By Megan Sumeracki
If you read our blog often, you are familiar with the six strategies for effective learning. We have a number of resources already, but this guide provides a brief explanation of each strategy and compiles a set of links on the website all in one place. So, if you’re wanting a single reference or to share one starter blog with a colleague, we hope this will work for you!
Cognitive psychologists have identified six key strategies that promote learning in many situations, and this research can be implemented to promote long-term durable learning. These six strategies have been heavily investigated for decades, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest their effectiveness in a variety of situations.
Before digging into the specifics of each strategy, it is important to note that they are very flexible. This is a good thing, in that it means they can be used in a lot of different situations. However, this also means that there really isn’t a specific prescription we can provide that will “always work.” Instead, understanding the strategies and how they work can help instructors and students. Instructors can implement them in their classrooms in ways that will foster student learning that works best for their classroom, and students can infuse their study sessions with these strategies in a way that will promote long-term learning. There are also countless ways that the strategies can be combined to be used together. For example, teaching one another often uses all 6!
Spacing or spreading out learning opportunities over time improves learning. For example, students will learn and retain more if they study 30 minutes M-F, rather than for 2.5 hours all on one day. Students should create a schedule with brief study sessions each day and stick to it. Blocking off time works best because it is easy to procrastinate when an exam is not upcoming. It is also beneficial to spread out the topics being studied so that there is a space between the repetition of the same ideas. In class, instructors can repeat the most important concepts in multiple classes; the spaced repetition really helps!
Interleaving basically means jumbling up ideas. Students learn more when they can switch between different topics. Doing this helps students learn the similarities and differences between different ideas. In math, for example, students learn more when they solve many different types of problems during practice rather than solving the same type over and over. This typically leads to more mistakes during practice, but in the long-run, the students retain their knowledge much longer.
Retrieval practice involves bringing information to mind from memory. This happens when students take practice tests or quizzes, but it can be done in other ways too. For example, students can just write out what they can remember on a blank sheet of paper, or even draw ideas. The key is that they should bring the information to mind from memory. So, copying one’s notes would not be very helpful, but trying to summarize their notes from their memory would be very beneficial. The students do not need to remember everything and can check their notes or course materials after retrieval to fill in gaps. In the classroom, instructors can utilize frequent low-stakes or no-stakes quizzes, and ask students to jot down what they can remember about topics in the classroom (not necessarily to be collected).
Concrete examples are often used by instructors. Concrete information is easier to remember than abstract information, and so concrete examples foster learning. Importantly, research shows that multiple examples of the same idea, especially with different surface details, helps students understand the true idea the example is intending to illustrate. This is because novices tend to remember surface details. Imagine teaching about scarcity and using airline tickets as an example. Students later may remember scarcity was about flying, but not the rest. Using other examples that have nothing to do with tickets (e.g., water during a drought) and making the link between the examples explicit for the students helps them understand the underlying abstract idea.
Elaboration involves asking “how” and “why” questions about a specific topic, and then trying to find the answers to those questions. The act of trying to describe and explain how and why things work helps students understand and learn. Students can also explain how the topics relate to their own lives, or take two topics and explain how they are similar and how they are different. This strategy can be assigned alone or for pairs of students.
Dual coding is all about combining verbal representations of information (words) with visual representations of information (pictures/diagrams). When we combine these, it is easier for us to understand the information being presented. Importantly, this is not the same thing as learning styles. While students do have preferences, matching these preferences does not help them learn. Instead, we all learn best when we have multiple representations of the same idea. Importantly, make sure the students have enough time to digest both representations. When students are studying, they should use multiple representations and try to explain to themselves how the different representations show the same idea.
A note about difficulty
Importantly, all of these strategies have a couple of very important things in common:
They are all difficult. The research consistently shows that this difficulty is a good thing; the strategies that feel easy are the ones that do not promote learning in the long-run.
They all promote long-term learning. This is important to remember. Often when using the strategies, it feels to students (and instructors) as though they are not promoting learning. This is probably due to the difficulty. However, the research shows us that, in the long-term (even 1-2 days later), these strategies work very well. Conversely, the strategies that feel easy and feel as though we “really know it” promote “learning” that is almost immediately forgotten (even by the next day).
Keep this in mind when implementing the strategies, and highlight these points for the students. While we make judgments about what we think we are learning in the moment, what we really care about is what we can remember and apply in the future. The strategies should feel difficult, but not so difficult that the students cannot actually do them. This is where flexibility comes in, and adjustments can be made so that the students are challenged and not getting everything perfectly right, but are still somewhat successful.
Additional resources from the website
You can use in your teaching, or give them to students.