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“Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits”


Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits is the title of a very useful article that has just appeared in The New York Times.

It’s worth a full-read, but here are some points that struck me in particular:

Vary What You Study

Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills.

This is definitely advice I’ll be sharing with students in my Intermediate English class.

Don’t Just Study In One Place:

Students should study in multiple locations because:

The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.

Use “Tests” To Help Students Learn

…cognitive scientists see testing itself — or practice tests and quizzes — as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment. The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.

In one of his own experiments, Dr. Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke, also of Washington University, had college students study science passages from a reading comprehension test, in short study periods. When students studied the same material twice, in back-to-back sessions, they did very well on a test given immediately afterward, then began to forget the material.

But if they studied the passage just once and did a practice test in the second session, they did very well on one test two days later, and another given a week later.

“Testing has such bad connotation; people think of standardized testing or teaching to the test,” Dr. Roediger said. “Maybe we need to call it something else, but this is one of the most powerful learning tools we have.”

I’m not a huge fan of tests, but I do often ask students to take a minute to write down what they remember about a topic we have discussed at an earlier time and that will apply to what we will be doing that day.  Then I’ll have students share with partner.  Perhaps I should do this sort of activity more often?

I’d be very interested in hearing peoples reactions to the article….

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Since I teach study skills to students in my Learning Strategies Class, this article is of special interest. I will definitely be revising my “How Best to Study” lesson and handout. Thanks for this.

  2. I also thought this was a very interesting article, and see this as support for the increased use of tests and quizzes as formative assessments.

    I’m an English teacher who specializes in writing instruction. As such, I usually don’t give conventional “tests” to my students. I have come, however, to view the concept of testing more broadly.

    I think educators are almost conditioned to think of tests as devices which elicit the recall of knowledge. And this works well, I’d imagine, for subjects like math, science, and history. English courses, though, tend to place the emphasis on skills, rather than specific knowledge, and it’s tougher to address these goals with traditional test formats.

    From my experience, though, I’d say that skill-related tasks can be used to assess student learning at various points in a unit or process, and would have the same effect as quizzes in Roediger’s research.

    Over the past few years, I’ve given more formative assessments of various kinds (writing exercises, reflections, challenges that require the use of specific grammar rules or vocabulary) to get them to apply what they are learning. I think that your think-pair-share strategy fulfills the same function. I don’t grade these assessments, but use them to get an idea of where the students stand, and what adjustments I might need to make. It also gives them the opportunity to think about how they might address areas of weakness, and take more ownership of their learning processes.

  3. One of the biggest criticisms of tests is that students end up being “graded” into who is at the top and who is at the bottom. Even when it is not publicly announced in class, somehow kids themselves find out. The problem is of course that worse-scoring kids then have “proof of their inability”.

    So I really like what Dan in the comment above mine does – if tests are used but not returned to students, then that should work very well – the students get the benefit of applying and cementing the knowledge, yet they cannot get that negative “proof”, because there are no grades.

  4. Was anyone else thrown by the statements about learning styles? My district/campus has an all out push for differentiated instruction and learning styles inventories…and this says it’s all bunk! WOW!

  5. I’ve got to go read this article now, but in the mean time:
    I’m interested in the idea of re-framing tests.

    I think the problem comes in when we necessarily equate tests with assessments. I think that it might be more helpful to think in terms of application – a chance to try out what you are learning, and getting some kind of feedback on whether you are getting it right. Feedback can simply be that you can see that the activity “works out”, and does not need to be feedback from a teacher.

    Tests are one way of doing that but there are many other ways – depending, of course, on what is being taught.

    For example, if you are learning to play an instrument, the act of playing it is in itself a “test”, and part of what you are learning is how to judge your own ability. And I suspect that those two things – learning how to do or understand something – and learning how to gauge your own success in this process is at the heart of any learning process. Otherwise learning is really passive, and you are simply blindly trying to please the teacher without really understanding why one thing is “wrong”and another “better”

  6. Very interesting piece about testing- and the comments it has produced. I have had a lot of success with using a cyclical nature of learning with my students. By introducing self-reflection on the purpose and outcome of an activity of an activity (in this case the testing session) the students can draw upon their own experience- and errors for future iterations of the same activity.

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