How to Tell if Your "Science-backed" Study Tips are Actually Supported by Science

How to Tell if Your "Science-backed" Study Tips are Actually Supported by Science

By: Yana Weinstein

A couple of weeks ago, we came out with a set of 5 study tips for students, which were then picked up by TES and the new TES-USA. Many teachers – and hopefully some students! – read them and told us that they found them to be useful. Presumably, they also believed that these tips were truly science-based – at least, no-one seemed to raise the concern that they might be bogus! And yet, this is an important thing to consider: How do you know if the science-backed study tips you find on the Internet are really backed by science?

Shortly after posting the tips, I tweeted out a hastily scribbled set of rules for determining whether study tips are legit. Of course, these are not exhaustive, but they’re a good starting point for thinking critically about educational advice. In this post, I unpack the rules and hope to start a dialogue about what other cues you look for to determine the legitimacy of science communication in general.

The following are promising signs of science-backed study tips:

1)   There are very few tips.

 There are at least two reasons why a good list of study tips will only include a handful of tips. First of all, we know that people have a limited attention span and quickly stop reading/paying attention when information overload hits, so a good learning scientist would not want to overwhelm the reader with 20+ tips. Second, based on the science of learning, there really aren’t all that many specific recommendations we can make. Instead, we’re able to make a small number of very general recommendations for things that work in most circumstances – such as spacing and active learning. So, you should be wary of long lists of study tips.

2)   There is no mention of “how your brain learns”; especially terms such as “brain-based learning” and “brain-friendly learning”.

This one is simple: learning scientists tend to recognize that all academic learning takes place in, err, the brain; so tautological terms like “brain-based learning” are just funny to us.

3) The tips are written by actual scientists. In fact, that should say learning scientists.

This might be a controversial one – and I’m definitely not trying to say that teachers or journalists can’t effectively communicate about learning! It’s just that if the study tips are written by the people who actually researched them, it’s more likely that when they simplified the science, they picked the important points to focus on.

CAVEAT: A perfectly legit set of tips written by a learning scientist could get corrupted by the media. So if you know and trust the author, you may be more lenient on specific language, such as points 2 and 4 in this list.

4) The tips are not said to be “proven to work”, or even worse, “proven by science”.

The word “proven” is taboo in science. We don’t prove anything; we can only disprove, or find evidence consistent with an idea. Here is an excellent very short piece about this, which I recommend to all consumers of science.

5) You’re not told to “figure out whether you learn with pictures”, or any kind of style.

As I’m sure you’ve heard, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that matching learning strategies to preferred styles actually increases learning. So while you’re welcome to seek out the strategies that you enjoy, such as drawing what you know, if you see a questionnaire that purports to identify your “learning style”, run the other way.

6) They don’t contain platitudes like “everybody learns differently”.

I admit, this may be a personal pet peeve of mine, but I just can’t stand statements that are both totally true and totally false, to the point where they have no meaning. Is every individual unique? Sure. But do we all process and store information in the same way, and is it helpful to know how to use these processes most efficiently? I say yes. If you disagree, please provide evidence to the contrary.

7) You can find links to actual scientific studies that support the tips.

Although there’s a clear distinction between blog posts/journalism and academic writing, a good popular piece will include references or links to published papers. Beware of links to “evidence” which turns out to be other journalistic pieces that take you on an endless search for the original source (which then turns out to be an unpublished study done in 1972 on 8 boys).

Now, why don’t you try the following exercise: Google “Study Tips”, and see if the top 3 hits pass muster. And if you like, please feel free to post your analysis of a study tips page in the comments. This could also make a good student assignment!