The Read-Recite-Review Method

by Site Author

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At this very moment, students around the world are hunched over their textbooks, frantically trying to cram what’s in the books into their heads. For some, a bad grade could mean losing a scholarship. For others, a good grade can be the difference between a life working on the factory floor and a life working in management.

The photo above comes from China, a country where standardized tests matter more than anywhere else. Some students there take fluids intravenously when they hit the books. The intravenous drips not only allow them to skip otherwise-costly water breaks, they also are filled with amino acids, which supposedly help them study.

All those students studying—do they actually know what they’re doing? What if they’re doing it wrong? What if there were a better way to study?

In fact, the advice that students often get about studying can be flat out wrong. For instance, Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel point to a website at George Mason University that tells students to do precisely what cognitive psychologists say they should not do: “The key to learning something well is repetition; the more times you go over the material the better chance you have of storing it permanently.” But the psychologists who study learning argue that repetitively reading something is a real waste of time.

Unfortunately, the psychology literature on learning is filled with abstract studies that, too often, don’t speak to the needs of students. But a wonderful exception was published in the journal Psychological Science a few years ago. The authors proposed a simple method for textbook studying, one they call the “3R” method: Read, Recite, and Review.

The 3R method consists of three steps.

  1. First, a student reads a chapter in their textbook. They don’t take notes while reading, they just read the chapter as carefully as they can.
  2. Second, the student recites the content of the chapter in their own words. In practice, the reciting could be done on paper. But in the journal article, the authors instruct students to actually explain the material into a tape recorder. You have to picture the student, closing her book, and quietly talking through what she just read.
  3. Finally, the student goes back to the chapter, to review what she missed in their recitation. And then she’s done.

The study’s authors, Mark McDaniel, Daniel Howard, and Gilles Einstein, decided to test whether the 3R method is more efficient than the way that students typically study. So they asked 72 undergraduates to read a series of passages from a textbook. One group was asked to read the passages while taking notes. A second group were instructed in the 3R method. Finally, a “re-read only” group was instructed simply to read each passage twice.

After studying the passages, the students were tested on the material. The results were complex: the 3R group did not trounce the other groups on every dimension. But as a whole, the 3R-practicing students never performed worse than the other groups, and especially when the passages became more complex, seemed to understand the passages better after studying them.

What’s sad about this study, though, is that despite being published in a respected academic journal, it’s had little impact on the practices of actual students. A Google search for “the 3R method,” to date, turns up few hits. And all of those poor students in China, the ones on intravenous fluids, don’t realize that there’s a better way.