Researcher of the Month
What is the science behind effective learning?
A large body of research has highlighted some straightforward ways of enhancing learning, but these effective strategies are underused by students. Studies show that, when studying and revising, students tend to favour ‘easier’ techniques that feel effective at the time, but which actually aren’t as beneficial – re-reading, copying and highlighting notes, for example. These strategies tend to increase feelings of fluency, something which learners often mistake for learning well. Effective learning strategies tend to involve greater effort and a higher likelihood of making errors, which can be uncomfortable.
In a recent paper, our Researcher of the Month, Professor Shana Carpenter, and her co-authors, reviewed key findings on two learning strategies: spacing and retrieval practice. They found that underuse of these effective strategies could stem from false beliefs about learning, a general lack of awareness, or their counter–intuitive nature. The paper has important implications for the increasingly common situations in which learners must monitor and regulate their own learning, and choose the right strategies at the right time.
The benefits of spacing and retrieval practice have been confirmed repeatedly in studies from numerous different contexts with people of different ages. Professor Carpenter notes that, despite this, “these two techniques haven’t fully caught on. If they were utilised all the time, we’d see drastic increases in learning”.
So what are they?
Well, unlike cramming, spacing is a way of scheduling learning activities over time. Research shows that the timing of practising new skills and remembering information greatly influences learning success. Repeated learning opportunities that are spaced apart in time are more effective than the same number of learning opportunities occurring closer together. Whilst there is no optimal schedule for spacing, effective schedules typically involve enough time between sessions that the information is still familiar, but isn’t fresh. Returning to the material after forgetting some of it is effective.
Retrieval practice is a strategy that involves recalling information that has been learned previously. The simple act of retrieving something from the brain, without any helpful cues, strengthens learning and makes memories more durable over time. Retrieval activities can take many forms, including flash cards, practice tests and open-ended writing prompts, all of which helps students to recognise what they do and don’t know. Retrieval practice can feel uncomfortable as it requires young people to confront errors and inaccuracies in their knowledge.
Combined, these two strategies enhance learning through a practice called “successive relearning”. This involves doing a task until it is performed correctly and then repeating the process during other spaced practice sessions. Repeating this at consistently spaced, regular intervals produces more durable and long-lasting benefits, compared with simply reviewing the information in one long session.
Whilst we know that these practices are hugely beneficial to learners, they are not used enough. This study confirms that students tend to adopt other, less effective strategies when learning. They often stop learning material when they think they know it, rather than revisiting it to cement the knowledge. Testing themselves on what they know (and confronting the things that they don’t) might make them feel insecure or anxious about failure. It’s easier to get the highlighter out and mark important bits in their notes. However, practising retrieval over time will embed learning and help to reduce exam anxiety. Getting used to exercising our memories helps us to feel more emotionally prepared for high-stakes situations and makes us more likely to be able to recall the information that we need.
Professor Carpenter notes that it’s therefore important for young people to gain an understanding of when and how to engage in learning and which strategies will prove most impactful. The effective use of learning strategies such as spacing and retrieval depends on learners’ metacognition: the ability to think about their thinking and regulate decisions accordingly. Whilst it will certainly benefit students if a teacher or parent tells them to implement strategies such as spacing and retrieval, it is much more more fruitful if they learn how to guide and organise these strategies themselves. Effective, self-regulated learning involves setting goals, planning, self-motivating, monitoring learning and self-reflecting, among other elements.
Professor Carpenter concludes that future research should strive to understand the decisions and actions that learners take during learning, including the factors that hinder or facilitate their use of effective strategies.
Implications for schools
Successful learning requires an effective ‘learning routine’ — knowledge of the right strategies at the right times — as well as regular use of that routine. Teachers should help students to understand the benefits of spacing and retrieval practices, and metacognitive skills. When using spacing in class, expect young people to forget some information between sessions. Forgetting is natural and is not reflective of student motivation or ability. Be patient, provide practice exercises on material already learned and give feedback on the things that your students are and aren’t remembering. Be empathetic! Remember, information that you are teaching is fresh in your mind, as you are constantly working on lesson preparation. Your students will not have had the same levels of interaction with the material.
If teaching topic by topic, try to insert some learning material or practice exercises on information/topics that have been taught at an earlier time. Even if students score highly on a test at the end of one topic, they will forget some of the information as time passes, unless they are required to retrieve it again at spaced points. If they don’t revisit this knowledge at all until they begin revising, end of year exams will feel much more difficult. Also remember that students can use short-term study methods that enable a high test score, but this may not mean that the learning has become embedded.
Implications for parents
Nudge teens to map out revision timetables, outlining what they plan to learn and when. Encourage them to schedule spaced practice on specific topics and suggest that they revisit and re-practise things that have already been learned. Help them to retrieve! Test them on their learning and support them in working out what they know and what they don’t.
One of the most important things we can do at home is cultivate a culture that values mistakes and views errors as essential to learning. Help children understand that they won’t always be able to retrieve information accurately and they shouldn’t worry when they can’t. If you want to learn more about normalising mistakes in family life, read our article.
To find out more about Professor Carpenter’s work, visit her website.
Resources Created from and Related to this Research
Dr Shana Carpenter, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Iowa State University.
Dr Shana Carpenter is a professor of cognitive psychology at Iowa State University. She conducts laboratory and classroom-based research on ways to improve student learning. She specialises in cognitive science principles that can be applied in educational settings to help students remember information, transfer what they have learned to new situations, and improve their awareness of their own learning. Professor Carpenter has published numerous journal articles and book chapters on the scientific study of learning, and her work has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the James S. McDonnell Foundation. Because effective approaches to learning are not always intuitive, an important goal of this research is to understand students’ impressions of their own learning, and how these impressions influence students’ learning decisions and outcomes.