What are the best learning strategies for students heading to university?


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In the past couple of decades, academics from the field of neuroscience have researched the effectiveness of different learning strategies on students’ attainment and performance. Using randomised controlled experiments and carefully designed protocols, these studies have consistently shown that some strategies are more effective than others.

However, by the time pupils leave school to enter university, most of them are still using poor learning techniques that affect their exam and course results. Such study strategies are therefore key to succeed in higher education and become a world class graduate in their field.

What are effective learning techniques?

One of the learning strategies that has received wide support from academic research is Retrieval Practice. To use this strategy, students need to answer questions and actively bring knowledge to mind. The more a piece of information is retrieved, the more it is understood in connection to other knowledge. This is in clear contrast to the strategies of re-reading the same notes or highlighting the textbook. However, as most teachers will know, students spend a good part of their time doing exactly that.

Another effective way of studying is to spread out revision and switch between topics after shorter periods of time. These strategies receive the name of Spacing and Interleaving. It is basically the opposite of cramming, a very common strategy among school pupils and university students.

Lastly, due to our brain’s limited capacity to process novel information, the strategy of Dual Coding is also effective. This consists of combining verbal and visual information when studying. For example, pupils can use mind maps, diagrams, timelines and others.

Have students learned the best way to study by the time they leave school?

Although we know about the good strategies, do students actually use them? Recent research reveals that they don’t.

For example, one article reports that out of 177 university students, only 11% of them were using Retrieval Practice to prepare for exams. Another article investigated the habits of 472 university students and found that, while 68% of them use quizzes when studying, only 18% believe that these quizzes help them to learn more. The same research revealed that only 11% of students plan their revision ahead, rather than simply study for the next due exam. Even amongst students that correctly identify the good strategies, 34% of them will simply not use them, as shown in another piece of research.

Ways of improving studying and learning strategies

As Dr Sumeracki says, it is important that researchers, lecturers and teachers communicate better with students and show them the different learning techniques. There are very good resources online that can help with increasing awareness. For example, this Medicine student explains his study routine and also the evidence supporting its effectiveness:

Another excellent free resource is an online course for teachers about the cognitive sciences and the brain created by neuroscientist of the free revision and homework platform – Seneca Learning.

For students to reach their potential at university, they should be expert learners by the time they leave school. However, a lack of awareness of good learning techniques makes pupils spend their time using strategies that do not work well. The application of results and evidence published in research articles is crucial to change this pattern.

No matter if you’re a UK, EU or international student studying full or part time at university, identifying learning strategies that work well for you is important as the evidence shows. If you don’t get the basics right, you might struggle to achieve the results for your degree you desire and such can often lead to lower chances in the job market. See one of our articles demonstrating also the financial struggles as a student or graduate that may arise with this.

Hopefully the recommendations in this article will help future university students to reflect on their own learning habits and adapt them where needed.


Author Profile

Flavia Belham
Dr Flavia Belham applies experimental findings from Neuroscience to the free homework and revision platform of Seneca Learning as Chief Scientist. During her PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, she used behavioural and brain imaging techniques to investigate how people of different ages memorise emotional events. She is a certified Science teacher and has worked in schools before starting her PhD.

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