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What New Research Says About How to Improve Students' Study Habits

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Now that my students need to be more self-reliant in how they're approaching their academic work, what advice can I give them about how to study?

The quarantine is an opportune time to help your students learn to learn. 

As a teacher, you play an essential role in their metacognitive development. Why? Because students very often fall into trapsstudying in a variety of ineffective ways but not realizing that there are better ways to learn.

In particular, learning typically requires sustaining what scientists call desirable difficulty. For example, students learn more from quizzing themselves on material (e.g., flashcards) rather than rereading it. And they learn more from varying what they're practicing rather than doing the same kind of problem over and over again. 

The paradox is that what feels fluent and easy is what students want to do, whereas what feels clumsy and difficult is where the real learning happens. 

A new research study shows that students often misinterpret ease for efficacy. When randomly assigned to desirable difficulty strategies, for example, learners think they're making more progress when they're asked to use easier, less effective strategies.

What does this mean for your students?

When your students study for a test by rereading the textbook, for example, the material soon looks familiar—and this leads students to believe, sometimes falsely, that they remember and understand the material. Instead, students should quiz themselves, a more active and demanding cognitive process that makes information more retrievable later on and, in addition, helps students identify what they don't yet know and need to study more.

I used to observe my own two girlsboth now in high schoolavoid desirable difficulty while studying. I tried to lecture them on the science of learning. I tried to point out that fluency is a mirage, that the real wellspring of growth is struggle.

Not surprisingly, my daughters weren't especially receptive to their mother's sermons. Ultimately, what made the biggest difference was getting the same advice from successful classmates a year ahead of them in school. Suddenly, there were flashcards everywhere, and the scrap paper in the recycling bin was covered with practice problems.

So, here's an idea that may work better than nagging or lecturing. Encourage your students to google "desirable difficulty." Ask them to find one thing they didn't know and tell you about it. And for older students, gently recommend a deeper dive on the science of learning. 

Why don't students naturally gravitate to effective but effortful study strategies? They may interpret struggle to mean they're getting nowhere. Help them discover that in fact, difficulty is desirable.

Angela Duckworth, the founder and CEO of the education nonprofit Character Lab, is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow Character Lab on Twitter @TheCharacterLab.


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