Classroom Practice: Are Your Students Using Effective Learning Techniques?

Oct 23, 2023
Effective Learning Techniques

Remember those study sessions in college when you stayed up all night drinking coffee and frantically cramming for a big test? You were probably rereading notes from lectures and reviewing sections of your textbook, highlighting the important information as you went. It turns out that these strategies—rereading and highlighting (or underlining)—are two of the most common learning techniques students turn to. But do they actually work?

Let’s take a look at some of the leading research on the topic, conducted by scholars John Dunlosky and Katherine Rawson of Kent State University, Elizabeth Marsh of Duke University, Mitchell Nathan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia.

Researching Learning Technique Effectiveness

In the article “Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology,” these researchers held that one way to improve student achievement is by "helping students better regulate their learning through the use of effective learning techniques." To find out which learning techniques were most effective, they conducted a meta-analysis of the available research on 10 different common strategies. The learning techniques chosen for the study were limited to those that were deemed easy to use and did not require advanced technology or extensive materials to be prepared by the teacher. The chosen learning techniques, along with a brief definition of each, are given below:

  1. Elaborative interrogation—Prompting students to explain “why?” an explicitly stated fact or concept is true
  2. Self-explanation—Explaining steps taken during problem solving including reasons for choosing or not choosing an answer, or explaining how the problem was solved after completion
  3. Summarization—Writing summaries to identify main points, explore how ideas connect to one another, and exclude unimportant or repetitive information
  4. Highlighting/underlining—Marking potentially important portions while reading to improve cognitive processing
  5. Keyword mnemonic—Using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials
  6. Imagery for text—Attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening
  7. Rereading—Restudying text material again after an initial reading
  8. Practice testing—Self-testing using flashcards, taking practice tests or completing practice questions over to-be-learned material in a low-stakes or no-stakes environment
  9. Distributed practice—Implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time as compared to cramming
  10. Interleaved practice—Mixing related but distinct material during study such as alternating practice of different kinds of items or problems

To evaluate the relative utility of each learning technique, the researchers used two main criteria: whether there were proven benefits to using the technique and whether those benefits could be generalized across learning conditions, student characteristics, materials, and criterion tasks.

How do the learning techniques compare?

So, was all that highlighting and rereading you did in college effective? In short, probably not. The table below gives the rankings of all 10 techniques the researchers reviewed:

Learning Techniques Comparison Chart

Both highlighting (or underlining) and rereading received ratings of “low utility”—indicating that their positive effects were limited to certain materials or not generalizable across a large population of students. Highlighting generally helped students remember the specific information they highlighted. This is in large part due to the isolation effect—a cognitive phenomenon which postulates that unique items are better remembered than their less distinctive counterparts. Therefore, the effectiveness of highlighting varied widely based on how well the student identified and highlighted the most critical information. Also, if students highlight too much information, they run the risk of nullifying the isolation effect.

Although rereading also received a rating of “low utility,” this was mainly because the technique has not been studied enough to determine whether benefits can be generalized, and the benefits that have been demonstrated are low in relation to other techniques. What we do know about rereading is that it works best when readings are spaced out a few hours, a day, or even a week apart rather than back-to-back, and the recorded benefits tend to taper off after the first rereading.

Which techniques work best?

As the table above shows, only two of the 10 techniques evaluated received a rating of “high utility,” indicating that the positive results associated with them are widespread and generalizable across a wide population of students. Here’s what the researchers found about the effectiveness of the two high-utility techniques, practice testing and distributed practice, as well as strategies on how you can put these approaches to work in your classroom:

Practice Testing

The effects of practice testing as a learning technique have been studied for more than 100 years. Benefits have been demonstrated across a wide range of formats, materials, learner ages, outcome measures, and retention intervals, so it is widely applicable. Additionally, practice testing is often not time intensive, as it can include reviewing flashcards, completing practice tests, or answering practice questions at the back of a textbook, and it can be implemented with minimal training and intervention from the educator.

