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Popular Study Habits that Don’t Work (And How To Help Your Students Build Better Ones)

Bad Popular Study Habits

It’s time to throw away the highlighter! A team of researchers led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky reviewed the scientific evidence behind common study tactics to determine which study methods do and do not work. It turns out that many of the study strategies that we teach our students, and even use ourselves, don’t actually help students retain knowledge or achieve success on assessments.

To make sure you are providing your students with the most effective study strategies, check out this list of study habits that don’t work. You’ll be surprised by what you learn!

Study Strategies That Get a Thumbs-Down

Highlighting & Underlining

According to Dunlosky and his team, when it comes to knowledge retention and test performance, highlighters are hardly worth their ink. Though widely used, highlighting doesn’t help students learn, and can actually hurt their comprehension and test performance. When students rely on highlighting as their main study strategy, they spend their time looking for items to highlight and miss out on the higher-order thinking tasks—like evaluation, analysis, and synthesis—that lead to long-term learning.


If your students reread their notes and textbook to prep for a test, they aren’t alone. 84% of college students surveyed at an elite university listed rereading as their primary study tactic. However, Dunlosky and his team found that rereading doesn’t increase students’ test scores. It actually leads to superficial memorization and doesn’t help students build a foundation for long-term learning.


This one may surprise you: summarization isn’t an effective study method. Teachers often engage students in summarization, especially when using close reading techniques. To use summarization as a study strategy, students first must gain full mastery of how to summarize. When accounting for the considerable time it takes to teach students to truly understand and apply summarization, using this method just isn’t an efficient use of study time.

How to Develop Students as Lifelong Learners

For many teachers and students, Dunlosky and his team’s findings may come as a shock. Summarization, rereading, and highlighting are the mainstays of studying. How did we not know they are so ineffective? The answer partly lies in curriculum design. In most districts and states, curriculum emphasizes teaching students content, not teaching them howto learn. To develop students as lifelong learners and prepare them for college and career success (a key goal of the Common Core State Standards), teachers must help bridge the gap and teach students how to use research-proven effective study methods. Here are some examples:

Study Strategies That Get a Thumbs-Up

Practice testing

Tests traditionally come at the end of units. However, according to Dunlosky and his team, regular practice testing throughout a unit is the most powerful method for long-term knowledge retention. Practice tests allow students to fail, which is actually a good thing. When students don’t do well on practice tests, they can fail constructively and let their errors help them recognize where they need to improve. Practice testing has a two-fold benefit; it enhances student acquisition of content knowledge and supports their understanding of how to identify weaknesses and organize future studying.

Before you add practice testing to your lesson plans, know that not all practice tests are created equal. For long-term learning, test questions that only require students to recognize the correct answer, such as multiple-choice and true-or-false questions, aren’t as effective as those that make students recall from memory without any clues. When building practice tests for your students, try fill-in-the-blank and short-answer questions. And remember, quality test questions align with student learning objectives and are purposefully designed to measure content mastery, not route memorization.

Take time weekly, even daily, to incorporate practice testing in your instruction. Bell ringers—quick activities students complete at the beginning of class—are a simple way to regularly test your students’ knowledge. For examples of bell ringers and how to use them in your classroom, check out our course: Getting Off On the Right Foot With Bell Ringers.

Distributed practice

While many students rely on cramming to prepare for tests, Dunlosky and many other researchers have found this strategy to be ineffective. Students that cram may be able to recollect information the night before a test, but when the next morning comes, their recall ability has significantly decreased. Instead, students need to spread their studying out over time in several shorter study sessions leading up to a test.

Distributed practice is challenging. In one study session, a student may feel confident that they have a firm grasp of the material. In the next, however, they may find their recall has significantly decreased and gaps in their knowledge are revealed. Students will need reassurance that this is a normal, even positive phenomenon. Weaknesses indicate areas for future study and help make students stronger, more strategic learners.

You can prepare your students for distributed practice by helping them set up a study schedule. By taking the time to show them how to break up their study sessions and build a plan for test preparation, they will be prepared to succeed on their assessments.

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Learn More About Study Skills That Do and Don’t Work

Even if you have been using some of the study skills that have been proven ineffective, don’t worry! You can now start helping your students leave those faulty habits behind in favor of those that actually work. As for those leftover highlighters, you can always just add them to the art bin.

To learn more about study skills that do and don’t work and to help your students get the most out of studying, check out our course: Study Smarter: Not Harder: A Practical Guide to Teaching Study Skills.

Fulfilling Your PD Requirements?

Choose from 280+ online, self-paced continuing education courses for teacher salary advancement and recertification. Available for either CEU/clock hours or in partnership with regionally-accredited universities for graduate credit.

Browse Courses