The Science of Learning literature is actually quite clear about this. We are best positioned to optimize memory through “desirable difficulties.” In this sense, learning is about challenge, failure, understanding why something is wrong before getting it right. Hence, why most of the pedagogical practices we are about to highlight typically meet (at least initially) with student resistance. The traditional methods of highlighting the textbook and using flashcards simply do not have evidence to support their value in promoting learning. Actually, there are neurobiological reasons these do NOT work well. It “feels” good to get something right, even when “right” means passively turning over the flashcard to read the correct answer. The brain gives itself a hit of dopamine regardless (Yeah, you got it right!), therefore reinforcing a habit that doesn’t actually optimize learning.

Challenging the memory system strengthens memories. In other words, make your students “own it" through techniques like ELABORATIVE INTERROGATION and SELF-EXPLANATION.

Retrieving information from memory (or even attempting to!) makes that memory more likely to be recalled. Retrieval via self-testing results in better subsequent memory than the equivalent amount of passive studying (e.g., highlighting, reviewing flashcards or notes). The optimal technique to leverage here is PRACTICE TESTING.

Retrieval practice is much more effective if sessions are temporally spaced rather than massed. In this case, draw on DISTRIBUTED PRACTICE.

If possible, topics to be learned should be interleaved by type rather than blocked. This tends to be most applicable to topics in which discriminating among ways to approach and/or solve a problem is critical. The technique of choice to reinforce this is INTERLEAVED PRACTICE.

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ELABORATIVE INTERROGATION

Students:

  • Learn explicit fact or concept introduced
  • Develop an explanation of why it’s true or applies in a particular case:
    • Why does it make sense that . . . ?
    • Why is it true that . . . ?
    • Why?
    • Why would this be true of [EXAMPLE 1] but not of [EXAMPLE 2]?
  • Show greater performance improvements when they:
    • Are asked to develop more precise elaborations;
    • Have greater prior knowledge;
    • Generate the elaboration, rather than using one provided by instructor, text, or other source.

Theoretical Rationale:

  • Helps students integrate new knowledge with prior knowledge, enabling students to organize knowledge components in relation to each other, thus promoting retrieval.
  • Helps students distinguish among knowledge components and identify when they’re relevant.

Generalizability:

  • Learning conditions
    • Effective in both intentional and incidental uses
  • Material
    • Used across a wide range of subject-matter areas and disciplines
    • Must be used with facts or established concepts
  • Criterion tasks
    • Relatively few measures used for retrieval
    • Mixed results on studies of effect when measures of comprehension and application are used
    • Little research on effects after gap between learning and testing
    • Most studies in lab

Implementation Issues

  • Clear guidance as to question types to use and teach students
  • Less clear how specific to make questions on complex processes
  • With long texts, students must identify facts to target, and frequent use may be needed to ensure performance gains

Overall Rating: Moderate Utility

  • Primarily due to the need for further research

SELF-EXPLANATION

Students:

  • Solve a problem using if, then statements or other instructions
  • Generate an explanation of the processes used to solve the problem

Theoretical Rationale:

  • Helps students integrate new knowledge with prior knowledge
  • Mechanisms may differ: content-specific or content-free prompts
  • Variation in prompts, tasks, and measures studied

Generalizability:

  • Learning conditions
    • Effective with direct instruction and discovery learning
    • Effective with concurrent explanation
    • Most effective when no explanations provided to students
  • Materials
    • Effective across subject matter areas and disciplines
    • Effectives across task types
  • Criterion tasks
    • Wide range of measures; improvement of near- and far-transfer
    • More studies needed on effects with meaningful delay
    • Most studies in labs – a few in natural settings are promising

Implementation Issues

  • Effective across subject-matter areas and task types

Overall Rating: Moderate Utility

  • Substantial efficacy across disciplines and task types; improves transfer into new contexts,
  • No conclusive research on effects with delay, on whether training improves efficacy, and on technique vs. time on task.

