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5 Learning Techniques Psychologists Say Kids Aren’t Getting

Recent research says kids aren't using the most effective learning techniques.

My guest poster, Steve Peha, founder of Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., comments on recent psychological research showing that kids spend more time using the five least effective learning techniques than they do using the five most effective and what we should do about it.

5 Learning Techniques Psychologists Say Kids Aren’t Getting At School

By Steve Peha

In high school and college my academic reading load increased dramatically from my earlier years in school. So did the need to do homework, the importance of preparing for tests, and the pressure to get good grades. Today’s kids carry even heavier burdens. They read more, do more homework, and face more pressure to perform.

But a recent study suggests that many kids may be reading, remembering, and studying poorly simply because they are acting out the myths that previous generations have perpetuated about reading comprehension and the retention of information.

Decades in the Making

The study,Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology, reviewed decades worth of data on ten basic learning techniques, many of which have direct implications for reading and an interesting connection to writing as well. Of the ten, the author’s concluded that five were highly or moderately helpful and that five were of relatively little help.

The problem is that kids spend more time using the five least effective techniques than they do using five most effective techniques. Based on how kids are taught in most classrooms and the study skills they are encouraged to use outside of school, we may be giving kids the opposite of the information they need to be successful.

The highly useful techniques noted in the study were the following:

  • Practice Testing. Self-testing or taking practice tests over to-be-learned material.
  • Distributed Practice. Implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time.

The moderately useful techniques were:

  • Elaborative Interrogation. Generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true.
  • Self-Explanation. Explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving.
  • Interleaved Practice. Implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session.

The least useful techniques were:

  • Highlighting/Underlining. Marking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while reading.
  • Rereading. Restudying text material again after an initial reading.
  • Summarization. Writing summaries (of various lengths) of to-be-learned texts.
  • Keyword Mnemonic. Using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials
  • Imagery for Text. Attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening.

Singled out for high use but low usefulness were highlighting, re-reading, and summarizing. But aren’t those exactly the things most of us spent our study time doing when we were in school? And with the performance pressures kids face today, are they doing these things even more than we did? Probably. So what are kids missing that would help them be more successful?

Explanations and Relations

While reading, elaborative interrogation (asserting the truth or falsehood of statements) and self-explanation (relating new information to known information), are likely to help kids understand more of what they read—and probably save them some studying time, too.

To me, these two techniques seem important for non-fiction reading in science and social studies when it comes to following the thread of logic in an argument. They also seem useful when kids have to incorporate new information with old information in subjects that are highly cumulative like math.

News Flash: Testing Improves Learning

In our current age of cultural backlash against high-stakes testing, it appears that many of us are lashing out at the wrong thing. According to the study, testing is good for kids. It’s the stakes that possibly get in the way.

No- and low-stakes tests, like brief non-graded quizzes, appear to be highly effective. Even more effective is student self-testing. This is the testing approach with the lowest stakes but it may also be the most effective, especially if kids use it regularly and make a sincere effort to challenge themselves.

Practice Makes...

Anyone who has ever studied an instrument, played a sport, or developed skills related to a hobby knows that practice is essential to improvement. Not surprisingly, the same is true of academic pursuits.

Two types of practice were found to be particularly useful: distributed practice and interleaved practice.

But don’t we always give kids a big chunk of the same kind of problems to do in math? That’s “block” practice: students work on one block of the same material until they’re done. Then they move on to the next block in the next subject. But distributing the work over several shorter periods of time, and interleaving different kinds of work within the same study session, appear to be more effective.

Distributed practice requires good time management. Interleaved practice requires organization and discipline. Both kinds of practice also require that teachers think differently about the homework they assign. But aren’t time management, organization, and discipline three qualities we’d like our kids to develop? And why wouldn’t teachers want to structure their homework assignments in ways that helped kids learn them best?

The study suggests that teachers probably have never been taught these things, that they haven’t discovered them on their own, and that most kids have never thought to use them either. We’re all just doing what we’ve always done. For want of basic information about teaching and learning, students and teachers are probably working harder than they need to—and getting less in return for their efforts than they should.

Why Some Things Might Be Better Than Others

As I consider the ten techniques investigated, it seems to me that the differentiating factor—the one thing that makes five of the techniques more effective than the other five—is recall. Memories are reconstructed each time they are recalled. Frequent and accurate recall leads to better retention.

Though this is not a scientific evaluation on my part, it seems to me that the five most useful techniques require more active recall on the part of the learner. For example, elaborative interrogation and self-explanation feel to me like active processes. Rereading, highlighting, and summarizing material that is right in front of a student in a book seems relatively passive by comparison.

OId School

For each of the ten techniques addressed in the study, five psychologists reviewed decades of material. This stuff, as the kids might say, is “old school.” Yet it appears not to be a part of school at all.

Kids’ reading comprehension might be easily improved, and what they comprehend more easily remembered, if we simply exchanged the commonly used but less useful techniques for the more useful techniques the study’s authors recommend. But that probably won’t happen because education is intensely tradition-bound.

Though this information is unlikely to enter into formal teacher pre-service and in-service training, I’ve had many positive reactions to it recently with teachers in the professional development workshops I offer. Many are very receptive to it and quite creative in how they plan to change what they’ve been doing. But few are likely to encounter the study that explains these ideas and most of the learning opportunities teachers have are unlikely to include this information in other forms.

