How Can We Help Students Study Better?

This story might sound familiar:

You attend a Learning and the Brain conference (like, say, our upcoming conference about Teaching During a Pandemic) and come away with FANTASTIC ideas.

You go back to your classrooms — in person, online, asynchronous — and tell your students all about the amazing research you saw. (Perhaps you discuss the importance of retrieval practice, which helps much more than old-fashioned review.)

Your students sound thrilled!

And yet, the very next day they ignore your retrieval practice suggestion, and go right back to rereading their notes. Ugh.


What can we do to help our students study correctly — which is to say: how can we help them learn more, and more effectively?

In a recent article, Mark McDaniel and Gilles Einstein offer a 4-step framework to help change students’ study behavior.

Called KBCP — which stands for “Knowledge, Belief, Commitment, and Planning” — this framework could make a real difference for long-term learning.

The Short Version

In brief:

Knowledge: we should tell students about the study strategy or technique that research has shown to be effective: say, spacing, or generative learning strategies.

Belief: students then undertake an exercise that demonstrates the benefits of this strategy.

Commitment: students get onboard with the idea. They don’t just know and believe; they buy in.

Planning: next, they make a specific and measurable plan to enact their commitment.

As McDaniel and Einstein’s article shows, each of these steps has good research behind it. Their contribution to this field: they bring them all together in a coherent system.

McDaniel and Einstein emphasize that teachers shouldn’t rely on just one or two of these steps. They all work together to help students learn more:

Our central premise is that all four components must and can be explicitly targeted in a training program to maximize self-guided transfer of effective learning strategies.

The problem with the story that began this blog post, in other words, is that it targets only the first of these four steps. To help our students learn, we need to do more and better.

One Example

This article makes for such compelling reading because the authors both explain the research behind each step and offer specific classroom examples to show what they mean.

For instance: the “belief” step encourages teachers to design an exercise that helps students really believe that the technique will work. What would such an exercise look like?

If, for instance, we want to encourage students to “generate explanations” as a memory strategy, what exercise would persuade them that it works?

M&E describe a strategy they’ve often used.

First: have students learn several simple sentences. For instance: “The brave man ran into the house.”

Second: for half of those sentences, encourage students to (silently) generate an explanation: perhaps, “to rescue the kitten from the fire.”

Third: when we test students on those sentences later, they will (almost certainly) remember the second group better than the first. That is: they’ll have reason to believe the strategy works because they experienced it themselves.

McDaniel and Einstein include such examples for each of their four steps.

And Beyond

This article gets my attention for another reason as well. The authors write:

There are many potentially effective ways to actualize the key components of the KBCP framework, and we offer the following as one possible example of a training program.

Frequent readers recognize my mantra here: “don’t just do this thing; instead, think this way.”

In other words, McDaniel and Einstein don’t offer readers a to-do list — a set of instructions to follow. Instead, they provide ideas for teachers to consider, and then to adapt to our own specific teaching context.

KBCP will look different in a 2nd grade classroom than a high-school classroom; different in a gym class than a tuba lesson; different in a Brazilian cultural context than a Finnish one.

Research can offer us broad guidance on the directions to go; it can’t tell us exactly what to do with our own students.

The KBCP framework creates another intriguing possibility.

I recently saw an article saying — basically — that “teaching study skills doesn’t work.”

Its provocative abstract begins:

This paper argues that the widespread approach to enhancing student learning through separate study skills courses is ineffective, and that the term ‘study skills’ itself has misleading implications, which are counterproductive to learning.

The main argument is that learning how to study effectively at university cannot be separated from subject content and the process of learning.

Having seen McDaniel and Einstein’s article, I wonder: perhaps these courses don’t work not because they can’t work, but because they’re currently being taught incorrectly.

Perhaps if study skills classes followed this KBCP framework, they would in fact accomplish their mission.

M&E acknowledge that their framework hasn’t been tested together as a coherent strategy. To me at least, it sounds more promising than other approaches I’ve heard.

category: L&B Blog

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