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The 2013 September ‘Scientific American Mind’ (the psychological companion to the ‘Scientific American’) had an article on ‘How we learn – what works, what doesn’t’ which was a useful review of research into study techniques. They found that the two most useful techniques were ‘Self-testing’ and ‘Distributed practice’.
1. Self-testing is a very familiar technique to online students of course – it involves students doing the ‘Activities’ or ‘Self-Assessment Questions’ in online course materials on their own. In US studies using comparative tests of word pairs, students who had self-tested were able to recall 80% of the pairs, as against students who had just reviewed the pairs who only got 36%.
The findings on self-testing are congruent with the meta-studies (a synthesis of more than 50,000 studies) conducted by Professor John Hattie of Melbourne (see ‘Visible Learning Summary’ from http://growthmindseteaz.org/johnhattie.html . He found that ‘self-testing’ – getting frequent feedback on your progress – is the most effective technique in improving learning. Given the difficulty of providing that frequent feedback from online tutors it’s clear that getting students to do SAQ’s is the next best option. But there’s not always enough of these in the text – maybe the most useful thing an tutor could do for their students is to set more of them, perhaps sending them by e-mail. (I’m not sure that the reflection activities which are used extensively in the course I teach are as useful however – I wonder what the evidence for their effectiveness is?).
Of course getting students to do SAQ’s has always been a challenge. A different piece of research suggested one novel method which is to advise students to attempt the SAQ’s before reading the text. This sounds an unlikely strategy, but it turns out to be remarkably effective not just as a study technique but as a way of developing learning motivation.
2. Distributed practice is again very familiar to online students who probably use it out of necessity – it simply means spreading study out over time. In one study students who had learnt some Spanish vocabulary reviewed the material six times, but in different ways, some back to back, some one day apart, and some 30 days apart. The 30 day group remembered most.
The remaining study techniques were less effective but the researchers felt they had enough potential to be recommended.
3. Elaborative interrogation – getting students to ask ‘Why?’ – that is, producing explanations for statements in the text.
4. Self-explanation – students generating explanations of what they learn.
5. Interleaved practice – alternatively studying different topics instead of sticking to one topic at a time.
But what doesn’t work?
The Scientific American Mind article also looked at what doesn’t work and suggested the following –
1. Highlighting text in material. In controlled studies highlighting was found to be ineffective regardless of topic. In fact in some cases it was found to be harmful to learning where it draws attention to individual items instead of connections across items.
2. Note-taking or summarizing. The jury is out on how effective this is or how to apply it.
I note that in my online course both methods are strongly recommended…
One other thing that the article suggested as not effective was –
3. Rereading. Most student reread their course materials, but the study suggests that the evidence that rereading materials strengthens learning is ‘muddy’. Most of any benefit may accrue from the second reading with very little after that. The authors suggest that students should focus instead on self-testing.
Finally a negative result –
4. Learning styles. – there’s no evidence that knowing your ‘learning style’ helps you learn, a finding by Professor of Learning and Teaching John Richardson.
What’s the message for online learning in this? I think it’s that the we need to spend a little time catching up with learning research, and helping online tutors see how the latest findings can be applied to help them help students become better learners.
I’m a consultant in distance and online education, specialising in student support and retention. I’ve worked in distance education for more than 40 years, at the UK Open University, London University International Programmes, and the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. I’ve given seminars, workshops and keynote lectures in 17 countries and I’m a Student Support Expert for the Empower project of the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities.
‘This website contains some of my most important articles and presentations, as well as helpful support advice for online tutors and students, all of which is freely available.’