Let us tell you a story

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Learning strategies that have a high risk of being ineffective, are usually the ones learners prefer. We say, ‘have a high risk of being ineffective’, because the learning strategies we’re referring to, such as highlighting and summarising, are not necessarily ineffective. It’s the way learners apply them that often makes them useless (see our blog ‘Why some things don’t work and how we can make them work’).

Often, learners think they’ll remember more of something that they’re reading when they reread or highlight while reading it. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. To study effectively, and by this we mean studying in such a way that you’re able to remember and apply/use what you’ve learned a day, a week, a month, a year later, you need to use better learning strategies.

The question that arises is, then: How can we support and guide learners so that they choose and apply these – for them – new and more effective learning strategies? This blog is about a possible way to make that happen.

Although we know which learning strategies lead to actual learning (e.g., spaced practice, practice tests, explaining to self), many learners simply don’t apply them. This isn’t surprising, considering that they probably haven’t been taught and/or learned when and how to use these strategies.

This has been demonstrated by both Kim Dirkx et al. (2019) who looked at learners’ learning strategies, as well as by Tim Surma et al. (2018) who examined teacher training and found that teachers-in-training don’t even learn about the most effective strategies. And this isn’t a typically Dutch/Flemish thing. The National Council on Teacher Quality (Pomerance, Greenberg, & Walsh 2016) found the same thing in the US.

Let’s start with the learners. They often use learning strategies that have been widely shown to be ineffective, such as rereading and highlighting. These strategies are attractive to them because they’re simple to use and require little effort or time investment. In addition, they give a feeling of familiarity with the material (after rereading they get the feeling of ‘Hey, I recognise that!’) as well as perceptual fluency (they’re familiar with the strategies and therefore they require less effort). These strategies are preferred by the autopilot part of the brain and influences judgements of the quality of the, in this case ‘study’ experience. In other words, because the strategies are familiar, learners believe they’re doing a great job studying. However, the risk with these strategies is that they mainly appeal to and make use of working memory and not long-term memory. This is why they’re often ineffective. Working memory is ‘busy processing the content’, but isn’t busy transferring what needs to be learned to long-term memory. Because of the feeling of familiarity and perceptual fluency, learners think that they remember more but are, unfortunately, tricked by their own brain.

Another problem is the fact that the use of these (again, often) ineffective learning strategies has become a habit for them. Recently we discussed how difficult it is to break old habits, as they require very little effort to carry them out, are almost automatic in their use, and using them, even though they’re ineffective, requires much less effort than building new habits that are using effective (e.g., ‘retrieval practice’ and ‘spaced practice’). Another reason why the use of these effective strategies is hampered is that they belong to what are called desirable difficulties (Bjork & Bjork, 2011): These are things that seem to complicate and delay learning. The key word here is ‘seem‘, because though it might feel like it makes learning more difficult, in reality these strategies achieve the opposite, namely they both short-term learning (e.g., performance on a test) and long-term learning more effective and efficient.

And now the teachers; Tim Surma and colleagues (2018) looked at the textbooks and syllabi of 24 different teacher training colleges (for primary and secondary level teaching) and found that in general, textbooks and syllabi do not sufficiently cover essential topics from cognitive psychology or, in some cases, simply don’t cover them at all. These results are in line with Pomerance et al. (2016). Only three teacher education programmes provided textbooks and syllabi with a full coverage on spaced practice and two covered retrieval practice in their written course materials (i.e., what the techniques were, what the basis was for their effect, how they could/should be used, and references to the original research). Sadly, only one offered material which accurately covered both.

In a follow-up study with novice teachers (i.e., teachers who had very recently graduated from teacher education programmes, Surma, de Groot, Camp, and Kirschner (2022) assessed whether novice secondary school teachers knew and understood the effectiveness of empirically-supported learning strategies, namely spaced practice, retrieval practice, interleaved practice, using multimodal representations, elaborative interrogation and worked-out examples. The results showed that misconceptions about effective study strategies were widespread by novice teachers and suggested that they’re unaware of several specific strategies that could benefit student learning and retention. While popular but less effective strategies such as highlighting and summarising were commonly named by them, this was not the case for proven effective strategies.

The million-dollar question is: How do you get learners to (want to) learn more effective learning strategies? Luotong Hui and colleagues at Maastricht University (2021) researched precisely this. In their article they describe how they tried to use narratives[2] to stimulate the intention to change learning strategies. Their starting point was that the normal instructional approach (telling students how something works and why they ‘must’ do it) doesn’t seem to work. In this case, a narrative refers to a story in which ideas and opinions are intertwined in order to convince others. The researchers divided learners into three groups:

  • The first experimental group was shown a video in which two ‘peers’ – Max and Linda – talked about their experiences with changing their learning strategy and how it had worked for them (i.e., the narrative condition).
  • The second experimental group watched a video in which Max and Linda explained the science behind the strategies and why they were, therefore, more effective for learning (i.e., the instructional condition).
  • The control group was shown a video about manual labour (Note: We wonder to what extent such nonsensical control conditions make sense…).

Hui and colleagues found that narratives and instructional communication barely differed in effect: unfortunately, neither achieved behavioural change and neither seemed to really stimulate learners to change their strategy. However, stories did lead to a greater awareness of the importance of desirable learning difficulties. And as we often hear when talking about behaviour change, being aware is the first step towards real change.


Bjork, E., & Bjork, R. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society, 2, 59-68.

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(5), 952-957. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.3584

Hui, L. T., de Bruin, A. B. H., Donkers, J., & van Merrienboer, J. J. G. (2021). Stimulating the intention to change learning strategies: The role of narratives. International Journal of Educational Research, 107, [101753]. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2021.101753

Surma T., Camp G., de Groot R., & Kirschner P. A. (2022) Novice teachers’ knowledge of effective study strategies. Frontiers in Education, 7:996039. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2022.996039

Surma, T., Vanhoyweghen, K., Camp, G., & Kirschner, P. A. (2018). The coverage of distributed practice and retrieval practice in Flemish and Dutch teacher education textbooks. Teaching and Teacher Education, 74, 229-237. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2018.05.007

[1] A second problem is that some learners can’t separate the wheat from the chaff – usually due to a lack of prior knowledge – and thus either highlight too much or the wrong things.

[2] A narrative is a story or tale of a series of related events or experiences.