Building Effective Study Habits: 5 Things Research Says About Successful “Studiers”

By Mēgan Reimann, Special Education MA.Ed., NBCT

Being an effective “studier” and a competent student relies on more than just employing strategies that have taught, or even backed by research validating their efficacy. As Educational Psychologist Maribeth Gettinger puts it in her article, Contributions of Study Skills to Academic Competence:

“Study skills are related to other academic enablers. Studying involves both cognitive activities, to facilitate acquisition and retention of information, as well as self-management activities, to maintain attention, effort, and time devoted to studying.” 

She goes on to say that “failure to engage in effective study behaviors may be due to insufficient motivation, low engagement, or lack of home support.” I would also add that it is not limited to lack of support at home, but in my opinion, perhaps largely due to lack of effective teaching of such important cognitive processes and behaviors essential to learning HOW to become an effective studier, and not EXPECTING that students have, or should have, learned a specific strategy and should utilize it effectively.

The gist of this article indicates that there is far more to study skills than just teaching strategies or asking students to utilize study strategies. We as teachers, and parents need to go a bit deeper in order to create effective learners and “studiers.”

#1 There are study tactics and study strategies

Tactic: An approach to studying (e.g. repetition or rehearsal-based study strategies.)

  • Repetition/ Rehearsal based

  • Procedural or organization-based study skills

  • Cognitive-based study skills

  • Metacognitive-based study skills

Strategy: The tool to enable effective approach (e.g. repetition using note cards or flash cards)

  • Flash cards

  • Re-reading

  • Establishing study routines

  • Reciprocal teaching

  • Cognitive maps

  • Mental imagery

  • Metacognitive questioning “what are they trying to say?” “what does this mean”

“A study tactic may be taught through explicit instruction wherein the skill is operationalized and presented as a sequence of observable, isolated behaviors.” The strategy then is a tool used in order to approach the study task at hand. In order to be an effective “studier” one must know how to use a variety of strategies based on the type of study task. They must be flexible and use a tactical approach to the task and then utilize strategies that make sense to both the studier and the study task!

Which leads us to the next very important cognitive skill of self-monitoring and self- management.

#2 Self-management, self-awareness and self-monitoring are the keys to using study skills effectively.

Students need to be aware of the type of tactics and strategies that are appropriate for the study task at hand! Many students passively use the same inefficient strategy over and over and do not change up their approach. This typically can happen when students have been taught a specific way to do something (like take Cornell notes, or make flash cards) without understanding WHY that specific tactic and strategy is effective- or not effective in that situation.

Students must have strongly developed cognitive skills to include important executive functioning skills such as self-awareness and emotional control.

First, students must recognize the need for varied approaches to studying. Not all strategies are appropriate for all study tasks. The author of this article also implies that there is an expectation that students have the skills to independently utilize, monitor and modulate these cognitive (executive functioning) skills despite the fact that the demand and rigor of the material increases as well as the expected level of independence of secondary students to utilize, understand, and employ effective and appropriate study tactics and strategies with no real instruction, oversight or guided evaluation.

Executive Functioning Skills:

  • Self-awareness/self-monitoring

  • Self-regulation of attention

  • Self-regulation of emotional control and motivation

  • Persistence through a task

  • Time management and prioritizing

  • Problem solving and flexible/reflective thinking

  • Managing distractions and delaying gratification

#3 Active vs. Passive (engagement is important)

We know that “engagement” is key to becoming a successful learner and an effective “studier”. We also know that good studiers not only understand the types of tactics and utilize specific strategies, but they also “understand why, how, and when to use them”.  Good studiers also engage in ACTIVE learning and studying vs. PASSIVE “recipients” of information which can lead to distractibility, poor concentration, lower information processing abilities, poorer retention and comprehension of material.

“Successful students are willing to engage in study behaviors and persevere until they have adequately studied assigned content. Good studiers are able to shield their studying from competing behaviors or distractions, and maintain high levels of engagement.”

(Gersten, 1998).

