schooling. And first-generation college students often feel inundated by unfamiliar college-process information. The texts and flyers may become part of that torrent.

Telling Is Not Enough: Correcting and Building on Prior Knowledge

Even if we had implemented our project thoroughly, we would still have to overcome the hurdle of metacognitive bias. In a recent set of studies (7), while students learned better in interleaved conditions they still rated blocked study as more effective, even after being presented with their own contrary test performance. Why?

 The authors speculate that, on top of a lifetime of academic experience in which content is blocked in textbooks and curricula, students tend to fall for the “fluency illusion”: what feels easily learned will be easily remembered. This leads to the over-reliance on blocked study and re-reading because the content is readily at hand and learners do not have to expend effort to discriminate, recall, or question. They then use their folk beliefs about learning to rationalize away the evidence that they performed better in the interleaved condition. Breaking these illusions requires the combination of experiencing success with an effective practice AND acquiring a learning theory that explains the success.

In the book How Learning Works (8), the authors explain how prior knowledge can help or hinder understanding. This is due to how our minds use schema – a network of facts and concepts about a subject – and scripts – the expected routines for how common actions occur, as shortcuts for understanding new information and experiences (9). A correct and relevant network of facts facilitates learning. An absent or incorrect network impedes it. The most pernicious form of incorrect prior knowledge is misconception:

models or theories that are deeply embedded in students’ thinking … including naïve theories about physics … folk psychology myths … [They] are difficult to refute for a number of reasons. First, many of them have been reinforced over time and across multiple contexts. Moreover, because they often include accurate—as well inaccurate – elements, students may not recognize their flaws … Research has shown that deeply held misconceptions often persist despite direct instructional interventions. (Ambrose et al., How Learning Works)

This is as true of students’ understanding of learning as it is of course subjects. Here are some ideas for overcoming misconceptions about learning:

1) Start with students’ existing schema and scripts: We learned that our students tend to think of studying in terms of routines involving course notes, course texts, flash cards, computers, study groups, etc. Other research suggests these surface features and routines comprise students’ mental models for studying (5). We may engage students more successfully using their “own language.” For instance, a guide to “getting the most out of your course notes” may garner more attention than a primer on, say, interleaving. Students think studying means to review notes. This has a grain of truth. How they create and use their notes, however, is an opportunity to introduce accurate ideas about learning.

2) A promising method for overcoming misconceptions is refutational lecture and texts (10). Several studies have shown that misconceptions can be overcome through refutation (eg. “many think X but the science contradicts this”), rather than neutral presentation (eg. “here is the science”). A powerful way to implement this could be preparing faculty to lead demonstration exercises. A starter resource for this is Learning and Memory Strategy Demonstrations for the Psychology Classroom (11). This guide provides over a dozen easily adaptable demonstrations.

3) Our final objective is to create a college environment where evidence-based study advice is consistently conveyed across all areas of instruction and academic support. While consistent faculty advice is most influential, reinforcement from advisors, tutors, librarians and others creates a unified message for how effective learning occurs and that we expect students to master these lifelong skills.

What do you think of our approach and our ideas? Have you tried to bring study skills education to scale at your institution? What strategies have you found to be effective? Please share your ideas in comments and directly with us so we can all help our students, and ourselves, learn effectively.


(1) Tuckman, B. W., & Kennedy, G. J. (2011). Teaching Learning Strategies to Increase Success of First-Term College Students. The Journal of Experimental Education, 79(4), 478-504. doi:10.1080/00220973.2010.512318

(2) Ours was a homegrown instrument and one we expect to revise and improve. For instance, use of flash cards is not necessarily indicative of retrieval practice. To date, we have not found an existing one that directly assesses behaviors associated with the Six Strategies. It is important to have a reliable and valid instrument to not only measure the effect of study skill interventions but also help us understand when study skills or other factors are barriers to academic progress. Even when imperfect, such an instrument creates a starting place for discussion with a student.

(3) Hora, M. T., & Oleson, A. K. (2015). Peering inside the black box of undergraduate study habits: The centrality of self-regulated learning in a digitized world (WCER Working Paper No. 2015-3). Retrieved July 30, 2017, from University of Wisconsin–Madison, Wisconsin Center for Education Research website: 

(4) Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-Regulated Learning: Beliefs, Techniques, and Illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 417-444. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143823

(5) Chew, S.L., (2008) Study more! Study harder! Students’ and teachers’ faulty beliefs about how people learn. In S. A. Meyers & J. R. Stowell (Eds.), Essays from e-xcellence in teaching (Vol. 7, pp. 9-13). Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology Web site:

(6) We suspect that in-class instruction is likely the key to success and where we will focus future efforts.  

(7) Yan, V. X., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2016). On the difficulty of mending metacognitive illusions: A priori theories, fluency effects, and misattributions of the interleaving benefit. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(7), 918-933. doi:10.1037/xge0000177

(8) Ambrose, S. A., Lovett, M., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

(9) Willingham, D. T. (2014). Cognition: The thinking animal (3rd ed.). Pearson.

(10) Kowalski, P., & Taylor, A. K. (2009). The Effect of Refuting Misconceptions in the Introductory Psychology Class. Teaching of Psychology, 36(3), 153-159. doi:10.1080/00986280902959986

(11) McCabe, J. A. (2014). Learning and Memory Strategy Demonstrations for the Psychology Classroom. Retrieved July 30, 2017, from

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