You can spend days cramming for a test and still not be happy with your grade, but a new study suggests it’s studying smart, not studying hard, that really makes the difference. Researchers found students who think strategically about what material will be on their exams and plan what resources are available, get better grades than those who study more, but with less direction.

The study, now published online Psychological Science , found that strategic learning, where a student engages in self-reflection to identify and use resources wisely, may help raise grades by an average of one third of a letter grade. The tactic involves guiding the students to think about how they use learning resources, and is based off of a established psychology concept known as metacognition, or thinking about one’s thinking.

The benefits of self-reflective studying don't stop at better grades. Futurity reported that students who practiced this routine also reported more feelings of empowerment regarding their education, perceived a greater control over their learning, and expressed fewer negative feelings about their upcoming exams.

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"We found that self-administering the intervention, even for just 15 minutes online before an upcoming exam, engages college students in a form of thoughtful self-management, which helps them use their resources more effectively while studying," explained study author Patricia Chen of Stanford University, in a recent statement.

For their study, Chen and her team randomly assigned half of students in a college statistics class to receive a studying “intervention”, while the other half received no intervention at all. About a week before each class exam, the intervention students were asked to write down the grade they wanted, rate how important it was to achieve this, and rate how confident they were that they could meet this goal. The students were then asked to think carefully about what kind of questions the exam would most likely have, and to identify 15 available resources they would use to study. Lastly, students were asked to explain why each resource would be helpful and describe their plans of how they would use the resource in their studying.

After the exam, the students then reported how effective they thought their studying had been and reflected on their performance and rated how useful they found each of the resources they had used in preparing for the exam.

Results revealed that strategically studying did have tangible benefits, and those in the intervention group outperformed the control students by an average of a third of a letter grade by the end of the semester. For example, in one group, students scored an average of 3.45 percentage points higher in the class, and in a second, the average difference was 4.65 percentage points. Interestingly, the researchers noted the more reflective the students were, the better they performed on exams. Other factors such as how many resources the students used or how many hours they studied for, made little difference on their overall performance.

“It’s not merely about using a greater number of resources for studying. The important point here is using resources more effectively,” study co-author Desmond Ong told Futurity.

Source: Chen P, Chavez O, Ong DC, Gunderson B. Strategic Resource Use for Learning: A Self-Administered Intervention That Guides Self-Reflection on Effective Resource Use Enhances Academic Performance. Psychological Science. 2017

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