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Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology

2013 metastudy in Psychological Science in the Public Interest on an assessment of ten top learning and study strategies.

Student highlighting work (iStock)

A decline in student academic performance has been linked to a host of issues, including relocation, discrimination, a hostile school environment, incarceration and the social composition of the classroom. A more prosaic challenge is the use of ineffective study practices. Psychologists and educators have been developing better ways for learners to master material for more than a century, and yet many educators do not know about these techniques. As a result, students do not use most of them, and often use learning techniques such as multitasking that have been proven to be less effective.

A 2012 metastudy from Kent State University, Duke University, University of Madison-Wisconsin and the University of Virginia published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology,” rated the utility of 10 specific learning techniques based on existing cognitive and educational psychology research. The ten techniques — elaborate interrogation, self-explanation, summarization, highlighting (or underlining), the keyword mnemonic, imagery use for text learning, rereading, practice testing, distributed practice and interleaved practice — were selected on the basis of scalability, ease of use and popularity. Assessment criteria included learning conditions (i.e. individualized or group study), student characteristics (i.e. age and ability), materials (i.e. simple math problems or complicated texts) and criterion tasks (i.e. measures of memory and problem solving capabilities.)

The following educational techniques were rated has having high utility (effectiveness, scalability):

  • Practice testing familiarizes students with a low-stakes version of testing, a proven learning enhancement strategy, and may take the form of flashcards or completing practice problems. It rates as having high utility due to its success across different ages and abilities to improve retention and outcome measures, its ease of implementation and scalability.
  • Distributed practice or when learning materials are encountered at intervals or through different media, is the antithesis of “cramming” for a test. This technique “works across students of different ages, with a wide variety of materials … and over long delays.” It is also relatively simple to implement. Researchers recommend further research on its efficacy with more complex learning materials, but anticipate distributed practice will continue to work well in that context.

The following educational techniques were rated as having moderate utility:

  • The educational value of elaboration interrogation, or asking questions, is based on the integration of new information with existing prior knowledge. Students with lower levels of prior knowledge, however, may not benefit as much as their peers, and the persistence of its effects is unclear.
  • Interleaved practice integrates related subtopics and problems into the core subject area; it is the opposite of “blocked practice,” wherein a student studies one topic in relative isolation. Interleaved practice gives a student an opportunity to gain a broader understanding of the mechanics of problem solving. While the technique has shown promise, the limited number of studies on the practice prevent the researchers from endorsing it more enthusiastically.
  • Prior research suggested self-explanation, or explaining one’s choices while learning, produced mixed outcomes. While this technique is effective across a range of ages and supports multiple learning outcomes, it is not clear whether these results are short-lived or lasting, and appears to be time-consuming to implement.

The following educational techniques were rated as having low utility:

  • Summarization practices, such as rephrasing, are said to boost learning retention through identifying and organizing key informational elements. This technique, though, requires extensive student training, and results in mixed educational outcomes.
  • Highlighting and underlining, the process of marking up relevant portions of a text, is a popular and time-honored learning strategy employed by students. Researchers point to a cognitive phenomenon known as the “isolation effect” — an unique or separate item is recalled more easily than one in a list or group.  However, studies have not shown that this technique improves student performance, and may in fact have a detrimental effect on completing higher-level processing tasks.
  • The keyword mnemonic pairs words and images to aid in information recall; to remember the French word for tooth, “la dent,” one might “imagine a dentist holding a large molar with a pair of pliers.” This technique, however, is difficult to adopt widely, as appropriate word pairings are not often available. It also requires more time and training, and recall results were unremarkable.
  • Imagery use for text learning instructs the learner to translate a written sentence or passage into a visual representation of the information, and research has found that this technique may enhance mental organization or text integration. While easier to use than the keyword mnemonic technique, “the benefits of imagery are largely constrained to imagery-friendly materials.”
  • Rereading a passage of text is used by 84% of all students during self-regulated study. Its effectiveness remains unproven, however, especially with respect to comprehension levels and when compared with the other techniques under consideration.

The researchers conclude that further research would address gaps in the literature and help to refine these ratings. They also note that many students are committed to using the less effective techniques of highlighting and rereading, and that this may be addressed by ensuring that students are taught how to implement proven successful study techniques.

Tags: cognition, children, youth, metastudy

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