The science of Learning – Top six proven study techniques (Part two )

Welcome to part two, exploring the facts and what really works in learning.

Elaboration

Eliot Hirshman defined elaboration as “a conscious, intentional process that associates to-be-remembered information with other information in memory. In other words adding something new to what you already know e.g. elaborating. There are a number of variations as to how this concept might be used but one is called elaborative interrogation, and involves students questioning the materials they are studying. This might be students asking “how and why” questions in groups and answering them either from their course materials or ideally memory. This technique can also be used by a student studying alone, outside of the classroom, a kind of loud self enquiry.

Although the science on exactly how effective some of these ideas are is not conclusive, I would argue that many teachers I have met learn a great deal by saying something out loud to a class, in some instances many times, and then asking themselves challenging questions, e.g. “if it works in this situation why won’t it work now”? The truth is it is often the student who asks the challenging question!

Concrete examples

Concrete examples make something easier to understand and remember, largely because the brain can both recognise and recall concrete words more readily than abstract ones. In addition it has been demonstrated that information that is more concrete and imageable enhances the learning of associations, even with abstract content.

What you have just read to a certain extent is a group of abstract words, easier for example, easier than what? But if we added that it was easier than eating an apple? Although the experience of eating an apple may vary, everyone knows what an apple looks, smells and tastes like.

A concrete term refers to objects or events we can see or hear or feel or taste or smell.

By using concrete examples it makes it much easier to concisely convey information, that can be remembered and visualised. It is a good example of Dual coding.

Duel coding

Few people would disagree with the idea that pictures are more memorable than words, this is referred to as the picture superiority effect. Dual coding supports this by suggesting that text when accompanied by complementary visual information enhances learning. It is important to be clear, dual coding is the use of both text and visuals, replacing a word with a picture is not the same.

In addition there is some evidence to suggest that by adding a movement such as drawing something rather than showing the static image can enhance the process even more.

One final point that I have written about many times before, duel coding should not be confused with learning styles. This is not suggesting that some people will “get” duel coding” because it fits with their learning styles, it works for everyone.

Well that’s it six of the top learning techniques that you can use with confidence and are proven to work.

See you next month, I am just off to enjoy a concrete experience, Clam Chowder on Pier 39.

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The science of Learning – Top six proven study techniques (Part one)

Brain in jar

One of the most difficult questions to answer is – “How do you know”? This is because it challenges both the logic behind your thinking and the quality of information on which you based your statement or opinion. Is it possible you have taken reliable information and put it together in the wrong way or is the evidence supporting your argument questionable?

Saying something with confidence will lead people to believe that what you are saying is true but without real evidence it is still only an opinion.

The so called scientific method which introduced us to the idea of gathering evidence cannot be attributed to one individual, the high-profile contributors include Aristotle, Ibn al-Haytham, Descartes and Newton. It was clearly an organic process that Newton eloquently described as standing upon the shoulder of giants.

Regardless of the originator, the scientific method has changed the way we think and shaped much of the modern world, from discoveries in medicine, putting a man on the moon and the creation of the internet. But……Not Learning.

Learning science

Although still a relatively new field there are a group of individuals who include cognitive and computer scientists, linguists and educational phycologists who collectively call themselves Learning Scientists. By gathering evidence in the form of data about how students learn they have been able to draw conclusions that are “evidence based”. What can be proven and what cannot. For both students and teachers their findings should be essential reading.

One important point, this does not in any way detract from what a good teacher does, no more than offering advice to doctors on the evidence supporting the success of a new drug.

The top 6 evidence-based study techniques

1. Spaced practice (distributed)

Spaced practice is the exact opposite of cramming, you are effectively taking the same amount of time to study, just doing it over a longer period of time. The evidence shows that if you revisit what you have studied over time it boosts what is called your retrieval and storage strength but if you study in a short period of time, your retrieval strength improves but your storage strength reduces. One implication is that cramming can work but only if you want to retain information for a short period of time, to pass an exam for example. As such it is understandable why students do this, because they have proved in the past it was successful.  If, however you need that information for the next level of study, you may need to learn it all over again!

“The effect is simple: the same amount of repeated studying of the same information spaced out over time will lead to greater retention of that information in the long run, compared with repeated studying of the same information for the same amount of time in one study session.”

Watch this video, it’s an excellent summary.

2. Interleaving

Interleaving is simply studying different subjects or topics as opposed to studying one topic very thoroughly before moving to the next, this latter process is called blocking. However as with spaced practice students might find it harder (see desirable difficulty) because interleaving involves retrieval practice and is more difficult than blocked practice, but the knowledge is retained for far longer. One proven technique is for students to alternate between attempting a problem and viewing a worked example. This is much better than attempting to answer one question after another. Its simply about switching activity.

But be careful, interleaving is best done within a subject, don’t move from Chemistry to Art for example. Unfortunately we don’t have any evidence as to what the optimum time period should be, so that might have to come down to trial and error. If however its too short a time there is a danger you will effectively be multitasking, and as I have mentioned in a previous blog, that simply doesn’t work.

This video by brain hack is excellent

“Interleaving occurs when different ideas or problem types are tackled in a sequence, as opposed to the more common method of attempting multiple versions of the same problem in a given study session, known as blocking.”

3. Retrieval practice

This may come as no surprise to many students and certainly not to anyone who reads this blog, its true testing actually improves memory. The process of reflecting back and having to retrieve a memory of something previously learned is very powerful.  There is also an added benefit, if you are told there is going to be a test, the increased test expectancy leads to better-quality encoding of the new information.

One concern is that while there is little doubt that retrieval practice works, there is some research to show that pressure, perhaps the result of test anxiety during retrieval can undermine some of the learning benefit.

“However, we know from a century of research that retrieving knowledge actually strengthens it.”

Part two, next month

I hope this insight into evidence based learning has been useful, next month I will cover Elaboration, Concrete examples and Dual coding.

And if you would like to find out more here is a link to the article that quotes much of the research to support these techniques.