Highlighter Junkies

By Chance Meyer  

There is far more research on how desirable difficulty improves learning than on how to make difficulty desirable. We know that people learn better when asked to retrieve information from memory than by rereading, but nobody likes being put on the spot. We know people learn better from feedback on mistakes than on successes, but nobody likes being told they’re wrong.

While good learning methods often feel bad, ineffective ones often feel good. The ease of a passive task like highlighting a book deceives learners into thinking they’re becoming fluent in the material. So educators have a hard time convincing students to trade the reassuring comfort of their highlighters for the sting of wrong answers on a practice test.

The more educators learn about learning, the more our knowledge of what students should do outruns our knowledge of how to get them to do it. But in a recent experimental study published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, a team of researchers began to close the gap. They trained students in effective learning strategies and then held in-depth focus groups to reveal the top reasons students did not adopt them.

Hypothesizing that training would increase awareness and use of effective learning strategies, they designed a program of three, two-hour sessions over six weeks. In the first session, randomly assigned first- and second-year undergraduates were taught about effective learning. In the second, they reflected on what they had learned. In the third, they did exercises to experience how effective learning strategies work better than more familiar ones. Students responded to weekly surveys about their study practices and, a week after the program, participated in focus groups, discussing why they did or did not change their ways.

The training helped. Pre- and post-testing revealed 21 test-group students knew more about learning strategies and reported doing more self-testing and less rereading and highlighting than 26 control-group students. But, more notably, the students who did not change their study methods, even after six hours of intensive training showing that their former methods were ineffective, provided three main reasons.

First, old habits die hard. Students who believed the strategies would work still faced a knowing-doing gap. Despite their best intentions, they lacked the discipline and persistence to make permanent changes. Second, students had lingering doubts. They weren’t quite convinced that the time and effort needed to change their study methods would be worth it. What if they abandoned their trusted methods only to see their grades drop? The third reason was external. To practice retrieval, students wanted more practice tests included in their class materials. They felt the curriculum was not designed to support and sustain the change they were being asked to make.

The results of the study suggest three ways educators could improve their efforts to get students to use effective learning strategies.

First, after we teach metacognitive concepts and skills, we should teach them some more. Students struggling to kick bad habits must not be riddled with doubts about whether they should. Even the test-group students had relatively low scores on assessments of their newly acquired metacognitive knowledge, suggesting continued learning was needed.

Second, if we want students to change, so must we. We need organizational commitments to embed resources and processes in the daily work of students that are consistent with the study methods we endorse. We should build desirable difficulty into our cultures so deeply that it will no longer be noticeable, much less doubtable.

Third, despite our instincts to nurture and support, we need to take students’ self-reports about their study methods with a grain of salt. The researchers had students submit photologs corroborating their self-reported study practices. But the students’ final reports still overestimated their use of learning methods compared to their own weekly reports. As time passed, they recalled their efforts more favorably and reported them less reliably. So we should be careful about changing our advice based on students’ representations without evidence. (Oh, you say you do a lot of self-testing? Okay then, let’s consider other changes you can make to improve.

The researchers recognized some limitations. Their sample was small, the self-selected students were amenable to training, self-reports are unreliable, and they did not measure changes in academic performance. Did the students improve? Did the learning last? There is reason to suspect not. The test-group students reported the teaching session was more helpful than the experience session. Demonstrating the very paradox the study sought to correct, they felt they learned more from being told about learning than from doing it. 

Further research is needed, but by targeting the reasons students relapsed, the study provides useful considerations for what we might do better to help students sustainably desire difficulty. 


Chance Meyer is a Lecturer on Law in the Academic Excellence Program at New England Law | Boston and an Ed.D candidate at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development.