PRACTICE TESTING

Students:

  • Engage in low- or no-stakes practice assessments
  • Use any of multiple formats, e.g., project phases, problems, questions, or tests/quizzes

Theoretical Rationale:

  • Practice testing involves generating information oneself, rather than encountering it in an external source
  • Practice testing may prompt learners to develop more elaborated links
  • Practice testing may improve mental organization of knowledge components

Generalizability:

  • Learning conditions

    • Practice testing can benefit learners even when practice test and criterion tests use different formats
    • The greater the use of practice testing, the greater the performance improvement
  • Materials

    • Most studies involve simple facts or concepts
    • Most studies have involved verbal materials
  • Criterion tasks

    • Cued recall used most often; recall for both facts and concepts improves
    • Several studies suggest improvements to comprehension, inference, and application
    • Meaningful delays improve retrieval

Implementation Issues:

  • Practice testing material often available to students (textbooks, online platforms)
  • Repeated testing until correct answers are repeated across study sessions has greatest effect
  • Practice testing consistently produces stronger effects than does restudying
  • Instructors can support students’ use of practice testing by using low- or no-stakes testing in class

Overall Rating: High Utility

  • Extensive research shows the benefits of practice testing across a range of subject materials, test formats, outcome measures, and with meaningful delays between learning and testing, though more research is needed on the effects of learners’ ability levels and prior knowledge.

DISTRIBUTED PRACTICE

Students:

  • Space learning of specific material over time – within a single study session or across sessions; the term “distributed practice” is intended to indicate the benefit of both spaced practice over time and of longer delays between practice sessions

Theoretical Rationale:

  • Competing theories – reduced attention if practice sessions are too close together; reminding prompts retrieval, thus enhancing memory; or later practice sessions benefit from memory consolidation between sessions. Regardless, while greater delay between study sessions increases forgetting between sessions, it increases accurate retrieval at testing.

Generalizability:

  • Learning conditions

    • Most effective when delay between practice sessions totals 10 – 20% of desired recall interval
    • Intentional processing more effective than incidental processing
  • Materials

    • Effective across subject matter areas, disciplines, and task types

  • Criterion tasks

    • Most effective with free recall
    • Effects often strongest with greater delay between practice and test
    • More studies are needed to ascertain any effects on tasks more complex than basic recall
    • Studies in both labs and natural settings

Implementation Issues:

  • Potential obstacles

    • Textbooks not structured to allow distributed practice
    • Research shows that infrequent testing increases students’ tendency to mass practice just before an exam

Overall Rating: High Utility

  • Extensive research shows substantial effects with a range of subject matter areas and task types, as well as with long delays, although more research is needed on complex material and more cognitively demanding tasks, as well as on the impact of students’ prior knowledge and motivation.

INTERLEAVED PRACTICE

Students:

  • Alternate study topics and/or subject matter during study sessions, rather than focusing on a single topic or subject matter area

Theoretical Rationale:

  • May teach students to distinguish more effectively between problem types
  • May improve organization processing and item-specific processing by increasing students’ ability to compare problem types
  • May increase instances of retrieval from long-term, vs. working, memory

Generalizability:

  • Learning conditions
    • Spacing alone does not produce effects as significant as spacing that includes interleaving
    • More extensive initial massed practice may be required for students with lower ability levels or prior knowledge
  • Materials
    • Studies across subject matter areas and task types show differing results
    • Effective in math, decision-making in complex situations with multiple dimensions (e.g., medical diagnoses), and conceptualizing artistic styles
    • Ineffective in second-language vocabulary
  • Criterion tasks
    • Always involved mixed problem sets
    • Effective with delays up to 1 – 2 weeks
    • Studies in both lab and natural settings

Implementation Issues:

  • Interleaved practice should be implemented cumulatively, as topics are introduced
  • While interleaved practice takes more time, the performance improvements offset the cost

Overall Rating: Moderate Utility

  • While significant benefits have been shown for math and interleaved practice improves other cognitive abilities, the literature is still small, and more research is needed to understand when students have adequate initial understanding and skill.

* Findings and techniques adapted from Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Nathan, M.J., & Willingham, D.T. (2014). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4 – 58; and The Reinvention Center, Advancing Undergraduate Education in America’s Research Universities (2015). Science of Learning/Pedagogical Innovation Network.