A picture of students studying. Ashford Gikunda outlines effective study tools for students during the COVID-19 period.

Too often people imagine that long hours of studying are the best path to being a model, straight-A student. On the contrary, research shows that highly successful students actually spend less time studying than their peers do; they just study more effectively.

Since schools were shut abruptly in mid-March, students have been grappling with online and other study models. Schools had created a routine whereby students had programmed and pre-determined study models.

This has since been interrupted by the COVID-19 Pandemic. As we navigate through the uncharted paths of this global pandemic, teachers can help all students learn to more effectively use the time they spend studying by sharing research-proven models.

Many teachers and parents alike, are of the impression that online learning is very effective. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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In this era of social media and digital distractions, many students—and adults—do a lot of multitasking. But there is no such thing as successful multitasking because much of the time spent is wasted on context switching, where the brain has to restart and refocus.

A student who is studying for Biology but occasionally checks his texts and scrolls through Instagram and Facebook has a low intensity of focus. Though he spends 3 hours “studying,” the work accomplished is only very minimal.

On the other hand, a student who takes steps to focus solely on Biology has a high-intensity of focus. Though she spends only an hour studying, she accomplishes more than her distracted classmate did in 3 hours.

This assertion, therefore, dispels the view that digital learning is effective all the time. Even the student who solely focuses on Biology for one hour has a level of ineffectiveness because she is not doing guided studies but instead generalized reading of a biology textbook.

Highly successful students have generally learned to avoid multitasking. Instead of spending a lot of time doing low-intensity work with numerous distractions, these students work for shorter periods at higher intensity, without any distractions from social media and other sources of distractions at home.

That is why students go to school. Their studying is more effective and leads to greater achievement gains.

Many students use learning techniques that are time consuming and give the illusion of mastery. They become familiar with ideas and information in preparation for a test, but forget it a week later because their learning techniques never led to long-term learning.

Topical questions study model is uniquely effective. The teacher or even the student generates possible questions from a topic of study. The student studies the specific topic with the possible questions in mind. As the student studies the given topic, he/she answers the questions generated as a way of mastering the content.

Researchers have found that topical questions study model increases sustainable learning and retention when incorporated in students’ daily study habits.

This model is difficult and requires effort, and it slows down learning but eventually is 80% more effective than blocked study model.

At the beginning, the learning gains seem to be smaller than with other study techniques but when inculcated as a habit it leads to long-term mastery.

The topical study model has a five-step procedure that ignites higher level of learning. The five steps are highlighted below.

Pre-test: When students practice answering questions, even incorrectly, before learning the content, their future learning is enhanced. Research has shown that pre-testing improves post-test results more than spending the same amount of time studying.

Spaced practice: Spacing out study sessions—focusing on a topic for a short period on different days—has been shown to improve retention and recall more than massed practice. The book ‘How We Learn’ by Benedict Carey explains that spaced practice can feel difficult due to an initial forgetting of knowledge—reacquiring that knowledge takes effort.

Self-quizzing: Exams have a negative connotation in this era of standardized testing, but it is a form of active retrieval practice. Students loathe the word exam.

However, we must face the reality. Let us encourage students to make test questions for themselves as they learn a new concept, thinking about the types of questions the teacher might ask on a quiz or test.

They should incorporate these quizzes into their study sessions, answering every question, even those they believe they know well. This concept is called Random Assessment Test (RAT). RATs are students-generated while Continuous Assessment Tests (CATs) are generated by teachers. The CATs shouldn’t eat the RATs…hehe, just kidding!

Interleaving practice: Students should not rely on blocked practice. This is purely time wasting. A more effective method of studying is to work on a set of topical question especially if they are spiral in nature.

 Paraphrasing and reflecting: Many of us have read a few paragraphs in a textbook only to realize that we didn’t retain a single concept or key point presented in those paragraphs. To show your students how to combat this, have them utilize topical questions study model. This study model is intentional learning.

Ashford Gikunda is a MA student in Project Planning and Management at the University of Nairobi and the innovator of Signal Topical Questions Study Model.

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