Teaching students to study smarter

Have you always thought that highlighting, rereading, and summarising texts is the best way to prepare for a tutorial group or exam? Here’s some news: it’s not. There is, however, no reason to despair. The brand new study skills training Study Smart will equip bachelor’s students with effective learning strategies.

Teaching students to study smarter

“Typically, students are not very good at estimating whether they fully understand the subject matter at hand, so support in what strategy to use can be very helpful,” associate professor Anique de Bruin states. “Nevertheless, there are not a lot of trainings or interventions out there.” She therefore took the initiative to develop one herself, together with a university-wide project team under the coordination of EDLAB, the university’s institute for education innovation. As a result, Study Smart will be implemented in all faculties, and preferably so at the start of each bachelor’s programme. “For first-year students, university can be quite a culture shock,” assistant professor and coordinator of the FHML student advisers Pauline Aalten explains. “Suddenly they are expected to read a lot of literature, while receiving much less guidance than in high school. The earlier they learn how to study effectively, the better.”


If highlighting, rereading, and summarising literature is not the way to go if you want to get the most out of your study time, then what
are the alternatives? “The problem with these strategies is that they’re not very effective for long-term retention,” says PhD student Felicitas Biwer. In other words: you’ll easily forget what you’ve
learned. Biwer: “Scientific research shows that practice testing, for instance by using flashcards or old exams, is much more powerful. The same holds for a strategy called distributed practice, which means spacing out your study sessions over time.”

“What’s paradoxical is that these effective strategies initially don’t feel as if they work,” De Bruin adds. “Imagine that you study two textbook chapters; one by rereading and another by taking a practice test. Right afterwards, you’ll probably remember more from rereading. Yet, if you’d test yourself two days, or a week, or two weeks later, the practice test turns out to work a lot better.”

“For first-year students, university can be quite a culture shock”


After students have been familiarised with the most recent literature on effective learning strategies during the first Study Smart training session, it’s time to reflect on their own study habits and to come up with individual learning goals. During the third and final session, they practice using the strategies they’ve learned. “The students who participated in the pilot at FHML considered it to be very helpful,” Biwer says. “One of them even called it an eye-opener.” It’s up to Biwer herself to back this up with research, as her PhD study investigates the effectiveness of the Study Smart training. “I’m extremely glad we have been able to link this research to it,” De Bruin says. “It helps us paint a clear picture of what’s going on, to find out what works and what doesn’t, and adapt the training accordingly.” Aalten: “And the fact that this is a university-wide project, recognised by all faculties, is really unique. It’s fascinating to be part of it.”

Studying effectively – do’s & don’ts:


  • test yourself (e.g. with flashcards, old exams)
  • repeatedly retest yourself
  • spread learning over time


  • highlight
  • reread
  • only summarise (instead, combine summarising with the effective learning strategies!)


Article from Education Matters 2018, p. 24-25


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