As an undergraduate at Stonehill College, Jessica Costello researched student and faculty knowledge of effective study techniques and sought a way to integrate empirically-supported learning techniques with the needs of the students she encountered as a writing tutor. She is currently working on her master’s in clinical counseling psychology at Assumption College and conducting research into recognizing emotional expression as well as the nature of serenity.
To researchers and educators in the fields of cognitive and educational psychology, it’s common knowledge that self-testing, distributed practice, and elaborative interrogation are some of the most useful study strategies insofar as they better promote retention of information (1). In most of the extant literature, researchers measure student retention with objective means like exam scores and the percentage of correctly-answered multiple-choice questions.
But we all know that students are regularly asked to complete more abstract tasks, such as answering an open response question, responding to a short essay prompt, or writing a twenty-page argumentative paper. Can the strategies recommended by Dunlosky et al. (2013) generalize to these open-ended assignments that don’t have one, measurable, concrete answer? While self-testing and distributed practice work well for, say, learning different mathematical concepts at once or learning terms for an upcoming psychology exam, open-ended, abstract assignments can be more subjective and require expanding the definitions of concepts like “learning” and “practice”.
A form of distributed practice may naturally be at work in the way most writers already write (2). In this study, participants had to both complete a sentence with an appropriate missing word and fix a grammatical error. When given the option, most writers chose to work on the bigger ideas of their sentences and paragraphs first, and would choose to fill in the missing word. They left smaller issues, such as misplaced punctuation marks, to be dealt with later. This research implies the strongest writers revise and edit in multiple rounds, focusing on a particular concern in each, and allowing themselves time to repeat the process if the need arises. In this form of spaced practice, material is not being memorized or learned in the traditional sense, but student writers are refining and improving their ideas in ways that will hopefully make the final product stronger.
While all of the specific strategies and tasks recommended by Dunlosky et al. (2013) might not translate perfectly from test-taking to paper-writing, studies show that the larger principles behind effective study strategies remain crucial to student success in writing. Namely, students who exhibit growth mindsets perform better, as do those who direct their own learning and writing habits.
As in any type of academic work, the overall keys to success in writing seem to be self-regulation (3) and metacognition (4).