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The best study strategies

Posted 2:49 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023

Tesia Marshik, UWL associate professor of Psychology, is a developmental and educational psychologist.

Educational psychology expert shares how to learn 

In Tesia Marshik’s educational psychology classes at UW-La Crosse, students study the concept of “Learning How to Learn.” While it’s an important part of the syllabus, it’s also a skillset most college students would benefit from knowing, she says. 

“You can often get by with a shallow studying strategy in high school, but that's not the case in college,” says Marshik. “When students struggle in college, sometimes they begin to second guess themselves and their abilities because they’ve never struggled in school before. They think, ‘I must not be good enough,’ instead of thinking, ‘I need to adjust my approach.’”  

Marshik has helped thousands of college students improve their approach to study strategies. Over the last eight years, she’s taken that message around the world, speaking about effective study skills and debunking educational myths for diverse organizations from the American Massage Therapy Association to the Institute for Study Abroad. Marshik gained an international reputation after a breakthrough TEDx Talk on learning styles that has garnered 1.2 million views.  

Marshik was recently recruited to create and host the Audible series, “Learning How to Learn.” The series, for anyone who wants to boost learning skills, includes misconceptions about learning, study strategies, study pitfalls, motivation, self-regulation and more.   

“I love being able to share applied principles from psychology, so that other people can apply them to promote their growth, fulfillment and life satisfaction,” she says. “I try to do that every day in my classroom but to reach even broader audiences is very fulfilling.” 

Below Marshik shares some of her best strategies for learning. 

Studying strategies 

Laptop with UWL Eagles stickers

Renew your definition of studying

One mistake students make is thinking that “studying” only happens after class or before an exam. Studying really occurs during three different time periods.

  • In preparation for class. Ideally, the lecture should not be the first time you hear of a new concept. Instead, the lecture should jog your memory of a concept, allowing your brain to begin to make connections among all the new pieces of content you are learning. So, instead of waiting for lecture to learn, prepare for class. Think about what will be covered. Do any assigned readings and come up with questions. This practice will pay great dividends for a stronger memory and understanding of a topic. Think of it like constructing a brick building where each idea is a new brick. The more connections you make between the bricks, the more mortar is spread between the bricks and the more solid the construction becomes. “Preparation before a class doesn’t always happen. That may not always be possible. But the more preparation you can put in before you get in the classroom, the easier it will be to follow along.”  
  • During class. Being physically present in class is not helpful if you are not participating. You need to engage and monitor your learning during class time. Think about what you are understanding and what is unclear. Ask clarifying questions when needed! And write what you are learning down. Some students tell Marshik: “I learn better if I just sit and listen.” But your brain can only handle so much at once. While you may be able to listen and understand content in the moment, there is no guarantee that you will remember it later. This is especially true when you are required to recall important details and when you are taking multiple classes.  
  • After class. When the class is done, take some time to review what you learned, consolidate the information, and identify any gaps in your understanding. Then, write down or think of what follow-up questions you have, or make an effort to review course materials again to fill in any gaps.  

Use ‘spaced practice’ when studying  

If you wait until a day or two before an exam to review, you will feel overloaded and not retain the information as well. Do spaced practice instead. This is where you study in shorter time segments repeatedly over time — maybe two or three times a week. This helps combat the mental overload of one, mega study session. Waiting until an exam also increases the likelihood that you’ll use rote memorization because you won’t have time to fully process and think about the content. Our memories are malleable. The more you use it, the more you can strengthen your mind and the easier it is to retrieve information when you need it.   

Do practice testing when studying  

One mistake students make when studying is to think it is enough to just re-read material. But this strategy is one of the least effective for learning. For most of us, reading in our native language is pretty automatic. While we may be flipping pages, we are not necessarily processing what we just read. We've probably all had moments of reading when we stopped and thought, “Wait a minute! I have no idea what I just read!” And while things may seem familiar when you re-read, familiarity is not the same as understanding. The key to learning is to actively engage and practice recalling. Ask yourself questions like: Can I describe that theory? Do I remember the meaning of that term? Write it out. Try to draw connections between concepts instead of studying each thing separately. Lastly, study in ways that will be relevant to how you are going to be tested. If it will be an essay, practice writing an essay. If it will be working out a math problem, do that. 

Quit multitasking  

The cognitive research has been out for a long time on this one, but people still think that multitasking will help them conquer tasks more quickly and efficiently. The research has shown that no one is good at multitasking. Our brains can only process so much information at once.   

When we think we are multitasking, what we are really doing is “task switching,” or redirecting our attention from one thing to another. This doesn’t make us more productive; It divides our attention. Think of multitasking like a baker who puts a cake in the oven and then keeps opening the door to check on it. If you do that enough, the time to bake gets longer, and you may even ruin the cake. The same is true with attention. Keep pulling away from your point of focus, and you’ll waste time and energy redirecting yourself back to the primary task, perhaps not even finishing it. 

Multitasking also includes having your phone or a website chat open and available for you to look at periodically while working. Each ding of the machine forces you to shift your attention away. And they’re hard to resist! Instead, silence and put away your phone and close out distracting web apps.   

Don’t be afraid to ask for advice  

Ask your instructor how the test will be structured and the best way to prepare for the exam. Will it be an essay or problem solving? Peer tutors can also be helpful, since they’ve been there already and likely know what it takes to succeed. 

What you think about your ability to learn matters  

Your beliefs about learning can influence how well you will learn. If you believe something should be easy or quick, that’s how you will approach the task. If you believe “I’m going to grow,” you are more likely to put in the effort needed to reach the goal. Our beliefs about our own learning are sometimes hard to shift or even uncover as they are shaped by society — teachers, parents and others — who’ve shared feedback with us and contributed to whether we have a fixed or growth mindset. Consider the simple comment in reaction to reaching a goal, “You’re so smart” vs. “You worked so hard on that.” When people hear the first comment often enough, they start to value “looking good” more than actual learning or growth. So, they may take shortcuts and may believe they are not smart when things are challenging. But when people hear the second comment, they tend to put more value on effort, and see challenge as a natural part of learning, both of which are more likely to lead to growth and higher performance over time. 

Be patient with yourself  

Studying, like anything you learn, takes practice. You may not see immediate improvement, but over time you will. It will get easier. Also, have patience with the learning process. You are in the class because you don’t know the information. It is OK that it is hard sometimes and the process of learning is slow. Trust in the process and use your instructors as guides who will help you reach your long-term learning goals.  

About Tesia

Tesia Marshik

Tesia Marshik, UWL associate professor of Psychology, teaches psychology at UWL. A developmental and educational psychologist, she combines these areas to help people understand how educational strategies can be adjusted based on basic development and how the brain works.  

In addition to her new “Learning How to Learn” Audible series, Marshik also published a book chapter on “The Myth of Learning Styles” and was recruited by the editor of “Investigating Pop Psychology” to edit a new book, “Investing Educational Psychology: Exploring Common Misconceptions about Teaching and Learning.”   

About the App 

The “Learning How to Learn” series includes misconceptions about learning, study strategies, study pitfalls, motivation, self-regulation, and more.   


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