Before You Study, Ask for Help

The Wall Street Journal

That’s one of several ways students can better prepare themselves for tests in the new school year


What’s the best way to study for a test?

Many students will plunge into marathon study sessions this fall, rereading textbooks and highlighting their notes late into the night. The more effort the better, right?

Not so, new research shows. Students who excel at both classroom and standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT aren’t necessarily those who study longest. Instead, they study smart—planning ahead, quizzing themselves on the material and actively seeking out help when they don’t understand it.

Carl Wilke, a Tacoma, Wash., father of six children ages 4 to 22, sees the studying challenges that students face almost every school day. He coaches his children to pick out the main points in their notes rather than highlight everything, and to look for headings and words in bold type to find the big ideas in their textbooks.

Several months ago, his 18-year-old daughter Eileen tried to study for an advanced-placement exam. Eileen says she struggled with a practice test and realized that she didn’t know how to study. She asked her mother, Catherine, for help. Ms. Wilke sat with Eileen for two hours while Eileen used an answer guide for the test to explain why her answers were wrong on questions she’d missed, then discuss the correct ones. As they worked together, Eileen says, “I was teaching her while simultaneously teaching myself” the material—a study technique that enabled her to ace the test.


  • Find out what the test will cover and the kinds of questions it will include.
  • Start at least a few days before the test to plan how and when you will study.
  • Identify helpful resources such as practice tests or instructors’ office hours to assist with material you don’t understand.
  • Practice recalling facts and concepts by quizzing yourself.
  • Limit study sessions to 45 minutes to increase your concentration and focus.

High-achieving students take charge of their own learning and ask for help when they’re stuck, according to a 2017 study of 414 college students. Students who performed better sought out extra study aids such as instructional videos on YouTube. Those who asked instructors for help during office hours were more likely to get A’s, but fewer than 1 in 5 students did so, says the study by Elena Bray Speth, an associate professor of biology, and Amanda Sebesta, a doctoral candidate, both at St. Louis University in Missouri.

That activist approach reflects what researchers call self-regulated learning: the capacity to track how well you’re doing in your classes and hold yourself accountable for reaching goals. College professors typically expect students to have mastered these skills by the time they arrive on campus as freshmen.

Many students, however, take a more passive approach to studying by rereading textbooks and highlighting notes—techniques that can give them a false sense of security, says Ned Johnson, founder of Prep Matters, a Bethesda, Md., test-preparation company. After students review the material several times, it starts to look familiar and they conclude, “Oh, I know that,” he says. But they may have only learned to recognize the material rather than storing it in memory, leaving them unable to recall it on a test, Mr. Johnson says.

Top students spend more time in retrieval practice, he says—quizzing themselves or each other, which forces them to recall facts and concepts just as they must do on tests. This leads to deeper learning, often in a shorter amount of time, a pattern researchers call the testing effect.

Students who formed study groups and quizzed each other weekly on material presented in class posted higher grades than those who used other study techniques, says a 2015 study of 144 students. At home, Mr. Johnson suggests making copies of teachers’ study questions and having students try to answer them as if they were taking a test. Taking practice tests for the SAT and the ACT is helpful not only in recalling facts and concepts, but in easing anxiety on testing day, he says.

Retrieval practice often works best when students practice recalling the facts at intervals of a few minutes to several days, research shows.

Studying in general tends to be more productive when it’s done in short segments of 45 minutes or so rather than over several hours, Mr. Johnson says. He sees a takeoff-and-landing effect at work: People tend to exert more energy right after a study session begins, and again when they know it’s about to end.

No one can pace their studying that way if they wait until the night before an exam to start. Students who plan ahead do better.

Students who completed a 15-minute online exercise 7 to 10 days before an exam that prompted them to anticipate what would be on the test, name the resources they’d use to study, and explain how and when they’d use them, had average scores one-third of a letter grade higher on the exam compared with students who didn’t do the exercise, according to a 2017 study of 361 college students led by Patricia Chen, a former Stanford University researcher and assistant professor of psychology at the National University of Singapore. One participant’s plan, for example, called for doing practice problems repeatedly until he no longer needed his notes to solve them—a highly effective strategy.

