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3 Of The Most Common Study Mistakes: Academic Pitfalls And Alternatives

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Do re-reading, highlighting, and summarizing assigned material really improve comprehension? Skakerman / Flickr

Effective study habits can make or break your academic performance. Whether you’re a high school kid, college student, or a doctoral candidate, lectures and seminars simply won’t stick unless you follow up with arduous self-study and independent research.

Unfortunately, most American students appear to go about this the wrong way. By evaluating some of the nation’s most commonly applied study habits, researchers from Kent State University have determined that very few live up to their reputation. Re-reading, highlighting, and summarizing are examples of “low-utility” habits that may actually hurt your performance. Why?

Myth: Re-reading will increase my understanding of the material, since my brain will process it twice.

Does It Really Work?

Kind of. Re-reading has been shown to facilitate memorization, and will thus benefit students working with two-dimensional data – terminology, grammatical rules, formulas, structural detail, and so on. Comprehension, however, appears to remain the same.

“Concerning criterion tasks, the effects of rereading do appear to be durable across at least modest delays when rereading is spaced,” study author John Dulonsky told PsychCentral. “However, most effects have been shown with recall-based memory measures, whereas the benefit for comprehension is less clear.”

For this reason, the study habit requires you to distinguish between your mnemonic and analytic capacity. Ask yourself if you’ll have to do more than regurgitate the material. Sometimes, the answer is yes – but if it’s not, you might be wasting your time.

Myth: Highlighting will improve my performance, because it forces me to interact with the material.

Does It Really Work?

When it comes to highlighting and underlining, your technique is crucial. Unless you’re properly mapping the argument in the passage, you’re most likely distorting it. For this reason, highlighting may not only waste time, but impair your performance as well.

“In most situations that have been examined and with most participants, highlighting does little to boost performance,” the researchers wrote. “It may help when students have the knowledge needed to highlight more effectively, or when texts are difficult, but it may actually hurt performance on higher-level tasks that require inference making.”

When read in sequence, your highlights should not form a disjointed aggregate of in-depth details, but a bullet-point summary of the relevant passage. Otherwise, your brain is entertaining two disparate versions of the text.

Together with annotation and commentary, proper highlighting represents an important part of the transition from high school academics to higher education. If you haven’t reached first-year college writing, talk to your teacher or advisor – they’re usually happy to help.

Myth: Writing a brief summary is a sure way to improve both comprehension and retention, as it forces me to interpret and relate the material in my own words.

Does It Really Work?

Like highlighting, summarization is an example of metadata – the holy grail of academic analysis, and the very foundation of scientific inquiry. Restating a textbook chapter’s central argument is extremely difficult, and is usually not perfected until your final year of college. Unless you’re a graduate student, you will almost certainly misrepresent some aspect of the passage, or skew its internal logic. (And make no mistake – professors are irremediable sticklers for internal logic, especially if they’re teaching their own textbook.)

Instead of producing your own, verbal summary, try to interact with the argument in a different way. Case application, schematic representation, and written questions are some examples of more “cost-effective” study habits.

Source: Dunlosky, J. Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Nathan, M.J. & Willingham, D.T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4-58.

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