Last week, we discussed five teaching strategies that are generally ineffective. This week, we’ll discuss five strategies which are highly or moderately effective.
The CCSS bills itself as internationally benchmarked and based on current research. While it focuses on the content of the lesson, it says little about the actual teaching methods, wisely leaving the curriculum and lesson plans to teachers. However, a new monograph of psychological educational research reviews ten teaching practices and has some surprising conclusions and interesting nuances.
Talking about the lag between research and teaching practices, Henry L. Roediger, III says,
“At any rate, in 2012, we cannot point to a well-developed translational educational science in which research about learning and memory, thinking and reasoning, and related topics is moved from the lab into controlled field trials (like clinical trials in medicine) and the tested techniques, if they succeed are introduced into broad educational practices.”
There are 10 Teaching Practices covered in this month’s monograph from the Assocation for Psychological Science, including an exhaustive review of research literature. (Read the full 58 page report here: Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology, by By John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan, and Daniel T. Willingham)
These are techniques are evaluated by these criterion:
- Are effective across a wide range of learning conditions: frequency of use, noisy environment, reading or listening tasks, etc.
- Are effective across a wide range of students: age, memory capacity, general intelligence.
- Are effective across a wide range of materials: specific content that should be learned, remembered or comprehended.
- Are effective across a wide range of tasks: memory, comprehension, application of information.
- Implemented without assistance, after minimal training.
This week, we’ll discuss five techniques that have been shown to have High to Moderate Utility in teaching across a wide range of tasks, students, contexts, learning conditions and implementation situations.
Technique. Low-stakes or no-stakes practice or learning outside of class that students can complete independently. Examples include flash cards, end of chapter reviews or electronic practice tests. Pop quizzes are an example of in-class low-stakes testing.
Theory. Practice tests can enhance retention by triggering elaborate retrieval processes or connections between cues and targets. The practice tests may also enhance mental organization of information.
Learning Conditions. Cued recall, free recall, short-answer and fill in the blank questions all show a positive result from practice testing. Comprehension, including short answer application and multiple-choice inference-based questions also show some improvement. Some research even supports the use of practice tests in an open-book format. The practice test can be a different task from the final test and still show improved learning. Free-recall practice tests, repeated at spaced intervals shows the best results.
Student Characteristics. From preschool to middle-age or older adults, the practice testing shows improved learning.
Materials. Effective for paired-associative material (names & faces, pictures & foreign language translations), trivia, general information facts, multiplication facts, spelling lists, vocabulary words, key terms across various domains and subjects. Works for various length texts, visual or spatial features on maps, identifying birds, learning symbols and more.
Tasks. Works for cued recall, free-recall, recognition, fill in the blank tests, short answer and multiple choice questions. Also helpful for comprehension, inference and application of information. Long term effects are observed even after 2-4 week intervals.
Contexts. The effects of practice tests are seen in no-stakes pop quizzes and in end-of-the-year summative tests.
Implementation. Minimal training is required, and often students can administer the practice test with flash cards or readily available software. The Cornell note-taking system has a built-in testing format which can be effective. It is far more effective than simply re-studying, especially when the practice test provides feedback.
Overall Assessment. High utility.
Testing effects are positive across a wide range of practice-test formats, materials, learner ages, outcome measures and retention intervals.
Relationships to CCSS.
Weekly practice tests, practice spelling tests with feedback, low-stake or no-stake testing with feedback—these type of practice tests show immense potential for learning instruction.
Technique. Learning is distributed over time, rather than in a single-study session. (No cramming before a test!)
Theory. By delaying the review of material, students must work harder than if it is presented twice in close succession; reminding students of previous material causes them to review the material again, for enhanced memory.
Learning Conditions. This refers to a certain schedule of learning , rather than a particular kind of learning. Distributed practice testing is stronger than distributed study. To remember something for a week, space learning 12-24 hours apart. To remember something for 5 years, space learning 6-12 months apart. To study for end of course work, study about a month apart of core material may be best.
Student Characteristics. Preschool through adults show benefits of distributed practice.
Materials. Positive effects are shown on a wide variety of tasks across various domains. The positive effects break down for very complex tasks, such as airplane control.
Tasks. Lag in practice sessions should be about 10-20% of desired retention interval. Useful for free recall, multiple choice questions, cued recall, short answer questions, frequency judgments, implicit memory tasks.
Contexts. Positive effects are shown across a wide range of contexts.
Implementation. One problem with implementation is that textbooks lump together related materials and don’t revisit old information for review. Also, study tends to increase as testing nears, resulting in cramming for a test; less frequent testing results in less use of distributed practice. Students aren’t aware of the benefits of distributed practice, nor do educational practices encourage it.
Overall Assessment. High utility.
Easy to implement, benefits across wide range of tasks and subject matters. Less useful in learning complex materials.
Relationships to CCSS.
High stakes testing will encourage school-wide cramming, rather than distributed testing, a practice which needs to be combated.
Technique. Alternating the study of various disciplines, tasks or facts, rather than blocking study or practice of a single task at a time.
Theory. Interleaving gives students practices at identifying when to apply a set of facts, strategy, etc. It improves organizational processing and item-specific processing because it allows students to compare different types of problems.
Learning Conditions. Interleaved practice is a learning condition. When a problem is presented, interleaving requires all relevant tasks to be introduced followed by limited blocked practice, but progressing quickly to interleaved practice. The exact amount of blocked practice depends on the age of the learning, the task, etc.