The graph below shows the results of one experiment in which a researcher presented students with expository texts for initial study and then followed that with either repeated restudy, or repeated practice short-answer tests with feedback. One week later, students were tested on inference-based, short-answer questions about the key facts and concepts from the expository text. Students who received practice tests performed significantly better than those who had restudied the information.

Practice Testing Technique Performance

One of the main theories behind why practice testing works is that it enhances retention by triggering elaborative retrieval processes. "Attempting to retrieve target information involves a search of long-term memory that activates related information, and this activated information may then be encoded along with the retrieved target, forming an elaborated trace that affords multiple pathways to facilitate later access to that information," the study explains. Basically, the act of having to remember or use information on a practice test strengthens the memory and makes it easier to access later—including when the actual test day rolls around. Read more about how to get the most of practice testing.

Strategies for Classroom Application:
  • Incorporate more frequent formative assessments.
  • Allow students to write their own practice test questions based on learned information and then quiz a partner.
  • Play review games that require students to answer practice questions.
  • Give students access to a bank of practice test items that they can use for independent study.
  • Encourage students to make flash cards to use for studying.

Distributed Practice

Distributed practice is when students practice the same material or skills in multiple sessions spread out over time. The research team deemed this a high-utility technique because it has been proven in several studies to be very effective across students of different ages utilizing it with a variety of materials, and on most measures of achievement, even over long delays.

One experiment on distributed practice that the researchers cited had students learn translations of Spanish words in an initial session, then participate in six additional sessions in which they had the chance to retrieve and relearn the translations with feedback. One group of students had the six sessions back-to-back within the same day; another group of students had their learning spaced out with one day between each session; a final group had their learning spaced out with 30 days in between sessions. At the beginning of each follow-up session, students were given a test to see what they recalled from the prior session.

The group that had sessions back-to-back performed better on the initial assessment, most likely because there wasn't time between sessions to forget any of the material. By the fifth session, though, the group that had sessions spaced one day apart caught up to the performance level of the group that received sessions back-to-back. By the sixth session, the group participating in sessions one day apart surpassed the back-to-back group. Throughout the six sessions, the group that received sessions 30 days apart never caught up to the performance of the back-to-back or the one-day-apart groups.

However, when a test was given to all groups 30 days after each group's sixth session, the group that received practice sessions 30 days apart outperformed the other two groups, with the group that received the back-to-back sessions performing the worst. This study demonstrates that distributed practice not only helps learners perform better in the short term, as demonstrated with the back-to-back group versus the one-day-apart group, but it also shows that, ultimately, spacing out practice leads to greater long-term knowledge retention.

Distributed Practice Findings

There are several theories for why distributed practice is effective. One theory argues that when students review content in study sessions that are too close together, the processing of the learning in the second session isn’t thorough because students don’t have to work hard to retrieve something from memory that they just learned, whereas waiting a period of time, a day or more, makes the follow-up session more labor-intensive. Also, because content is so easy to remember in back-to-back sessions, students may think that they know the material better than they actually do, leading to overconfidence and insufficient preparation.

Another theory is that each new session reminds students of the previous learning experience, which allows that learning experience to be retrieved, which, as in practice testing, strengthens the memory.

Strategies for Classroom Application:
  • Review previously taught content at certain points throughout the school year (sometimes called “spiraled practice”).
  • Encourage students to practice content each evening rather than waiting to cram the night before an exam.
  • Designate a portion of in-class time each day for students to engage in independent practice rather than waiting until the end of the chapter or unit for a single large-scale review.

Using the best learning techniques

With so much available research on the variety of different learning techniques at teachers’ disposal, why is it that students tend to rely so heavily on ones that are the least effective? The researchers behind this study postulate two main reasons.

  1. Students don’t receive instruction on which techniques are effective or how to use them, possibly because educators don’t receive instruction on these concepts during their own training.
  2. The focus of instruction tends to be content and critical-thinking skills, leaving little time for teaching students specific practice techniques to use for guiding their own learning.

As is the case with all research, the article written by Dunlosky and his colleagues is only intended to offer information; every classroom, every student, and every educator is unique. The researchers’ ultimate goal of helping improve student achievement depends on how educators leverage their findings.

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