Active Learning & Studying

  • Peer teaching

  • Talking/reading out loud

  • Metacognitive Questions: “how does this relate to….” “what are they saying” “What does that mean?” “This reminds me of…”

  • Standing, walking and talking, drawing pictures, using sticky notes, making cognitive mind maps

  • Getting more information- google images, youtube, asking questions, summarizing main points in chunks

  • Going manual- using manipulatives, drawing pictures or using objects

  • Cognitive strategies such as using mental imagery

Passive Learning & Studying

  • Sitting and listening

  • Memorization of material

  • Sitting and reading, and re-reading without a purpose or without understanding the depth of the information

  • Highlighting or underlining Looking through notes without interacting with them, asking questions, or adding to the information in some way

  • Ineffective note flash cards with too much information

  • Reading, studying alone for long periods of time

#4 Personalized and varied strategies (flexibility)

The teaching of study skills and of tactics and strategies is often limited to just teaching the procedural steps of the strategy. While these tactics and strategies are often backed by research as efficacious, when we don’t go beyond the instruction of how to employ them, we can easily get caught in  a “one size fits all” dilemma where students shallowly employ strategies that don’t make sense to that specific learner.

Beyond the “how,” it’s important to incorporate why certain strategies or tactics work in specific situations versus others, and allow for the experimentation, evaluation and modifications of taught strategies. While specific tactics, strategies, methods or tools can be valuable to explicitly teach students, we need to not leave it at that!

“Any single study tactic will likely require some modification and personalization on the part of students themselves. In developing an awareness of different strategies, students should be encouraged to explain the appropriateness of a particular study strategy for different tasks.” (Gettinger, 2002)

Thus, the key to teaching study skills, tactics and strategies is to allow for practice, evaluation, modifications, failures, and individualization of study tactics and strategies. Many of our students do not attempt to go “deeper” or experiment with study strategies due to the high stakes at hand when it comes to grades. In addition to the gravity of the grade, the looming pressure of time, and lack thereof it, and the increasing rigor of curriculum, discourages students from really digging in, experimenting, and learning about how to process information in a way that works for their individual learning styles and strengths.

“The most effective study-strategy instruction helps children to develop strategies that work for them. Unlike the focus of commercially available study-skills curricula, students should be actively involved in developing their own, personalized study strategies…” (Gettinger, 2002)

#5 Incorporate Tactics and Strategies into Learning

Through study-skills instruction, students become more efficient, thoughtful, and independent learners (Scheid, 1993) and perform better in school (Deshler & Schumaker, 1993). Even students who develop study skills on their own can learn to study more effectively and efficiently through explicit instruction (Wood et al., 1995).

There is clear evidence suggesting that study skill instruction can improve academic performance and not only help skilled learners, but also improve the effectiveness of individuals with learning differences.

Ways to help your learners and “studiers”

  • Focus on the PROCESS of learning new information and how to effectively process, recall, apply and synthesize new knowledge

  • Shift away from the PRODUCT or the regurgitation of information

  • Incorporate note-taking, specific study strategies, tactics and approaches to learning into the daily classroom by allowing students to interact and collaborate together

  • Provide motivation for students to interact, engage and spend time “going deep” and evaluating the efficacy of the strategies and tactics they use by incorporating their efforts into the overall grade.

  • Utilize peer teaching and evaluate assess the learning of information according to the engagement in the “learning about learning” process.

  • Research supports the needed shift in education away from high-stakes testing, content focused curricula and arbitrary learning targets and expectations that don’t allow for the personalization of learning given one’s learning style, brain development and overall strengths.


Mēgan, a coach here at the Hallowell Todaro ADHD Center, has been an educator for over 15 years.  She specializes in working with adolescents and young adults with learning differences (ADHD, Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia and Dyscalculia, Anxiety and Depression).

Her upcoming webinar, 'Building Effective Study Habits,' delves deeper into science behind studying and provides practical advice for parents and their children on how to study SMART, not hard.