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.

Meta-Cognition Strategies

Meta-Cognition

[Updated 27 November 2018]

Before meta-cognition…

When I was a student, I remember staring for hours and hours at folders full of notes, trying desperately to memorise and understand them. It didn’t work. It probably didn’t work for you either. The problem is that memorising information is insanely difficult unless you employ the right methods. For most people, “reading notes” just doesn’t cut it, but whenever I ask students “how do you revise for exams?”, their first answer is almost always “I read over my notes”. I had never heard of meta-cognition and until recently, neither had my students.

The results were predictable. Students would leave their exams devastated that they couldn’t remember everything they supposedly “revised”. I vowed never to allow this to happen again and began my search for “the answer”.

Reading (and most importantly implementing) this post will help you teach more effectively and will help your students learn more. It’s a bold claim, I know. But trust me on this one, the evidence for using meta-cognition strategies is overwhelming.

What is meta-cognition?

“Meta-cognition” is best understood as learning how to learn. It’s a self-reflective strategy that allows students to understand how to learn more effectively and efficiently. Once mastered, students can memorise facts, understand concepts better and make connections between pieces of information with greater ease.

Why is meta-cognition so important?

When students are genuinely reflective about their learning ‘methods’, they improve quicker than their peers.

The Education Endowment Foundation (formerly known as the Sutton Trust) published research in 2012, highlighting a number of strategies that could be employed by schools, to raise the performance of their students. Meta-cognition strategies came out as second only to Feedback as the most impactful strategy. Not only that, but it cost virtually nothing to implement, unlike other (less effective) strategies. More recently, the EEF published guidance on meta-cognition which gives further advice to teachers on how to implement it in their day-to-day practice. You can read the April 2018 update here.

The Learning Scientists, a group of cognitive-psychologists studying the effects of meta-cognition on learning, have also published a variety of strategies, some of which my students have trialled with great success (read on to find out my favourite one). Their work has been picked up by a wide audience of teachers on Twitter, on both sides of the Atlantic. Have a read about the benefits of using meta-cognition strategies which strategies are the most effective! You can follow them on Twitter at @acethattest.

Which meta-cognition strategies should I use?

I’ve trialled a wide variety of meta-cognition strategies, both for delivering content and for helping students revise for exams. I’ve written below about the three strategies that in my experience have made the biggest difference to my students. I would advise you to try them all. What you will probably find, as with most teaching strategies, is that some work better than others for “your students”, or fit better with your preferred style of teaching. Just give them a go!

Whatever you find though, leave some feedback for me (and all the readers) so we can see which ones work best across a range of subjects. Don’t forget to mention your subject!

Meta-Cognition Strategies:

Spaced Retrieval Practice is, in my experience, THE way to teach students to memorise information. In essence, you teach your content however you choose and then quickly follow up with a set of questions. The questions should range from short to extended answers and should cover as much of the information as possible. Ideally, this should happen within the same lesson that you taught the content. You can then use the same quiz questions in the following lesson, once the students have had a chance to forget some of the information.

Going back through the answers helps students to get used to ‘retrieving’ the information, thus improving their memory. Using the same questions again in another lesson a few days later will not only aid students’ memories further, but it will draw out the information that students struggle with the most, allowing you to plan for further teaching on that topic.

Spaced Practice
Image by Oliver Caviglioli. Source: (An excellent blog by) Carl Hendrick https://chronotopeblog.com/2018/05/05/how-should-students-revise-a-brief-guide/

Interleaving is an excellent companion to Retrieval Practice and they make a huge difference to your students. Students focus on Topic A, then Topic B, then go back to Topic A, then Topic C, then back to Topic B, then Topic D, etc, etc.

It doesn’t really matter what order the topics are in. Just keep going back and forth between them. By doing so, much like Retrieval Practice, you allow your students to forget. Then, simply get them to practice bringing the information back to the forefront of their mind.

I teach my students that memory is much like a muscle. It must be put under strain, regularly, if you want it to become significantly stronger.

Interleaving
Image by Oliver Caviglioli. Source: (An excellent blog by) Carl Hendrick https://chronotopeblog.com/2018/05/05/how-should-students-revise-a-brief-guide/

Self-Review Questionnaires are a completely different type of strategy to Retrieval Practice and Interleaving. This involves getting students to rank their topics in order of perceived difficulty. They then have to speak for one minute, without repetition, hesitation or deviation. It quickly becomes evident to the student whether the perceived difficulty matches up to their actual knowledge of those topics. They can then begin to address the areas where they are evidently weaker. This removes unnecessary revision from the equation and focuses on what’s truly needed.

My Recommendations

If you’re a Primary School teacher then there really is no better book you can buy than Metacognition in the Primary Classroom (my Amazon Affiliate Link) by Peter Tarrant and Deborah Holt. In this book, they go into the rationale and research behind meta-cognitive strategies and explain how you can put them to use. They even break their strategies into age ranges. Obviously, there are clear advantages to using particular strategies aimed towards a specific age group. This book shows you exactly how to do it. Why not take a look?

If you teach Secondary, then I recommend Thinking About Thinking (another Amazon Affiliate Link) by Stephen Lockyer. He gives a range of strategies you can immediately apply to your classroom and explains the reasoning behind them. You can dip in and out of at your own leisure, making it a must-have for anyone looking to improve outcomes quickly.

Final Thoughts…

I’d like to thank the Learning Scientists for bringing Retrieval Practice and Interleaving (amongst many strategies) to my attention. Please follow them, you won’t be disappointed!

I’d also love to hear how you’ve used meta-cognition strategies to improve your students’ performance. Add a comment and I’ll get back to you soon!

You can follow me on Twitter and on Pinterest too.

And don’t forget to SHARE this with any teachers you think would find it useful!

Andy

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