Popular study habits shown to hurt students’ grades


Forrest Wills

A student, Ashli Sibrel, studied for finals. This semester, more options will have extended hours for students to utilize during finals.

Tori Lentz, Reporter

What you’ve been taught

With final exams approaching, you might be gearing up to highlight every piece of information in your thick textbook to get ready for the big test. But common study habits such as simply highlighting key words and rereading your notes might not be nearly as effective as some students might think.

Study methods that involve skimming over previously learned material are considered low-yield, meaning that the information won’t actually stick over a long period of time, according to Jered Wasburn-Moses, coordinator of the Math Center and Success Skills Tutoring.

Yet 38 percent of NKU freshmen and 35 percent of NKU seniors stated they reviewed their notes in order to prepare, according to data from NKU’s 2015 National Survey of Student Engagement.

“It’s not that it’s completely valueless, but there are other activities that are much higher yield in terms of helping us retain knowledge,” Wasburn-Moses said. “I think people have never known particularly well how to study.”

According to a recent study published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, some of the lowest ranking study habits include rereading, memorizing keywords, mental imagery and highlighting text.

In addition to low-yield methods, Wasburn-Moses believes multitasking is another skill that hurts students when studying. It’s a habit he thinks is one of the most dangerous when trying to learn new material.

“A lot of students think that they can multitask, and so they are doing their homework while monitoring Facebook while listening to music,” Wasburn-Moses said. “A colleague of mine likes to say that multitasking is doing twice as much in twice the time, half as well.”

NKU Associate Psychology Professor Dr. Cecile Marczinski encounters students with a similar problem. Students will often tell her they studied for hours, but then are disappointed when they don’t perform well on a test. Sometimes, she said, this is because the student was multitasking while studying. But even more often, the student was simply trying to cram in too much information at once.

“You can only really study for an hour,” Marczinski said.  “Then you really need to exercise. That’ll mitigate stress and you want to do things that control your anxiety, whatever that is.”  


What works

Jordan Holt realized very quickly in her first semester that studying for classes in college was going to be drastically different from the way she studied in high school. The freshman nursing major found that in order to do well in her anatomy class, she had to make flashcards weeks in advance of a test.

“I have to study a lot earlier than I did in high school,” Holt said. “In high school it was pretty easy to cram the night before and be fine.”

Cramming in college simply won’t work, according to Marczinski. With the amount of material students are called upon to know for each test, breaking up studying into chunks is crucial to remembering it all.

“There’s only so much information you can retain at a certain period of time,” Marczinski said. “It’s much better if you distribute your practice over many days than trying to cram everything into one night. Even if it’s helped by an energy drink, you’re still not going to do very well.”

She also recommends that students study the way they’re going to be tested. For example, if the final exam in a class is a multiple choice test, students should take some practice multiple choice tests to prepare. If there is an essay portion, students should make sure they can articulate larger concepts and be able to provide examples in their writing. Ultimately, getting a good amount of sleep in between your days of studying will make all the difference, Marczinski said.

“When you sleep, that’s when memory consolidation occurs,” Marczinski said. “So when you study, then you need to sleep on it for your brain to actually remember it. The more times you can sleep, study, sleep, study, sleep, you’ll do better.”

Holt developed a system for studying for each anatomy test. A few weeks ahead of the big day, she makes note cards on Quizlet, a website that creates virtual flashcards. She’s also attended a few supplemental instruction classes over her first semester. The classes are review session taught by older students who have taken the class before.

Wasburn-Moses said that any sort of review session, such as supplemental instruction, can be very helpful when taking in new material. He believes office hours are valuable, but that students don’t take advantage of them.

“I think if you ask most people on campus, especially faculty, most people will agree…that the most underutilized resource is office hours,” Wasburn-Moses said. “Students are afraid of office hours for some reason. They find faculty intimidating or it’s just scary to encounter that person who has control over your grade and go in there and say, ‘I don’t get this.’”


Common Misconceptions

Formal academic tutoring in the Success Skills Center can also be helpful for understanding concepts, according to Wasburn-Moses. A mix of students enter the center, which offers help with writing, math and developing life skills such as time management. Around 50 percent of the students who go there for help have a 3.0 GPA and about a quarter have a 3.5 GPA, according to Wasburn-Moses.

“A lot of students have a misconception about tutoring, about who it’s for,” he said. “And I think that carries over from high school. In high school most of the time, tutoring is for students who fail the state exams, like the graduation exam.”

During the 2014-15 school year, 2,010 students visited the Math Center, Writing Center, Success Skills Center or took part in a supplemental instruction course or other form of tutoring. The average student made 3.5 visits for help last year, according to Wasburn-Moses.

“Even though we do see about 2,000 students a year, that’s only about 15 percent of the student body,” Wasburn-Moses said.

During tutoring sessions, Wasburn-Moses said he sometimes notices that students aren’t able to manage their time very well. A student may come in wanting to learn test taking tips when what they really need is to learn how to utilize their studying time more effectively.

Marczinski said habits of checking Facebook and other social media don’t help a student use their time effectively.

“Students get very distracted by social media. They might realize they’re behind in school or haven’t studied enough, but they’ve devoted hours to social media,” Marczinski said. “If they only tracked their time, they’d realize what a time suck it is.”

Senior biology major Lizzy Nickell said she’s guilty of looking at social media frequently while doing assignments.

“I probably get bored with whatever homework I’m doing every 10 minutes or so and check social media,” Nickell said. “I think some people are more disciplined than others. I definitely have no discipline at all.”

Studying for short periods of time without checking social media and then taking short breaks is the best way to stay disciplined and get things done, according to Dr. Marczinski. She believes studying to do well in college courses is a tough job.

“Intense activities take energy,” Dr. Marczinski said about studying. “You need more downtime than someone who has a regular job.”