Thursday, October 25, 2007

Increasing Retention Without Increasing Study Time

You've no doubt heard that young American adults have poor knowledge of geography, science, mathematics, and history. It's easy to chalk that up to our lackluster system of education, but rather than never having learned it in the first place, our students might simply have forgotten what they learned.

Ever wondered what study tips to offer your students so that they may study more effectively and retain what they're learning?

I certainly have. I think for a lot of professors, we take for granted that we are good students, practiced students - and our students are not. We need to take the time every now and then to meta-teach, which is to say, teach our students how to learn.

If you teach psychology classes, especially introductory ones as I have, it's easy to integrate study tips into units on memory and learning, but those units often don't appear until the middle of the semester when it's too late to make a big difference early on. Freshman or as they are more typically called at SLACs, first-year students, may already be floundering. That's why I'd advocate doing a little meta-teaching on learning the very first day of class when you go over the syllabus. But remember, there's never a wrong time to discuss it!

So what are the tips? Rather than imparting my own personal experience or anything based on intuition (which can be faulty), I'll share tips gleaned from a great review article of experiments on human learning.

The article "Increasing Retention Without Increasing Study Time" by Rohrer and Pashler was published in Current Directions in Psychological Science (2007). It's only 4 pages long and is well worth a full read. Using an ecologically valid approach which had students learning vocabulary, geography, foreign languages, and mathematics, the authors report that overlearning does not produce long-lasting benefits. So, if students learn something to a criterion (say of getting items correct at least once) and then go over it again, they don't recall any more a month later than if they had just done it once. However, overlearning is beneficial in the short term.

Basically, this confirms that what our students call cramming is effective if the test happens right away, but they won't have retained anymore by the end of the semester. Cramming takes time and doesn't provide very much bang for the buck.

So if studying for an extended session (aka rehearsing in a massed practice) isn't effective for long-term retention, what is? Distributed practice. Retention is much better if the study time is spaced out. But how much time should go by between study sessions for optimum retention?

That depends on when the test is. If it's about 10 days away - once a day (studying to the criterion). If it is 6 months away - about once a month.

That's why I'd advocate for having a cumulative final. It encourages students to revisit what they have learned earlier in the semester, and if you do a good job of pointing out what is important to learn along the way, they don't have to spend a whole lot of study time out of class revisiting every little detail of what they learned. Once a month for the big picture ideas will do. I know that's an oversimplification, or more easily said than done, but setting up your course in such a way that students have to use previous knowledge to answer exam questions later is actually quite difficult to do if you aren't teaching math, chemistry, etc. If you are in a content based survey course where there is "a lot of material" it is imperative to help your students navigate through the forest of information by teaching them landmarks along the way. If they don't know which trees are important, they will get lost and never make it to their final destination.

Also, encourage students to study by testing themselves, either alone or with a friend testing each other. I often asked my dad to test me when I was in high school. I'd hand him my history or biology notebook or textbook and ask him to make up questions. I'd try to answer them and if I didn't know the answer or got it wrong, he'd tell me the correct answer. Such retrieval practice is much more effective than re-reading notes or the book.

So remember spaced practice - and - self-testing.

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