The 10 Best and Worst Learning Techniques: New Research Suggests How Online Educators Can Improve on Customary Practices

In a January 9th, 2013 blogpost, Annie Murphy Paul summarized research - led by Kent State professor John Dunlosky - evaluating the effectiveness of 10 of the most popular learning tactics.

The results of this research should be studied by everyone working as an educator and especially by those who are pioneering the world of online education.

According to the latest research, the learning strategies with the most evidence to support them are not the most common or widely-accepted studying techniques: For example, underlining, highlighting, rereading and taking notes (the practice of summarizing what's in a text in the student's own words) were ranked as "low utility" by the researchers.

What 2 learning strategies worked the best?

1) Distributed Practice

"This tactic involves spreading out your study sessions [dipping into the material at intervals over time], rather than engaging in one [long cramming] marathon." If your goal is to retain what you've learned, revisiting the concepts or facts in short bursts that occur over a longer period of time (hours, weeks and months) will apparently earn the best results. For example, research has shown that sessions of 15-20 minutes separated by a few hours are better than one long cram session. And the Dunlosky paper suggests students who want to remember what they've studied should consider a practice schedule where the rest periods - between practice session - get longer and longer.

2) Practice Testing

"Yes, more tests — but these are not for a grade. Research shows that the mere act of calling information to mind strengthens that knowledge and aids in future retrieval. While practice testing is not a common strategy — despite the robust evidence supporting it — there is one familiar approach that captures its benefits: using flash cards."

What about the other learning strategies?

As Annie Murphy Paul observes: "The remainder of the techniques evaluated by Dunlosky and his colleagues fell into the middle ground — not useless, but not especially effective either. These include mental imagery, or coming up with pictures that help you remember text (which is time-consuming and only works with text that lends itself to images); elaborative interrogation, or asking yourself “why” as you read (which is kind of annoying, like having a 4-year-old tugging at your sleeve); self-explanation, or forcing yourself to explain the text in detail instead of passively reading it over (its effectiveness depends on how complete and accurate your explanations are); interleaved practice, or mixing up different types of problems (there is not much evidence to show that this is helpful, outside of learning motor tasks); and lastly the keyword mnemonic, or associating new vocabulary words, usually in a foreign language, with an English word that sounds similar — so, for example, learning the French word for key, la clef, by imagining a key on top of a cliff (which is a lot of work to remember a single word). All these techniques were rated of “moderate” to “low” utility by Dunlosky et al because either there isn’t enough evidence yet to be able to recommend them or they’re just not a very good use of your time. Much better, say the authors, to spread out your learning, ditch your highlighter and get busy with your flash cards."

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