Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Creating Personalized Practice for Students

Computers can help give students items that they most need to study.

For a few decades now, educators have suggested that computers would vastly improve our ability to teach students. The assumption has been that with computers we would be able to transport students to places they could not go on their own, allow them to communicate with people around the globe, and get more personalized instruction.

So far, the influence of computers in education has been mixed. Computers clearly allow access to a much larger library of materials than students would were able to get before the internet. In addition, students can view interesting videos that bring more content than the filmstrips and videos that were the norm in the past. 

However, computers have had a downside as well. The internet provides a lot of distraction that leads students to try to multitask in ways that hamper learning. Video lectures (like MOOCs) have not yet lived up to the hype. It is just hard to watch a lecture on a screen.  And there have been few successful methods for personalizing instruction to individual student needs.

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This issue of personalized practice was explored in a paper by Robert Lindsey, Jeffery Shroyer, Harold Pashler, and Michael Mozer in the March, 2014 issue of Psychological Science

They compared three methods for helping eighth-grade students to learn Spanish vocabulary.  For each of these methods, all students studied for the same amount of time. 

One group of students just practiced the most recent lesson each week for 10 weeks. This process is similar to what many students do now when their weekly quizzes focus on the most recent material.  A second group got a generic kind of practice that spaced practice out over weeks in which they were given the chance to study both material from the current lesson and from the previous lesson. 

A third group used a more complex technique to guess what material each student was most likely to be just about to forget. This technique used a student’s performance each week to estimate their overall ability to remember vocabulary, the difficulty of particular items (judged by how well students in general were able to learn those items) and how often they had seen those items previously. Using this technique, students spent most of their time each week on the new items from the current lesson, but then received a smattering of older items to help them with older information that they would be likely to forget.

Students got a test at the end of the semester and another test after a four-week break as they started the next semester. On both tests, students given the personalized training regimen did much better than those who either studied just the words from the current week or those who studied the words from the previous week and those from the current week. The biggest benefit for the personalized training came for items that were learned early in the semester. Students given this training were much less likely to forget those items than those given the other two techniques.

This finding suggests that when students are learning information that requires a lot of practice, computers may be used to individualize practice for the needs of particular students. Of course, computers are just enhancing a piece of the learning here. Picking up a new language requires learning vocabulary, but it also requires learning to actually communicate. This technique helps with memorization, but not with the use of the new language.

One concern that I have with this technique, though, is that students need to learn material, but they also need to learn to study effectively. That is, students need to learn that the reason that they succeed with this new technique is because it finds difficult items from the past that they are just about to forget and gets them to study those items. These students will not always have a computer in front of them helping them to figure out what material to study.  So, they need to learn to apply some of these strategies on their own in order to maximize their ability to learn in the future.   

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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