Why Don’t Students Use Effective Learning Strategies?

Effective Learning Strategies

A guest post by Dr Flavia Belham (Author Bio below)

For a relatively long time now, researchers working with cognitive sciences have shown that some learning strategies are more effective than others. This has been done via randomised controlled studies in the lab and interventions in schools. Nevertheless, the majority of students in schools, colleges and universities are still investing their time in sub-optimal techniques, such as re-reading notes and highlighting textbook.

In this article, I’ll summarise:

  • Some of the evidence-based learning techniques
  • The main reasons why students don’t use them
  • How teachers can help them do so, using freely available resources and simple classroom activities.

Evidence-Based Learning Techniques.

The main strategy that has received wide support from the academic literature is Retrieval Practice. This technique is basically answering questions and actively bringing information back to mind instead of passively reading notes over and over again. This active retrieval creates new and stronger connections between pieces of knowledge and generates a deeper understanding of the topic. A few ways to use retrieval practice are low stake quizzes, braindumps and flashcards.

Two other effective strategies are Spacing and Interleaving. These two are the opposite of cramming. That is, studying one topic for many hours in a row and then moving on to the next one is significantly less productive than spreading out practice and switching between topics. Interleaving can also happen within one quiz or exam. Especially for STEM subjects, mixing the order of questions will force students to think harder and figure out the answer from the question itself, and not because they already knew which content would be covered. Doug Rohrer has written a lot about this.

Another learning strategy based on cognitive sciences is Dual-Coding, which conveys the idea that it is easier for our brain to understand, process and retain novel information when this is presented combining words with visual elements. Examples of dual-coding are diagrams, timelines and mind-maps.

Main Reasons Why Students Don’t Use Effective Learning Strategies

We, Seneca Learning, conducted a survey in 2017 that revealed that only one-quarter of students were using good strategies to revise. This result is in accordance with peer-reviewed papers that consistently found that less than 30% of pupils and university students use Retrieval Practice to prepare for an exam.

There are three main reasons for this low number. The first is that students simply do not know about those techniques. That is, they simply do not realise that it is possible to study without highlighting the textbook or re-reading notes.

The second reason is that the non-effective strategies give students an illusion of competence, making them believe they are progressing more than they truly are. For example, reading the book makes them feel like they understand all that content, whereas being tested reveals that they still have gaps in their knowledge.

The third reason is that effective learning techniques require planning and effort to implement. Using Retrieval Practice, Spacing, Interleaving and Dual-Coding are, admittedly, way more complicated than simply reading, highlighting and cramming.

How Can We Help Students Use Effective Learning Strategies?

The first two reasons why students don’t use effective strategies is because they do not know about them and they feel like those strategies do not work. Thus, it is crucial that we inform students about learning techniques based on cognitive sciences and show them the evidence.

This can be done with assemblies, classes about the brain and memory processes, as well as the reading of scientific articles. There are also very good videos on the internet that explain the techniques and the science behind it in a student-friendly language. Teachers can also run multidisciplinary projects where students conduct their own small randomised controlled trial. Links to some of the videos are HERE and HERE.

The third reason for the low number of pupils using good strategies is that these techniques are time-consuming and effortful. Luckily, there is a number of free tools online that make them easier to implement. For example, The Student Room has a tool that helps students plan their study routine based on exam dates. There are also guides that help them to allocate their time in an effective way. Seneca Learning is an interactive website providing exam-board specific revision and homework material for KS2 to KS5 pupils for free.

Useful Classroom Activities

There are also many classroom ideas developed by teachers and that successfully apply effective learning strategies. For example, at the latest conference of the Association for Science Education, I attended a talk by Adam Boxer, from a school in north London. Adam is a Key Stage 3 Science teacher that was worried that years 7, 8 and 9 were becoming useless or a simple preparation for the upcoming GCSE years. To change that, Adam developed a series of core questions and what he classifies as perfect answers to them. His aim is that all students finish KS3 knowing all of this content. To reach his goal, he created what is now known as a Retrieval Roulette. This is a spreadsheet that randomly selects core questions for students to answer. The questions can come from the most recent lesson or from any topic previously covered. By using the roulette as low-stake quizzes, Adam is helping his students by using retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving.

Another great idea is Blake Harvard’s Colour-coded Recall. This is a very simple classroom activity that only requires pen, paper and a set of highlighters. At the beginning of a lesson, Blake asks his Psychology students to write down the answer to a question without checking any notes or textbook.  Students must try hard and try to give their best answer. They then take one highlighter (let’s say yellow) and mark what they wrote. Following this, students are allowed to check their course material and complete the answer writing down anything they may have missed. This addition to the answer is highlighted in a different colour (let’s say blue). Lastly, students can talk about the questions and write down even more highlighting that in a third colour (let’s say green). Students receive one grade for each colour and are encouraged to repeat the technique whenever they have time. This method effectively uses retrieval practice and dual coding. It also helps in terms of metacognition since students can visualize their progress very easily.

Only a couple of weeks ago, Jon Gustafson wrote an article for his blog explaining why and how he changed his lessons to become 85% review and only 15% new content. Part of the review is done with low stake quizzes that revisit past content. The aim is to have students practising and applying what they previously learned, while creating connections between the different topics and concepts. Similarly to the Retrieval Roulette, Jon applies 2 to 3 quizzes every week, in which he includes and interleaves questions from the most recent content with questions from past lessons. Jon noticed that his workload and stress have been reduced, and that students are doing more and better independent work.

These are all examples of resources, tools and classroom ideas that have effective learning strategies already embedded in their methodology. Using them from the beginning of their school years will certainly teach students the power of evidence-based methods and increase the number of students optimising their revision to achiev higher progress.

Guest Author Bio:

Dr Belham - Effective Learning Strategies

Dr Flavia Belham applies experimental findings from Neuroscience to the free revision & homework platform Seneca Learning as the Chief Scientist. During her PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, she used behavioural and brain imaging techniques to investigate how people of different ages memorise emotional events. She is a certified Science Teacher and worked in schools before joining Seneca Learning.

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