Sometimes, research can promise much and deliver teachers little. It all looks good on paper, but try it out and it is more cataclysmic than a catalyst.
But some papers change the way you teach forever, and, for me, none have done that as comprehensively as Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology (Dunlosky et al, 2013).
It focuses on study techniques and, if you have not read it, now is the time.
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This paper gave me immediately applicable, concrete strategies to help my students. Before reading this, my study advice tended to be based on intuition, and I’d never really thought about the "mechanics" of how students remember things. I’d tell students that they should consolidate notes from memory, for example, but I couldn’t explain why this was effective.
But this paper helped me explain to my Year 10s why they struggled to recall their beautifully highlighted revision notes, even though they’d spent hours on them. And it sparked an interest in cognitive science that has stayed with me ever since.
Dunlosky argues that we’re doing our students a social injustice if we don’t tell them how to study effectively, and he analyses a range of study approaches to see which ones are most effective.
Practice testing and distributed practice are identified by Dunlosky as the best approaches, whereas techniques such as re-reading and highlighting text are much less effective.
Practice testing is when students answer questions from memory, with the emphasis on bringing information to mind, rather than simply reviewing or re-reading it.
Space it out
Distributed practice, meanwhile, is when you spread out your study of a particular topic over time, rather than completing it within a single study block.
So flash-cards (with questions on one side and answers on the reverse) will help your students embed ideas long-term through self-testing, particularly if topics are distributed over several sessions, in a way that simply highlighting important points in a revision guide won’t.
Dunlosky reviewed a range of empirically-evidenced techniques that can be carried out easily by students. Practice testing and distributed practice fared particularly well because they boost student attainment, regardless of age, aiding comprehension of complex material as well as straightforward recall of facts.
Other approaches, such as elaboration (explaining why a fact or concept is true) and interleaving (mixing different kinds of problems within a single session) also showed promise, but the authors felt their evidence base was too limited to rank them higher.
All this underlines why it’s important to ask students "why", "how" and "what if" questions, as well as just "what". And it suggests that we should mix together questions from a range of topics during revision.
This paper does not claim to be an exhaustive, unlimited list. We don’t know enough yet about how well the approaches translate across the wide spectrum of students for a start, and we’re not sure how durable all of them are in the long-term.
Dunlosky also asks why relatively few students use the approaches he recommends, and whether teachers simply aren’t able to sift through the relevant research to share it with their students.
This might be an issue, but I actually think there’s an even harder nut to crack: that the most effective techniques are effortful and “desirably difficult”. In other words, they feel painful in the short-term, but are beneficial long-term.
A shove in the right direction
Recalling information from revision guides feels much harder than simply highlighting the key points within it, which can hit students’ confidence and motivation. So it’s no surprise they are more likely to choose less effective approaches if left to their own devices, and it’s important to explain to them why it’s worth struggling for a while.
Research is, after all, only ever a starting point. The key to the success of any approach is how it’s implemented. But a better understanding of the “why” behind the “how” can help us to apply it successfully, and that’s where this paper really helps.
Dr Niki Kaiser is network research lead at the Norwich Research School at Notre Dame High School