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Effective learning strategies: Making knowledge stick

Written by: Abdul Limbada
5 min read
Abdul Limbada, Teacher of Computing, RS and MFL, Eden Boys’ Leadership Academy, Manchester, UK

Richard Mayer’s (2018) book on how to become a successful learner offers study habits that will boost learning outcomes by helping students to master new material.  Some of these are discussed below in relation to classroom practice. The following 10 learning strategies or ‘habits’ are particularly effective:

1.       (Focused) re-reading 6. Drawing (of simple diagrams)
2.       (Minimal) highlighting 7. Self-testing (or retrieval practice)
3.       Pre-teaching (of keywords) 8. Self-explaining
4.       Summarising 9. Teaching
5.       (Graphical) mapping 10. Enacting

Habit 1: Re-reading

Students should re-read only the most difficult parts of the text. Many will re-read the whole text or one chapter two or three times and think they know it, but this just gives an illusion of knowledge, as familiarity with an idea makes you think that you know it well (Willingham, 2003). It is better for students to re-read only the part that they have not understood, with the intention of understanding it fully, and to use self-testing (Habit 7) to make sure that they have remembered it. I have turned this into a re-teaching habit – I re-teach or repeat those parts that students are struggling with the most, and slow down and ask lots of CFU (checking for understanding) questions when teaching the most complex topics in a subject. The more complex the topic, the more CFU questions I ask, and the short-term pain of slowing down and not covering as much content is countered by the long-term gain of students remembering the material, so that there is less re-teaching to do at the end of the year.

Habit 2: Highlighting

Highlighting should only be for the keywords or most important ideas in the text, and it should be used with summarising (Habit 4). For example, students could highlight the keywords and then create a summary, from memory, using only those keywords as prompts. I use highlighting in my presentations by making only key parts of the presentation appear and disappear, using PowerPoint animations – something that Mayer calls the ‘signalling principle’. At the end of the lesson, I will often leave the keywords on the screen and ask students to summarise the lesson using those keywords.

Habit 3: Pre-training

It is effective to learn the meanings of the key terms and difficult words before attempting to understand the concept. I provide students with a list of key terms and definitions, teach the meanings of those keywords during instruction, and then test students regularly on those keywords. Having the meanings of these terms at the tip of their tongue makes comprehension of more difficult ideas easier, as the working memory is not overloaded.

Habit 4: Summarising

Students should try to summarise the main ideas in a lesson in their own words, as the act of summarising involves organising the ideas, which are then more likely to be remembered. You can teach this to students in a few ways. One example is using the Cornell note-taking method (Cornell University, nd): split the page into three parts – notes, questions and summary. Students take notes in the notes section, then write questions connected to the notes in the margins (which can help with self-testing – see Habit 7), and finally summarise everything in the summary section.

Habit 5: Mapping

Creating maps or hierarchical structures of a text can be helpful for working out the structure of what is written. Oliver Caviglioli’s book on dual coding (2019) has examples of a large number of maps, or graphical organisers, and these can be taught to students, who can then make some for the texts that they are studying.

Habit 6: Drawing

Habit 6 takes advantage of what Mayer calls ‘dual channelling’ (Mayer and Moreno, 2003) and what Clark and Paivio (1991) call ‘dual coding’. This is the idea that pictures and text aid learning and comprehension better than pictures or text alone. Where possible, encourage students to turn descriptions into simple images that represent the ideas.

Habit 7: Self-testing

Self-testing, a form of retrieval practice (Jones, 2019), allows students to understand how well they know the material. The best way to embed self-testing is to do it regularly in class – I have recap questions at the start of every lesson, and make comprehension questions a key part of every lesson. I pepper individual students in my class with lots of questions (cold calling) and use whole-class choral responses as a quick way to work out whether they have understood or not (Lemov, 2015).

Habit 8: Self-explaining

Explaining material to yourself forces you to clarify your thoughts and exaggerates gaps in knowledge, which can then be addressed. I will sometimes ask students a question, give them 30 seconds to think about the answer, and then choose a random student to answer. Whilst students are formulating answers in their mind, they are effectively explaining the work to themselves.

Habit 9: Teaching

When a student attempts to teach what they have learnt to others, they benefit from getting feedback on the quality of their explanation. Just like self-explaining, teaching accentuates the gaps in knowledge. Peer-teaching is a way of encouraging the teaching habit, although it can be extremely tricky to get right (Facer, 2020).

Habit 10: Enacting

Engaging in task-relevant movements during studying can be helpful. Mayer gives the example of a teacher providing each student with a ball-and-stick model for understanding the structure of molecules. Other examples of enacting are the use of experiments in science, acting out scenes in a play in English and trying out code in computer science. Certainly, the emerging research area of embodied cognition, which describes thinking as rooted in sensory and motor experiences – our physical interaction with the world – has important implications for teaching (see Lawrence and Stolz, 2019; Learning Scientists, 2018).

Which strategies should you use?

It is the effective implementation of the strategies that will determine success. These strategies should not be shoe-horned into every lesson, but rather they should be kept at the forefront of your mind and used when the time is right. Each strategy should help to improve the retention or understanding of taught material and should only be used when you feel that it is appropriate to do so.


Caviglioli O (2019) Dual Coding With Teachers. London: John Catt.

Clark JM and Paivio A (1991) Dual coding theory and education. Educational Psychology Review 3(3): 149–210.

Cornell University (nd) The Cornell note-taking system. Available at: (accessed 19 February 2020).

Facer J (2020) Why peer assessment doesn’t work. TES. Available at: (accessed 20 February 2020).

Jones K (2019) Retrieval Practice: Research & Resources for Every Classroom. London: John Catt.

Lawrence S and Stolz S (2019) Embodied cognition and its significance for education. Theory and Research in Education (17): 19–39.

Learning Scientists (2018) Weekly Digest #118: Embodied cognition: Use of body and space to improve learning. Available at: (accessed 28 July 2020).

Lemov D (2015) Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Mayer R (2018) How to be a Successful Student: 20 Study Habits Based on the Science of Learning. Abingdon: Taylor and Francis.

Mayer RE and Moreno R (2003) Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist 38(1): 43–52.

Willingham D (2003) Why students think they understand—when they don’t. American Educator. Available at: (accessed 20 February 2020).

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