Making Study Guides That Work

A student studying by reading his notebook and textbook

Often, our high school and college students are provided with study guides that include vocabulary and important questions. While study guides can be helpful, students often use them passively by just “looking over them.” Active studying, preferably involving small study increments over multiple days, has been shown to be the most successful way for us to retain information and “make it our own.” How can we make studying a more active process for students?

Review in Small Chunks

Research on memory has shown that reviewing what you learn frequently in small “chunks” has better results than studying for a long time the day before a test. This illustration↗(link opens in new tab/window) (Figure 2 – Using Spaced Learning to Combat the Forgetting Curve) depicts this finding, made popular by German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus in the late 1800s.

Red-Yellow-Green It

The first step when studying information is to figure out what you know and what you are less sure of. You can use red, yellow, and green highlighters to:

  • Highlight in green the parts of the study guide (vocabulary, questions) that you are sure you could answer correctly NOW
  • Highlight in yellow those items you “sort of” remember but are unsure about
  • Highlight in red those items that you don’t know or you don’t remember learning

While we tend to go over and over the information we already know, it works better to focus on the reds and yellows, the more challenging information.

Select an Active Strategy

Determine an active strategy for solidifying the information you do not know as well. For example, you can make flashcards, use Quizlet, discuss the information with a classmate, or have a family member quiz you. The essential point is to know what strategy works for you.

Make a “Triple Note Tote”

Triple Note Tote is a SMARTS strategy that has been effective across subject areas, especially for those tricky red and yellow items. This three-column document contains the question in the left column, the definition or answer in the middle, and either a visual diagram, a way to remember, or examples in the third column. You can fold or cover the second two columns and try to fill them in without looking. Then peek and see if you got all the important information right. A starter Triple Note Tote about the Three Branches of Government, taken from the study guide, is shown here↗(link opens in new tab/window).

If your child needs help with activity studying or any other aspect of academic learning or executive function, please contact Joan Steinberg, Director of Educational Therapy, [email protected].

  • Joan Steinberg, M.Ed., Director of Educational Therapy

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

About the Author

Joan Steinberg, M.Ed., is the Director of Educational Therapy at ResearchILD. She provides consultations to parents and teachers, educational therapy, and executive function coaching to students. Before joining ResearchILD in 1996, Joan was a special education teacher and the Director of Education at The Harbor Schools, Inc., a residential treatment center for adolescents. Joan has an undergraduate degree in Elementary Education from the University of Rochester (Phi Beta Kappa) and earned a Master’s Degree in Special Education from the University of North Carolina.


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