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Brain Research and Studying: Top Two Strategies you can help your students use

As midterm exams approach, your students are facing the challenge of preparing for them.  Cognitive learning research provides insight into the best practices for studying. 

 The Top 2 Study Strategies are Retrieval Practice and Spaced Learning:

Retrieval Practice 

Retrieval Practice is the act of pulling information out of your brain.  For example, you remember what you know about a word, topic, or lesson, pull it out of your brain and then articulate it in some way.  For example, you write down everything you remember.  This is the way your brain really wants to learn!  

Retrieval Practice is the opposite of reviewing notes or the textbook and trying to 'stuff' the knowledge into your brain!

Teacher Action:  

If you are holding review session(s) or providing review documents, incorporate places for students to write everything they can remember about the topic before they interact with your review material.  Encourage them to not only write but create images, tables, whatever else visually helps them with learning (Dual coding theory).

Alternatively, or in addition, provide time for them to write down everything they can remember about review material right after it is covered.  

Provide students with images from your course content they can annotate by labeling, drawing a process, or adding detail.

Provide practice tests or quizzes.  If you are a math or a 'mathy' science teacher, provide practice problems that are mixed, forcing students to retrieve information about the different formulas, laws, etc.  

Student Action:

Some examples of retrieval practice include writing down everything you know about a topic, sketching a diagram and adding text to the diagram, taking practice tests, or quizzing friends about class material.

When using flashcards:
  • Write down the answers - don't check the answers the first time through!  Try to think about what the answer is.
  • Go through the flashcard deck at least once (some Cognitive Scientists recommend 3 times) before you eliminate a flashcard.
  • Change the order of the flashcards!  
    • Primacy (first) and Regency (last) effects state we tend to remember items at the beginning and end and not much in the middle.  Changing the order helps with memory.

Spaced Practice - Top Study Strategy!     

Spaced practice refers to studying material over a period of time.  If you are going to prepare for a test for 3 hours, it is much better to study for one hour over 3 days than study in a single 3-hour chunk!  Spaced Practice is the exact opposite of cramming!

Spaced Practice, along with Retrieval Practice, are the top two study strategies that show the most positive impact on learning!

Teacher action:

If you are holding review session(s) or providing review documents, structure them so students space out their review.

Student action:  

Don't Procrastinate!  
Plan your study time for each subject several weeks in advance, and work your plan.  Note that this is in addition to any homework assigned by your teacher. 

Other Tips for Student Learning:

Sleep is magic!

Research shows that studying before you sleep and again when you wake up helps you learn better and retain the information!

Eat Fat & Sugar!

Research shows that the fat and sugar in a traditional egg, bacon, pancake, and syrup breakfast provides your brain with needed chemicals for brain power.  Fat is needed for optimum brain function, and sugar glucose facilitates memory

Cramming & Studying Notes:

A quick note about the effectiveness of cramming and studying notes:  Research suggests these are not effective strategies.  While cramming can be beneficial for the short-term goal of doing well on a test or quiz, the information is not retained and will be needed later in the course or the student's academic career.

Studying notes and reading the text is believed to be less effective because the student spends too much time reviewing information they already know, and not enough time with information or concepts they don't!

More Information:

See my blog post from last May for additional study strategies that work and detailed research supporting the strategies.
If you are interested in learning more about Retrieval Practice, visit their website at Retrieval


  1. Hi Terry, I have shared a link to this post with both of my Freshman English classes; I am sure it will be helpful for them to consider as they prepare for midterm exams. It's so great to have research-based information to share with them. Thanks so much!


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