Easy Peasy

At less than 60 pages, the study is relatively short and very easy to read. I now start all of my training sessions with a quick overview of the findings, and then focus my material through the lens of the study’s conclusions. This has given me an excellent set of organizing principles upon which to base my work.

Fortunately, positive incentives to use these ideas exist in both the front and back of the classroom. Teachers would love to have their kids be more successful, especially if that success required less of the effort associated with frequent re-teaching. And what kid wouldn’t like to study less and get better grades?

Investing in Testing

I think, too, that this study provides an important lesson about testing: it isn’t bad. In fact, it’s helpful—if it’s done under the right circumstances. At a time when anti-testing sentiment is sweeping the country, we may be throwing our babies out with the bathwater.

The kind of testing most people are concerned about is so-called “high-stakes” testing. But I think it’s the stakes and not the testing that we need to be mindful of. No-stakes testing, especially when students make their own self-tests, seems to be the smart thing to do. Low-stakes classroom quizzes, along with brief, often single question, classroom entrance and exit activities, probably work well, too.

The Write Way Forward

Kids could learn more, and probably more easily, if teachers told them about these techniques and built them into their teaching. Now that this study has been published and its ideas are so accessible, I want to believe that this is exactly what will happen. But my experience in education tells me this is unlikely. The study’s existence hints at why: most of what appears here is old news; if people were interested in using it they likely would have done so by now.

While the information in the study may not manifest itself in common classroom practice, there is a trend in education that bodes well for the indirect application of these ideas: our increasing awareness of the value of writing.

After 40 years of hearing it, education is catching on to the idea that “writing is thinking on paper.” The newly-arrived Common Core State Standards require more writing, especially expository, persuasive, and traditional academic argumentative prose. A rare turnaround at New Dorp High School in Staten Island, New York found that writing in all subject areas was a critical component of success. These things, along with the shift in reform-driven testing from minimum competence to college-readiness, and our shared realization that large numbers of kids require remedial writing courses in their first year of college, are adding up to what I hope will be a more writing-driven experience of school.

Even if teachers don’t push hard for elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, practice testing, or distributed and interleaved practice, many will be pushing hard for writing. Fortunately, writing touches on each of these techniques in some way.

For example, it’s hard to avoid elaborative interrogation and self-explanation when crafting academic prose. Writing is also a kind of practice testing because in many cases it requires a similar kind of mental recall. Writing is also a natural fit with both distributed and interleaved practice. For kids, writing might even be considered a kind of distributed practice by definition because writing sessions are typically spaced out over time to account for the fact that young writers often lack stamina. Writing may also provide a variant of interleaved practice because small amounts of it can easily be required in different subjects within the same study session.

A Second Look at the Second “R”

Writing is a long-held academic tradition, one of the three constants of formal schooling. Where many of the techniques cited in the study are foreign to teachers and to teacher training programs, writing is not. Doing more of it, and doing it more rigorously, is exactly what is likely to happen in years to come.

This idea of using writing to sneak good learning techniques into the lives of our kids appeals to me because tradition is by far the greatest influence on educational practice and because I have experienced consistently high levels of success with writing over the nearly 20 years that I have worked with students and teachers.

Since the study was brought to my attention by one of its co-authors, I have been using it at the beginning of all my teacher training sessions to frame the content of my presentations. While teachers aren’t rushing out of my workshops saying how excited they are to begin using more elaborative interrogation techniques, they do seem interested in using the writing strategies I offer that emphasize some of the more useful learning techniques for which the study advocates.

Theory and Practice Coming Together (Partially by Accident)

Education has never been very good at discovering and applying research. But this time it may not have to be very good. This may be one instance where theory and practice intersect in a surreptitious but timely way to catalyze improvements in literacy, depth of knowledge, information retention, and overall academic rigor.

Because this study has such important implications for literacy and learning, I would love to see it applied intentionally and immediately in classrooms everywhere. But if its findings find their way into the learning lives of our children by happenstance or indirection, the same positive results may occur.

What Can We Do in the Meantime?

If you’re not inclined to wait around until teaching and learning catch up with decades old research, there are simple things you can do on your own, if you have things to learn, or to help your children if they have things to learn:

  • While reading factual information, stop periodically and ask “Why is this true?” Finding the answer in the text or in the back of one’s mind increases understanding and improves retention.
  • Having trouble keeping up with more challenging reading? Take a minute to note how each new idea relates to the previous idea.
  • Change homework habits to work in smaller chunks of time more frequently; even moving to a different location between work sessions can be helpful.
  • To prepare for those big final exams, mix in small amounts of information from units of study that occurred earlier in the term and study two or three different types of information in the same session.
  • Of all the possibilities, self-testing is perhaps the promising. Anticipate what will need to be demonstrated in class and create challenges that test important knowledge and skills before someone else does.

Finally, it turns out that we mere mortals are terribly over-confident when it comes to evaluating how prepared we are for academic challenges. So when we think we’ve studied enough, it probably makes sense to study just a little bit more. Using the best techniques, and using them a little more than we think we need to, might make a dramatic difference in how well we learn.

Steve Peha is the founder of Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., an education consultancy in Carrboro, NC specializing in literacy and instructional leadership. In addition to providing teacher training for schools and districts throughout the US and Canada, he writes regularly on education practice and policy. His work has been featured on The Washington Post, The National Journal, Edutopia, and many others.

Steve Peha

Steve Peha

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.