Do Students Utilize Effective Learning Strategies?

Do Students Utilize Effective Learning Strategies?

By Megan Sumeracki

For decades, and even centuries, cognitive psychologists have been studying the best ways to learn. For those who are frequent readers of our blog, I promise I won’t go on and on about the strategies and their evidence base… I know you’ve heard this all before. (But, for newer readers, you may want to check out this blog for an introduction.)

Instead, I'm going to write about students' utilization of the strategies, or rather the lack thereof. Anecdotally, my students often tell me that very few teachers have talked to them about how to effectively study independently. (Yana, Cindy, and Carolina have reported having similar conversations with students.) By the time they get to my upper-level classes, my students are usually astounded when I show them effective ways to study on their own, and are also quite surprised that psychological research could be so useful outside of the realm of mental health.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

My anecdotes with my students are not unique. Many students are unaware of the best ways to study, and instead rely on their own intuition about what works (see this blog to read about the problem with using intuition). We can't just rely on anecdotes to determine the state of affairs, however. We know students don't utilize effective study strategies as often as ineffective ones because of systematic studies investigating college students' use of various study strategies.

The short version of the story is: most students repeatedly read their course materials, and if they do utilize retrieval practice, it is because they want to see what they learned during studying (and not for studying itself). Most students do not study the way they do because a teacher told them what to do.

For those who want to get into some of the details, here are some statistics. In 2007, Kornell and Bjork (1) found that only 20% of college students report studying the way they do because a teacher (or teachers) taught them to study that way. Further, 60% of students stated that they repeatedly read information from their course materials that they have highlighted or underlined. Most students (68%) who quiz themselves are using the quiz as an assessment; they want to figure out how well they've learned information while they are studying. Only 18% of the college students in their study reported that they use quizzes because they learn more by taking a quiz than they do when they reread. In 2009, Karpicke, Butler, and Roediger (2) found very similar results with a different population of college students. In their sample, 84% of students reported rereading their notes or textbook to study, and 55% of students listed rereading as their number one study strategy! They also found that when students did indicate they practiced retrieval, it was again mostly to see what they had learned while studying (as opposed to being considered studying in itself). In 2012, Hartwig and Dunlosky (3) replicated these findings with yet another sample of college students. This time, 36% of students reported studying the way they do because a teacher (or teachers) told them to. In their sample, 64% of students stated they repeatedly read information they had highlighted from course materials. Of those who quiz themselves, 54% did so as an assessment and not for learning. Twenty-seven percent indicated they used quizzes as a means of learning. These surveys were all done with college students; however, I have conducted a small-scale study with high school students in a college readiness program (4). While the sample was too small to make sweeping claims, the data line up very closely with the data reported in these papers.

It seems that students, at least college students, do not report utilizing effective study strategies during their own independent learning. But why do they make that choice? Are students even aware of what strategies are most effective? Jennifer McCabe (5) investigated this question. College students were provided with a number of different learning scenarios and were asked to indicate which scenario would lead to more learning. The scenarios compared:

  • Dual code vs single code presentations
  • Animated vs static media
  • Low-interest vs. high-interest details
  • Testing vs restudying
  • Spacing vs massing
  • Generating vs. non-generating

*Note, more effective scenario is in bold

An example scenario, comparing generating vs. nongenerating, went like this:

Two assignments ask students to learn the list of cranial nerves using a mnemonic device. Assignment A includes a commonly used mnemonic device PROVIDED by the instructor to assist students in their learning. Assignment B asks students to CREATE their own mnemonic device to assist their learning. After 2 weeks, all students are asked to list the cranial nerves in order.

The students indicated which strategy would lead to more learning, and how much more effective the students thought this strategy would be compared to the other.

Overall, the results indicated that students rarely endorsed the learning scenario that is backed by empirical research. This finding pairs well with the previous survey research described. It seems that students don't select the most effective learning strategies, and are also largely unable to select the more effective learning scenario when provided with two options. Overall, it seems that students are not aware of what situations produce effective and efficient learning. In a follow-up study, McCabe (5) showed that students were better able to pick the better learning scenario if they were directly exposed to the original research showing one scenario to be more effective than the other.

College students are largely unable to select effective learning scenarios and apply those scenarios to their own independent learning. By the time students arrive at college, they should be expert learners, as most will have been in school for 13 years upon arrival. While not all college students are prepared for college, at least some of the above mentioned surveys were conducted at a top institution in the US (e.g., Washington University in St. Louis, UCLA). Cognitive psychologists need to do a better job communicating with teachers and students so that we can all learn about effective learning strategies early in our schooling. Importantly, we all need to work together to ensure that we can deliver the information and help students transfer effectively learning strategies into their own independent learning.


(1) Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2007). The promise and perils of self-regulated study. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14, 219-224.

(2) Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practise retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17, 471-479.

(3) Hartwig, M. K., & Dunlosky, J. (2012). Study strategies of college students: Are self-testing and scheduling related to achievement? Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 19, 126-134.

(4) Smith, M. A., Nunes, L., & Jensen, T. L. (2016, May). Examining the effectiveness of retrieval-based learning in academically disadvantaged populations. Poster presented at the 28th Annual Meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, Chicago, IL.

(5) McCabe, J. (2011). Metacognitive awareness of learning strategies in undergraduates. Memory & Cognition, 39, 462-476.