All Study Strategies Are Not Equal: Save time by studying smarter

Do you know what strategy works the BEST?

By Christine Harrington Ph.D.

Have you ever studied for an exam only to be disappointed with your grade?  If you answered yes to this question, you are not alone.  Students often spend countless hours studying yet do not perform well on exams.  This is most likely due to the study strategies they are using.  Research shows that some study strategies are more effective than others (Harrington, 2016).  The strategy that most students use- and is unfortunately the least beneficial- is reviewing notes.  Think about it- reviewing your notes doesn’t take much effort or energy.  It’s a pretty low level cognitive task.  Perhaps the biggest problem with this approach is that you may feel very confident with the material, often too confident, even if you don’t know the content well (Karpicke & Blunt, 2011).  The reason that this is problematic is that this overconfidence means you will probably stop studying too soon (Dunlosky & Rawson, 2012).

Reviewing is a good starting place, but you can’t stop there if you want to really learn the material and do well in the class.  Learning requires much more active engagement with the content.  So what strategy does work best?  Testing yourself!  Researchers have found that students who continually try to recall the information just learned and quiz themselves often learn the most and perform the best (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). In their study, students were asked to learn content one of three ways:

1. Study the material four times (SSSS)
2. Study the material three times and then test yourself once, recalling the content (SSST)
3. Study the material once and test yourself three times (STTT)

As you can see in the chart, students who spent their entire time studying did the best at first.  However, a week later, the opposite results were found.  The students who engaged in the most testing did the best even though they spent the least amount of time studying!  Knowing the information five minutes later is obviously not nearly as important as being able to remember the content a week later.


Psychologists call this the “testing effect.”  Research has consistently found that testing yourself is the best way to learn.  What this means is that we need to think differently about tests.  We used to think about tests as a way to show what we have learned, but this research shows us that testing is also a way TO learn! In fact, it is one of the best ways to learn.

The good news is that there are many mobile and online tools that can make testing yourself easy to do.  For example, the Cengage Learning MindTap Mobile app has flashcards and quizzes right at your fingertips.  Creating your own flashcards is a great way to put the testing effect into practice.  Taking practice or online quizzes in MindTap will also help you make the most of your time by engaging in strategies that really work.  If you want to get the most out of your study time, be sure to test yourself by using flashcards and quizzes.


Dr. Christine Harrington is a professor of Psychology and Student Success and the director of the Center for the Enrichment of Learning and Teaching at Middlesex County College in NJ.  She is an expert on student success research and is the author of a research-based first-year seminar textbook, Student Success in College:  Doing What Works!  2nd edition published by Cengage Learning.  She is also the coauthor of Foundations for Critical Thinking, published by the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.  She frequently presents at national conferences, colleges and universities, engaging audiences on numerous topics such as motivation, maximizing the use of syllabus, rigorous yet supportive curriculum, critical thinking, and dynamic lecturing.  For more information about Dr. Harrington, visit her website at

Harrington, C. M. (2016).  Student success in college:  Doing what works! 2nd edition.  Boston:  Cengage Learning.
Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studyingwith concept mapping. Science, 331(6018), 772-775.
Roediger, H., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-Enhanced Learning: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249-255.   doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01693.x