Distributed practice: Spreading out your studying over time and quizzing yourself work best as learning techniques, according to a new report, “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology,” is published in the January 2013 issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest. The paper discusses how several popular study strategies are ineffective. This type of learning technique also works well when job training.
And the most effective study strategies are underused. The techniques that are most effective when studying are practice testing and distributed practice. You simply spread your studying over time instead of cramming overnight.
Then you repeatedly quiz yourself until you get all answers right. Don't bother with highlighting and rereading or cramming all night for an exam the next morning. Just pace your study sessions over time and keep practicing taking tests, for example, with flash cards.
Distributed practice followed by practice testing for effectiveness
It's only logical that the more you practice taking tests and getting the right answers the more you practice the method you're using to arrive at the right answers, the more you understand, recall, and are able to explain. That's one reason why practice helps you become more familiar with what you have to learn and recall to learn effectively.
Students everywhere, put down those highlighters and pick up some flashcards. It's simply a healthier trend to look at flashcards to tweak your memory instead of highlighting a section of a book. Highlighting may help when your explaining the complex to a general audience and trying to make the definition clearer or put the complex concept into simpler words by adding an easier to visualize example for your audience, as in writing a news article. But for performance on a test or exam, flash cards is one method of distributed practice.
You can use flash cards also for testing yourself or tutoring others. The goals are to get you to recall details, solve problems, or explain a process, for example use verbal or mathematical reasoning on an exam when your up against the clock. The question is what's the most effective technique for learning? And the answer is finding the best study strategy that works for you.
Highlighting and rereading don't show much promise
Some of the most popular study strategies — such as highlighting and even rereading — don’t show much promise for improving student learning, according to the new report published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
In the report, John Dunlosky of Kent State University and a team of distinguished psychological scientists review the scientific evidence for ten learning techniques commonly used by students. “Schools and parents spend a great deal of money on technology and programs to improve student achievement, even though evidence often isn’t available to firmly establish that they work,” explains Dunlosky, in the January 10, 2013 news release, Which study strategies make the grade?
“We wanted to take a comprehensive look at promising strategies now, in order to direct teachers, students and parents to the strategies that are effective, yet underused.” Based on the available evidence, the researchers provide recommendations about the applicability and usefulness of each technique. Whereas the ten learning techniques vary widely in effectiveness, two strategies — practice testing and distributed practice — made the grade, receiving the highest overall utility rating.
Distributed practice: Spreading out your studying over time and quizzing yourself work best as learning techniques
Most students are probably familiar with practice testing, having used flash cards or answered the questions at the end of a textbook chapter. Students who prefer last-minute cram sessions, however, may not be as familiar with the idea of distributed practice.
Dunlosky and colleagues report that spreading out your studying over time and quizzing yourself on material before the big test are highly effective learning strategies. Both techniques have been shown to boost students’ performance across many different kinds of tests, and their effectiveness has been repeatedly demonstrated for students of all ages.
In contrast, five of the techniques received a low utility rating from the researchers. Notably, these techniques are some of the most common learning strategies used by students, including summarization, highlighting and underlining, and rereading.
“I was shocked that some strategies that students use a lot — such as rereading and highlighting — seem to provide minimal benefits to their learning and performance. By just replacing rereading with delayed retrieval practice, students would benefit,” says Dunlosky in the news release.
The problem resides in how teachers are taught
So why don’t they? Why aren’t students and teachers using the learning strategies that have been shown to be effective and inexpensive? Dunlosky and colleagues found that the answer may have to do with how future teachers are taught.
“These strategies are largely overlooked in the educational psychology textbooks that beginning teachers read, so they don’t get a good introduction to them or how to use them while teaching,” Dunlosky explains in the news release. As a result, teachers are less likely to fully exploit some of these easy-to-use and effective techniques.
Students have to be motivated
To help address this gap, the researchers organized their report in distinct modules, so that teachers can quickly decide whether each technique will potentially benefit his or her students and researchers can easily set an agenda on what we still need to know about the efficacy of these strategies.
“The learning techniques described in this monograph will not be a panacea for improving achievement for all students, and perhaps obviously, they will benefit only students who are motivated and capable of using them,” Dunlosky and colleagues note in the press release. “Nevertheless, when used properly, we suspect that they will produce meaningful gains in performance in the classroom, on achievement tests, and on many tasks encountered across the life span.”
The report's authors include the following: John Dunlosky and Katherine A. Rawson of Kent State University, Elizabeth J. Marsh of Duke University, Mitchell J. Nathan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Daniel T. Willingham of the University of Virginia. The research included in the report was supported by a Bridging Brain, Mind and Behavior Collaborative Award through the James S. McDonnell Foundation’s 21st Century Science Initiative. The report also features an editorial written by Henry L. Roediger III of Washington University in St. Louis.
Psychological Science in the Public Interest is a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. It publishes an eclectic mix of thought-provoking articles on the latest important advances in psychology. The article is "Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology" from Psychological Science in the Public Interest.