Back to Top

Not all study strategies are equal

Posted on 17 May 2021

What does the field of cognitive science say about study strategy utility?

There is a common perception that all study strategies or activities are equal. However, this perception is incorrect and can lead many students to rely on study tasks that have limited impact on learning and are of ‘low utility’. The utility of a study strategy refers to the learning gain for invested time and effort. Much of the current emphasis around the utility of strategies stems from Dunlosky et al.’s (2013) influential article ‘Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology’. This research evaluates the utility of ten common study strategies using field-based collective empirical evidence (see below). In conclusion, they articulated that the higher the utility of a strategy, the greater the learning gain for the time invested.

Table 1. Assessment of common strategy utility (adapted from Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013))

Assessing common study strategies at Churchie

The longitudinal study of adolescent study tactics at Churchie has revealed some interesting trends. In an article under review in the Current Psychology journal, the student population identified 13 common study activities they frequently used. These were then analysed with a threefold focus: first, the incidence of student use of the high-utility-base cognitive strategies from A Learner’s Toolkit; second, the direct integration of the strategies into a student’s study routine; and third, the potential affordance of teacher or peer feedback. On this third measure, it should be made clear that none of the identified strategies by their design engendered feedback. Instead, feedback was only possible if the student integrated some form of formative assessment into their study routine.

Table 2. Assessment of Common Study Tactics at Churchie that apply Underlying Cognitive Strategies of A Learner’s Toolkit

Assessing the utility of common study strategies and activities at Churchie

In discussion with the School’s research partners at the UQ Science of Learning Research Centre and Professor Mark McDaniel (Washington University in St Louis), a simple algorithm was designed to measure the utility (low, moderate and high) of the common study activities used at Churchie. A numeric scale scored the incidence of the underlying A Learner’s Toolkit strategies and the 13 commonly used study tactics. The scale used was:

  • 2 points: yes, the cognitive strategy is explicitly used within the study task

  • 1 point: there is the potential for the cognitive strategy to be used based on student design and use of the study task

  • 0 points: no, the cognitive strategy is not explicitly used within the study task

Based on this scale, the assessment of the 13 common study strategies at Churchie revealed the following measure of utility.

Figure 1. Assessment of the Utility of Common Study Strategies at Churchie

Stay tuned for an update on A Learner’s Toolkit, as we share emerging evidence from our longitudinal study of adolescent study behaviours and strategies through their secondary schooling journey.