Many teachers in middle and high school try to teach good study habits, but the lessons often don’t stick unless students are highly motivated to try them—for example, when they’re afraid of getting a bad grade in class, or scoring poorly on high-stakes tests such as the ACT or SAT.

When her daughter Deja was still young, Christina Kirk began to encourage her to identify major concepts in her notes and use retrieval practice when she studied. When as a teenager Deja resisted being quizzed by her mother, Dr. Kirk asked an older cousin to serve as a study partner.

Dr. Kirk also encouraged Deja to invite one or two of her more studious friends to their Oklahoma City home so they could quiz each other. After the girls worked for a while, Dr. Kirk took them to the movies. “You have to give them something positive at the end, because they’re still kids,” she says.

Deja, now 18, still makes use of study groups in her college courses.

Proven Study Techniques

The Brilliant Report by Annie Murphy Paul

Put down that highlighter!In a world as fast-changing and full of information as our own, every one of us—from schoolchildren to college students to working adults—needs to know how to learn well. Yet evidence suggests that most of us don’t use the learning techniques that science has proved most effective. Worse, research finds that learning strategies we do commonly employ, like rereading and highlighting, are among the least effective.

The scientific literature evaluating these techniques stretches back decades and across thousands of articles. It’s far too extensive and complex for the average parent, teacher or employer to sift through. Fortunately, a team of five leading psychologists have done the job for us. In a comprehensive report released earlier this year by the Association for Psychological Science, the authors, led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky, closely examine ten learning tactics and rate each from high to low utility on the basis of the evidence they’ve amassed. Here’s a quick guide to the report’s conclusions:

The Worst
Highlighting and underlining led the authors’ list of ineffective learning strategies. Although they are common practices, studies show they offer no benefit beyond simply reading the text. Some research even indicates that highlighting can get in the way of learning; because it draws attention to individual facts, it may hamper the process of making connections and drawing inferences. Nearly as bad is the practice of rereading, a common exercise that is much less effective than some of the better techniques you can use. Lastly, summarizing, or writing down the main points contained in a text, can be helpful for those who are skilled at it, but again, there are far better ways to spend your study time. Highlighting, underlining, rereading and summarizing were all rated by the authors as being of “low utility.”

The Best
In contrast to familiar practices like highlighting and rereading, the learning strategies with the most evidence to support them aren’t well known outside the psych lab. Take distributed practice, for example. This tactic involves spreading out your study sessions, rather than engaging in one marathon. Cramming information at the last minute may allow you to get through that test or meeting, but the material will quickly disappear from memory. It’s much more effective to dip into the material at intervals over time. And the longer you want to remember the information, whether it’s two weeks or two years, the longer the intervals should be.

The second learning strategy that is highly recommended by the report’s authors is practice testing. Yes, more tests—but these are not for a grade. Research shows that the mere act of calling information to mind strengthens that knowledge and aids in future retrieval. While practice testing is not a common strategy—despite the robust evidence supporting it—there is one familiar approach that captures its benefits: using flash cards. And now flash cards can be presented in digital form, via apps like Quizlet, StudyBlue and FlashCardMachine. Both spaced-out learning, or distributed practice, and practice tests were rated as having “high utility” by the authors.

The Rest
The remainder of the techniques evaluated by Dunlosky and his colleagues fell into the middle ground—not useless, but not especially effective either. These include mental imagery, or coming up with pictures that help you remember text (which is time-consuming and only works with text that lends itself to images); elaborative interrogation, or asking yourself “why” as you read (which is kind of annoying, like having a 4-year-old tugging at your sleeve); self-explanation, or forcing yourself to explain the text in detail instead of passively reading it over (its effectiveness depends on how complete and accurate your explanations are); interleaved practice, or mixing up different types of problems (there is not much evidence to show that this is helpful, outside of learning motor tasks); and lastly the keyword mnemonic, or associating new vocabulary words, usually in a foreign language, with an English word that sounds similar—so, for example, learning the French word for key, la clef, by imagining a key on top of a cliff (which is a lot of work to remember a single word).