Student Characteristics. Research with 4th-college age students shows positive effects.
Materials. Short term effects favor blocked practice, but long-term favors interleaved practice.
Tasks. Depends on the domain and task evaluated.
Contexts. Effective in independent study or in classrooms.
Implementation. Easy to implement for independent study or in classrooms.
Overall Assessment. Moderate utility. Relatively dramatic effects in teaching math, especially. More research needed to fully take advantage of this technique.
Relationships to CCSS.
(P. 33 of the ELA standards) The CCSS asks curriculum developers to build knowledge systematically across various domains. As they do this, interleaving will be an important technique to employ and explore its effects on building knowledge.
When you prompt kids to ask, “Why?” you are employing elaborative interrogation or self-explanation questions that ask for an expansion of the information. The two are slightly different because the questions are asked of others or of yourself. Here, we’ll talk about Elaborative Interrogation.
Technique. The purpose of asking the “Why?” question is for students to generate an explanation for a stated fact.
Theory. The questions and additional information allow students to integrate new information into existing knowledge. It encourages discrimination among related facts to identify and use information.
Learning Conditions. Useful for incidental or intentional learning situations. Useful in individual and group settings.
Student Characteristics. Useful for 4th grade to college students. More research needed on 3rd grade and younger, but it appears to be not as useful. Useful for those with learning or cognitive disabilities, and for gifted and talented. Requires some prior knowledge and becomes more useful as knowledge base grows.
Materials. Useful for a wide range of factual topics, including science, geography, sociology, anatomy, etc.
Tasks. Useful for cued recall, matching, fact recognition, free-recall; these are mostly memory tasks for facts. Usefulness for comprehension and longevity of results is not is not established and requires more testing.
Contexts. Usefulness in a wide variety of context hasn’t been studied.
Implementation. Easy to implement with brief instructions and 3-4 examples. Not time intensive. Easy to maintain consistency across various situations. Difficulties arise with complex, interwoven sets of facts as to where to direct attention; also more difficult with longer texts because of the question of how often to employ this technique.
Overall Usefulness: Moderate Utility.
Best for memory tasks for 4th grade and up.
When you prompt kids to ask, “Why?” you are employing elaborative interrogation or self-explanation questions that ask for an expansion of the information. The two are slightly different because the questions are asked of others or of yourself. Here, we’ll talk about Self-Explanation.
Technique. Student states the reasons for making a choice, answering questions, the process of working through a problem during the learning. The basic question is a version of this: Explain what the sentence means to you. What new information does this provide? And how does it relate to what you already know? Is there anything you still don’t understand?
Theory. Supports the integration of new information with existing prior knowledge.
Learning conditions. Effective when combines with direct instruction or discovery learning. Not as effective for retrospective self explanation, or explaining after the completion of the problem, instead of during the learning. Not as effective when other explanations are easily available.
Student Characteristics. Effective with K-College age. Little research on level of prior knowledge needed. Not enough research on success with various learning and cognitive disabilities.
Materials. Useful for logic, math, pattern learning, and strategies for complex tasks. Useful for learning from texts, both short and long expository texts. Generally, it has broad applicability.
Tasks. Effective in tasks of memory (free recall, cued recall, fill in the blank tests, associative matching and multiple choice tests). Effective in text learning for comprehension, diagram-drawing tasks, application-based questions and text inferences. Effective in problem-solving tasks, when the task is similar or different to teaching tasks. Not enough research on the longevity of results.
Contexts. Not enough research on various contexts.
Implementation. Minimal instruction needed. For struggling students, some specific training on the technique may be useful. More research needed on how much time to devote to this technique.
Overall Usefulness: Moderate Utility.
Best for K-College on wide range of tasks. Many research studies focused on math or reading expository texts.
Overall Consideration of Effective and Ineffective Teaching Strategies
Five techniques are of questionable value: summarization, highlighting/underlining, keyword mnemonics, imagery use for text learning and rereading. Yet, students most often report using highlighting and rereading strategies. Teachers should teach learning strategies and specifically teach the limitations of these strategies.
On the other hand, two techniques are highly effective, practice testing and distributed practice. Teachers should recommend these practices to students and model them in the classroom. Of moderate value are interleaved practice, elaborative interrogation and self-explanation. Math teachers, especially, should take note of the value of self-explanation and interleaved practice for students of all ages.
These have implications in several areas:
- Classroom teaching. In classrooms, teachers should implement the highly effective strategies of practice testing and distributed practice. They should look for ways to include appropriate interleaved practice, elaborative interrogation and self-explanation. They should abandon summarization, highlighting, keyword mnemonics, imagery for text learning and rereading, except for highly targeted tasks. Ban yellow highlighters!
- Teaching students how to study. Students need to be specifically taught to use effective learning principles. For example, the Cornell note-taking method provides for self-testing of material and might be an effective study method to teach.
- Choosing textbooks and instructional materials. Specifically look for teaching materials which give interleaved practice of developing concepts. As the CCSS requires a systematic development of knowledge across a domain area, look for materials which will interleave knowledge within and across grade levels.
- Future research. The monograph clearly points to areas which need more study. In particular, each of these techniques could be studied in more detail in the K-12 area, as many of the research studies are with college age students.
- Materials for teacher training need to recognize and teach the instructional strategies which are supported by research and encourage further research.