How do you help students use more effective learning strategies?

Student markeert zinnen in een tekst met een stift

From cognitive psychology, we know how to learn facts so that you remember them for a long time (Dunlosky et al., 2013). This is the result of more than 125 years of study. As such, you would think everyone would eagerly use this knowledge to learn as effectively as possible, and yet students use suboptimal learning strategies en masse (Dirkx, Camp, Kester, & Kirschner, 2019; Karpicke, Butler, & Roediger, 2009, but also: Broeren et al., 2021). Why is this? And how do you help students use more effective learning strategies?

Why do students use suboptimal learning strategies?

Firstly, more effective learning strategies take more effort (Bjork, 1994). Rereading a chapter to see if you've 'got it', is a lot easier than writing down everything you still remember. Putting in effort is generally viewed as negative (David, Vassena, & Bijleveld, 2022). This can lead to students not using the learning strategies. 

Additionally, we see that students do not realise that the learning strategies they are using are not as effective. Expanding on the example of rereading a chapter: the 'learning' is easy and students use this as an indication (referred to as a cue in the literature) that they have learned the chapter. But in this case, the cue is false; it is not indicative for learning (or in fact performance). When students use the wrong cues to guide their learning, they unjustly think that they understand the subject matter, when in fact they do not.

Using the correct cues

In a recent keynote professor Anique de Bruin spoke on what you can do to get students to study more effectively. One of her lessons was: Use the correct cues. A good way to look at this lesson is by means of the cue utilization framework (De Bruin, Dunlosky, & Cavalcanti, 2017; zie figure 1). 

Grafische weergave van het Cue Utilization Framework
Figure 1: Cue utilization framework

De Bruin's lesson consists of two of the three lines from the framework. On the one hand, the lesson highlights the importance of the diagnosticity: the measure in which a cue is indicative of the actual learning. For example, easily recognising and understanding concepts in a chapter is not very indicative for the learning (or the performance). On the other hand, the lesson highlights the importance of the use of the cues: utilisation. Only when students use the indicative cues to determine what they have learned, will their learning process improve. 

And still, we see students use les indicative cues to measure whether they have mastered the subject matter. For example, when a student has the book with them while learning, the student can easily process the information and retrieve additional information. This is also called fluency. But this fluency has no relation to actual learning. This is because during the exam, the book will not be available and, as such, it will be a lot harder to retrieve the information solely from memory. So by using fluency as a cue at that moment, the student gets an incorrect picture.

Students use more of these less than stellar cues, such as perceived diffculty (how difficult they find a topic) or familiarity (how familiar they are with a topic). In other words, these cues are not very indicative for actual learning.

Helping students to use more indicative cues 

If you want to help students use more indicative cues, there are two things that can help you.

  • Firstly, we need to ensure that students generate these cues themselves. If we have students write down the main points of a text after reading it, their assessment of their learning improves (monitoring accuracy). They, for example, notice that they do not remember some of the main points as well as they thought, and can take this into account in their assessment of their learning. 
  • Secondly, we need to separate studying and assessing students learning. When you immediately try to assess what you have learned after studying the material, there is a chance that you are testing your short term memory rather than your long term memory. However, if you leave a few minutes between studying and assessing what you have learned, that assessment becomes a lot more acurate. 

Self-evaluation prompt

Combined, this means having students make their self-generated assessment, but not directly after studying. The literature calls this combined intervention a predictive cue prompt or a self-evaluation prompt. This self-evaluation prompt is intended to support students in making an assessment about their own learning. The form can vary greatly, but the prompt always meets these two criteria: 

  1. there is a pause between study and assessment
  2. students generate the cue themselves
Explain why it is important to have a good assessment of your learning

An example of such a self-evaluation prompt is a braindump or mindmap in which students write down all the information from the first part of the lecture or tutorial. It is important that students stick to the two criteria, i.e. that they do not reach for their notes or book. Therefore, explain why it is important to have a good assessment of your learning. As a lecturer, you could even use the information from the self-evaluation to dwell a little longer on the parts that students do not yet fully understand. 

You could also give students self-evaluation prompts outside of the lecture or tutorial, because a practice exam (or other types of practice assignments) also fulfills the two criteria (as long as students use them properly). There are numerous ways to create self-evaluation prompts that support student learning.


Would you like to know how to implement self-evaluation prompts, or would you like to know more about effective learning strategies? Then you can enlist the help of an educational consultant, who will think along with you so that your students can make better assessments of their learning in the future. Please contact us. 


Bjork, R. A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe and A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 185–205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual review of psychology, 64, 417-444.

Broeren, M., Heijltjes, A., Verkoeijen, P., Smeets, G., & Arends, L. (2021). Supporting the self-regulated use of retrieval practice: A higher education classroom experiment. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 64, 101939.

David, L., Vassena, E., & Bijleveld, E. (2022). The aversiveness of mental effort: A meta-analysis. PsyArXiv.

De Bruin, A. B., Dunlosky, J., & Cavalcanti, R. B. (2017). Monitoring and regulation of learning in medical education: the need for predictive cues. Medical Education, 51, 575-584.

De Bruin, A. B. (2023, April 21). De moeite waard: Studenten helpen zelfstandig effectieve leerstrategieën te gebruiken. [Keynote] Symposium Effectief leren ter ere van de oratie van prof. dr. Gino Camp, Heerlen.

Dirkx, K.J.H., Camp, G., Kester, L., & Kirschner, P.A. (2019). Do secondary school students make use of effective study strategies when they study on their own? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 33, 952-957. 

Ebbinghaus, H. (1885). Über das gedächtnis: untersuchungen zur experimentellen psychologie. Duncker & Humblot.

Karpicke, J.D., Butler, A.C., & Roediger, H.L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practice retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17, 471-479.