All these techniques were rated of “moderate” to “low” utility by Dunlosky et al because either there isn’t enough evidence yet to be able to recommend them or they’re just not a very good use of your time. Much better, say the authors, to spread out your learning, ditch your highlighter and get busy with your flash cards. (You can browse past issues of the Brilliant Report by clicking here.)

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Sacrificing Sleep for Study Time Doesn’t Make the Grade

Sacrificing Sleep for Study Time Doesn’t Make the Grade

Posted: 10/09/2012 8:06 am


Kids are back in school. Students (and parents) said goodbye to the freewheeling days of summer and returned to the structure of the academic year. The school routine typically includes early mornings and, often, late nights of homework and studying.

For students, there is increasing pressure to perform well academically, especially as they enter high school and college is on the horizon. Academic workloads increase, and so do time commitments to other extracurricular activities, including sports. It can be a real challenge to find enough time for all of this activity, and it’s not hard to see how bedtime gets pushed back later and later to make room for studying.

It might seem like a reasonable sacrifice to give up a little sleep to hit the books late into the night, but research says this strategy doesn’t work. This study found that students who stay up late doing homework are more likely to have academic problems the next day. This is true regardless of how much overall studying the student does, according to the study results.

Researchers at UCLA examined the daily sleep and study habits of 535 students in grades 9, 10, and 12. All the students were enrolled in Los Angeles schools and represented a range of socioeconomic and ethnic groups. For two weeks, students kept diaries recording their daily study amounts and sleep amounts. They also kept track of two different types of academic problems:

• Having trouble understanding material being taught in class
• Doing poorly on tests, quizzes, or homework assignments

Researchers found that opting to delay bedtime in favor of studying was linked to an increased risk of both types of academic difficulty. And this was true regardless of the total amount of students’ study time.

The remedy to this problem is not to study less, but rather to create a schedule that allows for sufficient study time and sufficient sleep time. Is that easier said than done? Probably. But as these results indicate, extra study time at the expense of sleep is likely to create academic problems, not solve them. And students who regularly stay up late are exposed to other risks of low sleep. Here’s some of what we know about how insufficient sleep can negatively affect teens:

• Teens who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to engage in risky and unhealthful behaviors. This study found low sleep was linked to increased likelihood of smoking, drinking, drug use, and fighting, among other risky behaviors.

• Teens who sleep less are more likely to gain weight. We know that low sleep is associated with weight gain, in children as well as adults. This study found that teens who sleep less are more likely to consume more total calories in a day, as well as to eat higher fat foods and more snack foods than teens who get enough sleep.

• Teens who are short on sleep are more likely to feel depressed and anxious. There’s substantial evidence that teens with sleep problems are at higher risk for mental health and behavioral problems. This National Sleep Foundation survey found that teens short on sleep were significantly more likely to experience depression, stress, excessive worrying, and anxiety.

Teenagers, as any parent knows, are predisposed to staying up late and sleeping late, which complicates things even further. This is a biological reality, not just a teenage preference! It’s not always easy to manage a teenager’s sleep schedule. Here are some strategies that can help:

• Keep technology out of the bedroom. Electronic and digital devices have no place in the bedroom. Exposure to the light emitted by these devices is disruptive to sleep, and their presence at bedtime can keep teens awake — or even keep them engaged in activity while they are asleep!

• Work backward to find the right bedtime. Teens need more sleep than adults, about nine hours per night. To find the appropriate bedtime, start by identifying what time your teen needs to be rising from bed. From there, work backward to set the bedtime that will ensure your teenager gets enough rest.

• Let them sleep in a little on the weekends — just not a lot. With biological and hormonal changes making teens inclined to sleep later, after a week of school your teenager may want to spend most of Saturday in bed. This much sleep isn’t healthy and will actually make your teen feel more tired, not less. Such a variation from the weekday routine will throw your teen’s schedule off course. This doesn’t mean a little sleeping in isn’t okay. Letting your teenager sleep for an extra hour or two on weekend mornings is fine.

We all want our kids to study hard and achieve academic success. It’s important to remember that sleep is a critical part of the equation.

Sweet Dreams,
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™