6 Ideas to Improve Student Learning Based on Research

Learning is massively complex. We can never see it, only imply it from the outcome of tests which may, or may not, be true indicators.

We can, however, use what research says in order to try and optimise learning. It is important to note that research indicates to us what probably will happen, it does not guarantee it.

Knowing more about something is likely to improve your performance. However, if I take fishing as an example; A friend and I used to go fly fishing for trout. I used to do loads of research, I had the best gear, the best technique, a better understanding of what the fish were feeding on. Annoyingly he always caught more and bigger fish than me.

Learning appears to be most effective when it is difficult as indicated by the research of Robert Bjork and the concept of Desirable Difficulties

So what are the 6 things that have been shown to improve performance that we can measure?

  1. Spaced Practice:  I was a crammer, just before the test I would panic at my lack of knowledge and spend the last few hours filling my brain with as much as possible. Not surprisingly, research has found this is far less effective than having multiple, mini-tests suitably spaced out over the course. This idea of constant and regular revisiting of topics isn’t new. Back in 1880 Ebbinghaus produced his famous Forgetting Curve which plotted how much we forget when we don’t revisit the material we have learned. Surprisingly, we learn more effectively when we have forgotten parts of the information, but not too much, we need to try and find the sweet spot for our brains
  2. Retrieval Practice: My revision notes were written, then pored over again and again. This gave me the illusion that I had learned the information. Unfortunately, all that tends to do is make the material familiar in the context of the notes. Trying to retrieve this information in a different context is not very effective. Being able to recognise the material can give us the illusion that it has been learned when it hasnt. So how can we retrieve information effectively? Putting the notes away and try and explain to someone, or something, about the topic.  Creating a mind map or pictorial representation can also be effective. The aim is to present it in a different format to the revision notes. 
  3. Elaboration: Simply recalling facts does not improve learning. More effort appears to be needed and elaboration has been found to be effective. Elaboration is the adding of details, looking at what might happen in different contexts. Applying these ideas in different ways. A good place to start is using Socratic questioning


  4. Interleaving: Spending hours practising the same thing is not as effective as mixing things up, or interleaving. Curriculums tend to be structured so a single topic is taught and mastered before moving onto the next one.  This isn’t an efficient way to learn according to research. Mixing the topics up especially if you can form links should be far more effective. So in physics, for example, rather than teach Forces, Electricity and then Energy. We could possibly teach Newtons laws, electrostatics, energy transfers, work done dipping in and out of each topic. Have a look at the RevEdCPD physics conferences for more information.
  5. Concrete examples: Often the material being delivered is by experts in their fields who may have a deep understanding of abstract ideas. To the more novice learner, these concepts may be not at all clear. Research suggests getting the learner to try to turn them into concrete examples where the application of the concept can be clearly seen. A useful resource is here
  6. Dual Coding: The idea of dual coding has come from research into the ide of cognitive load  The general idea is we can simultaneously cope with visual and auditory input and learn most effectively when both of these channels are being used. So pictures plus an audio element are more effective than simply pictures or audio elements on their own (a teacher who drones on does not impart much learning to the class) Note that text written on screen tends to be treated as pictorial information.

Dual Coding in Action. How effective is this ?



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