The 6 Most Effective Study Habits

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Helen Sharpe

Helen works at The Radclyffe School in Oldham as English AST and Lead Teacher for Literacy. She has worked tirelessly to build a culture of reading through regular assemblies and whole-school initiatives while trialling and sharing best practice in pedagogy. Helen is passionate about curriculum...
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What are the best ways to study?

It’s common to hear students say ‘You can’t really revise for English.’ This is, of course, incredibly frustrating for teachers to hear but, if we don’t model how best to revise, is it any wonder that students struggle or worse don’t bother?

Higher-ability students may well find their own way but those who need it most: the middle-lower end students are likely to just give up. Keeping this in mind, I was interested to read The Learning Scientists blog about the six most effective study methods which I feel we must share with students through regularly modelling how to use them. Below, I will summarise each of the six ways I use them to help students remember the huge amount of content required for their exams.

1. Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice is recalling information without any prompts. When I do retrieval quizzes with my classes, I always say “it’s important you don’t look back in your books as that’s just copying which isn’t learning.”

An important part of retrieval practice is checking the accuracy or level of detail students have produced against notes afterwards. I model this regularly for students and we have a go at it in class together before I set it as homework. When modelling, I break it down into these steps:

(i) Read through the information

(ii) Cover it up and write down everything you remember

(iii) Check your answers against the material

(iv) Fill in any gaps in a different colour.

You may want to take step one out at some point!

2. Spacing

This is an uncomfortable one for students I think because it involves allowing themselves to forget!

The first important part of spacing is little and often, not cramming, as this is what some students will revert to if left to their own devices. Teachers and students should allow some time to pass before revising a lesson’s content – and ensure they are reviewing older topics too. One way to encourage this through our teaching is to teach one topic while setting revision homework on something previously studied.

3. Elaboration

In Ofsted’s new framework, they state that teaching should be designed to ‘help learners integrate new knowledge into larger concepts’. This is what elaboration is all about: creating links between different ideas, asking how they are similar and different and applying their knowledge to their own memories and experiences.

Essentially, it is about making connections. Teachers are great at using analogies in order to explain concepts and make them concrete for our students. Encouraging students to do the same is powerful. For example, asking why two characters or authors are alike, or getting students to consider a time of huge change or conflict in their lives to imagine how a particular character felt can make concepts easier to understand and more memorable.

Read more about how to make teaching and learning more memorable.

4. Interleaving

Often confused with spacing, interleaving is switching between topics or ideas. Students should also be encouraged to study topics or ideas in different orders and to make links as they switch in order to strengthen understanding and memory. We should be reminding students of ‘desirable difficulties’ when training them to revise this way, as it will feel harder than studying one topic at a time, but it is more beneficial in the long-term!

5. Concrete Examples

Teachers recognise the power of models and regularly break them down for students to show the ingredients needed for success, making learning concrete. Many teachers and researchers believe (and I agree) that this is more useful for students than abstract mark schemes that may ask for ‘perceptive comments’ or ‘pertinent examples’ without any indication of what the difference between ‘confident’ and ‘perceptive’ actually is. Not to mention the vocabulary barrier created by some of these words and phrases! As part of the revision, then, students should study our concrete examples. I now include model paragraphs in knowledge organisers and try to replicate them.

6. Dual-coding

Research has shown that combining words with visuals is effective in aiding both understanding and memory. My most successful example of this recently has been while teaching Rhetoric to a bottom-set year 7 class.

It is a running joke that I am terrible at drawing but even I can manage to draw a tie to represent ethos (reputation/credibility), a brain for logos (logic/knowledge) and a heart for pathos (feelings). Chris Curtis goes further and creates images to go with all the key techniques in English and to help students remember the plot of texts they are studying. Including visuals in revision, materials can prove a great memory aid for students.

Read more about dual coding and what it means for you.

In the past, I have never really given students any guidance on how to revise. I’ve just expected them to do it. But it seems we are entering a brave new world in education where we now have access to the most effective strategies according to research. We at last have an opportunity to explicitly model ‘what works’ to students. We can, therefore, create effective study habits from year 7.


3 thoughts on “The 6 Most Effective Study Habits

  1. Combine retrieval and spacing into a formal Leitner system of spaced repetition. As an adult, I taught myself GCSE-level Italian just using a spaced repetition app (Anki) and listening to an Italian podcast (News in Slow Italian), over the course of a few months. I became quite comfortable speaking only Italian while on holiday there.

    But you can’t run this system as the only teacher in a classroom, because it is impossible for a human to keep track of how well each child remembers each word or phrase. You need to track that in order to know when to present that word for retrieval again. Well-remembered words can be presented after longer intervals. Weaker words with shorter intervals. Over time, the interval is such that you are presented with a word just around the time you are starting to forget it. Probably the best example of where technology really can do a better job than a human.

    I’ve never heard of this system being used formally in a classroom, though. Which is odd. No good for studying Shakespeare, of course, but perfect for things that need to be learned by rote such as MFL vocab and times tables.

    1. Bruce Greig, can you elaborate on how you combined the retrieval and spacing together? What type of schedule/routine did you follow? I am intrigued now.

      What would you recommend as a tracking system for students in the classroom? Categories…

  2. The study habits that children develop at an early age will influence how they learn throughout their school years. Elementary school teachers and parents play an important role in helping children establish the best approaches to learning. I totally agree with that.
    We as teachers can teach more than just revision. Picking up even a few good study habits can make a significant difference. Students should be encouraged to continue to learn how to learn. Goal setting, time management, prioritization (more about this could be found in the article: I know that these may seem like natural things (as well as revision) but they need to be learned. And kids who have these skills succeed better.

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