Over 40 years of psychological research on learning and memory have given us four tried-and-true principles for facilitating learning. In a recent study, researchers found that bringing three of these principles into the classroom powerfully impacted student learning of complex engineering material. According to the study's co-author, Dr. Richard Baraniuk, the results exceeded everyone's expectations. In fact, they had a larger effect on average improvement than overhauling curricula or teaching methods.

So what are these three principles? They are repeated practice at retrieving information, spacing learning sessions, and receiving immediate feedback. Here is how these principles were tested.

Students enrolled in an upper-level "signals and systems" engineering course at Rice University, attended lectures, and did homework assignments. But they were also given follow-up problems to solve, spaced over three weeks of lectures. They were given immediate feedback on the follow-up problems. They were required to view the feedback in order to get credit for the assignment. This was done because people are notorious for skipping feedback information, which, ironically, is the single biggest source of information that is powerful enough to improve their performance. The researchers also split the class into two groups. In any given week, half of the students were given the additional follow-up problems to solve while the other half were not.

Spacing the problems made students retrieve information from past lectures, and this is what packs the punch in long-term learning. If you are only interested in remembering material for a test the next day (and you are sure what material you will be tested on), it is possible to get away with simply "cramming" for the test. This type of learning is called massed practice. The problem with this strategy is that you will forget most of the material in short order. For solid learning—learning you can rely on—distributed practice is far superior. You simply space out your practice sessions over time, and make sure that your sessions involve remembering what you learned before. The act of retrieving previously learned material when spaced out in this way powerfully impacts test performance.

The results were clear—a 7 percent improvement in test performance on material for which the students had done spaced follow-up problems. If that does not sound like much, note that this meant achieving a score of 76 percent on multiple-choice questions compared to 69 percent, that is, achieving a C rather than a D in the course.

To get the most out of your learning (or teaching) sessions, add this fourth solidly researched principle into the mix: The quickest way to learn (or teach) something new is to show how it is analogous to something you (or your learners) already know. The more complex the material, the more important it is to use analogies that touch base with concepts you already understand. The hitch here is that analogies can be so powerful that they can mislead. Remember learning that "an atom is like the solar system—the electrons revolve around the nucleus like the planets revolve around the sun"? What prevents you from inferring that the nucleus is hot like the sun? Answer: Nothing—other than judicious feedback that tells you which features from the solar system analogy should be imported into your new knowledge of atoms and which should not be imported. (I discuss the use and misuse of analogies and metaphors in this previous blog post.) But even with this caveat, using an analogy or metaphor is the surest and fastest way to incorporate new information into your knowledge base.

Copyright April 3, 2014 Dr. Denise Cummins

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

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