Fostering effective learning strategies in higher education

How can we help students to use more effective learning strategies during self-study?

12/08/2020 by Felicitas Biwer

This question is the overarching aim of our research around the Study Smart program. Cognitive psychologists have shown that strategies that cost more effort (e.g., practice testing) are most effective for long-term learning and strategies that feel easy (e.g., rereading) do not strengthen long-term memory (Bjork & Bjork, 2011). As going the easiest and fastest way seems a fair option, many students study and prepare for their exams using mostly ineffective learning strategies.

In the Study Smart program, we aim to make students more aware about which strategies work, and which strategies don’t (Dunlosky et al., 2013), help students reflect about their study motivation, and support students’ practice of effective learning strategies. To examine whether our program actually reaches its aims, we conducted a study in Summer 2018, which has now been published in a scientific journal. Forty-seven students participated and were randomly assigned to attend the sessions either in block period 5 or in block period 6. All students completed a pretest and posttest measuring their knowledge and use of learning strategies before and after block 5. After students had attended the program, we invited them to a focus group discussion, in which they discussed their experiences in the program, as well as to what extent they changed their learning behavior and what difficulties they encounter in this process.

Results indicated that students actually improved their knowledge about which strategies are effective for long-term learning and why and that they started using more effective learning strategies, such as practice testing. However, many obstacles were experienced: students often felt uncertain about how to apply a specific strategy, and how much time and effort to invest. Moreover, it was difficult to use practice testing when no old exams were made available, and students easily fell back into their old habits when time was short and stress was high during the exam period.

What did we learn from this study?

Making students aware about effective learning strategies and desirable difficulties made them also aware about a potential discrepancy between effective learning strategies and the strategies they usually use. Although this discrepancy motivated many students to change their learning strategies, actual use was still challenging. We therefore adapted the program and emphasize the practice aspect more. The Study Smart program now includes more practice exercises with students’ actual learning materials and spends more time on reflecting and discussing difficulties and challenges students encounter during their self-study. Studying smart is no easy feat and it will cost time to build up new learning habits. But we try our best to support students in their way to become effective learners.

Do you have any suggestions what you would want more from the Study Smart program? Let us know!



Biwer, F., oude Egbrink, M. G. A., Aalten, P., & de Bruin, A. B. H. (2020). Fostering Effective Learning Strategies in Higher Education—A Mixed-Methods Study. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. doi:

Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society2(59-68)

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). What works, what doesn’t. Scientific American Mind, 24(4), 46-53. doi:10.1038/scientificamericanmind0913-46