Stop Telling Your Students to Study

Stop Telling Your Students to Study

Let’s admit it.  We have a national obsession with testing.  We are obsessed with tests of all kinds, with the data they provide, and with the judgments we can make based on the outcomes.  As a nation, we are test-crazy!  (It would be better if we had a national obsession with assessment, but that’s a different discussion for a different time.  Tests and assessments are not synonymous.)

As we enter standardized testing season in the US (And isn’t it kind of sad that we have an entire portion of the school year devoted to testing?  But again, maybe that’s a discussion for another newsletter.) students will be encouraged to study, study, study in order to do well on the tests.

But what if some traditional studying methods are actually part of the problem? What if, in the process of studying, some of our students are making faulty assumptions about the depth of their learning.  Could it be that the process of passively “studying” and reviewing material leads students to overestimate their knowledge and competence?  The answer to all these questions is a resounding YES.  Not sure you’re with me?  Keep reading, I’ve got the proof.

Have you ever noticed, during your own episodes of studying and learning, that it can be very easy to overestimate your knowledge or comprehension? Have you ever studied diligently for a test only to experience the dreaded “Uh-oh – I don’t know this stuff as well as I thought” moment when it came time to actually take the test?  If so, you are not alone.

What you have experienced is, as some researchers call it, an Illusion of Competence.  That is, when reviewing and “studying”, the ease at which we can recall, recognize, or define information leads us to a false sense of security in our knowledge.  When studying is easy our confidence is high.  The problem is that this confidence may be an illusion.  Why might this be the case?  Keep reading, it gets really interesting.

But before we dive into some of the academic research, allow me to illustrate with a real-world example. Think about a teenager you know – perhaps one who is ready to take the test to get their learner’s permit for a driver’s license.  In most cases, students are provided with a manual or brochure that outlines some of the laws, topics, and information they need to know. So, they go about “studying” for the test.  They read the brochure, they highlight and underline key points, and re-read the material they’ve previously highlighted.  But even after all this studying, many students fail to pass the exam.  Why might this be the case?

The traditional study techniques of reading, highlighting, and re-reading previously highlighted material are primarily passive.  In other words, they don’t require much cognitive effort. And, as a result, those strategies can lead learners to a false sense of security.  They can lead us to believe that since the content seems fairly easy at the time of the review, we’re ready to perform well on a test.  Passive study techniques can lead to an illusion of depth, an illusion of comprehension, or an illusion of competence.

This all makes sense of course.  There is a big difference between being able to recognize a topic or define a term when you are reviewing notes for a test and actually being able to analyze, explain, or elaborate.

So, how do we overcome this illusion?  How do we go from studying to learning?

First, help your students understand that most traditional study techniques – reading, highlighting, re-reading – are limited in their effectiveness.  The goal is not to study. The goal is to learn the information so that they have a depth of knowledge and understanding.

Second, require students to actively interact with the content and information in multiple ways. Reading and highlighting are OK, but they are just the very beginning strategies to build basic background knowledge.  Students should be required to participate in discussions where they elaborate, explain, and reference the content. They should be required to write about their understanding in order to further clarify and expand their thinking. Students should take self-quizzes, partner quizzes, and be required to present their learning in some manner; perhaps by teaching the content to other students.  All of these strategies require active retrieval and manipulation of the content.  In other words, these approaches kick the brain into gear and require students to do something with their knowledge.

Sources and Citations:  Want to learn more about concepts related to this illusion of competence?  As it turns out, there are quite a few amazing researchers who are looking into this phenomenon and how it impacts learning.  The king of the hill is Dr. Robert Bjork from the UCLA.  He is well-known psychologist who leads UCLA’s Learning and Forgetting Lab. Check out his website for videos, explanations, and research.


Leave a Reply