Decades of research in cognitive psychology have made a huge contribution to our understanding of how humans learn. Unfortunately, however, the results of this important research haven’t made it into mainstream education. In particular, six strategies have been identified as particularly effective when employed either by a teacher in the classroom or by students during independent study. Yet it appears these learning strategies are not featured in teacher-training textbooks.
As a result, teachers are missing out on valuable teaching techniques, and students are missing out on effective study strategies. Here we describe what we think are the two most important learning tools from cognitive psychology: spaced practice and retrieval practice.
Most curricula are linear: A topic is taught, homework on the topic is given, and then it is set aside (perhaps until it appears on a later exam, for which the student will need to cram). But a much more effective way to learn is to make sure students encounter material on the same topic multiple times throughout the semester. The same amount of time spent engaging with a topic will produce greater learning when it is spaced out over time, rather than massed in one study session.
This finding, originally discovered by Hermann Ebbinghaus in the 19th century, has now been demonstrated in hundreds of studies. Spaced practice is better than massed practice for vocabulary learning, fact learning, problem solving, improving motor skills, playing a musical instrument, and many other learning situations.
Yet hardly anyone actually does it. When we (Yana Weinstein and colleagues) asked college students to keep a diary of how much they studied leading up to finals, we found that the overwhelming majority of studying happened the day before the exam and even the day of the exam itself. While cramming might technically “work” in that it might enable a student to pass an exam, the knowledge they acquire from cramming sessions will be very transient. Spacing out studying might take more planning, but it is much more efficient and effective in the long run.
How can teachers model spaced practice and encourage students to space their own learning?
- Start each class with a quick review of an important topic from a few months ago.
- Use homework to introduce spacing—instead of giving homework just on today’s class, include questions that cover topics from previous weeks and even months.
- Help students by planning ahead with them—have them write short study sessions into their schedules, even when they don’t have an exam coming up.
While spaced practice answers the question of when learning should occur, the other important question is how. Most teachers (and students) think of quizzes as assessments: They are taken to find out how much a student knows about a topic. But what if we told you that taking a quiz (or doing any activity that forces you to bring information to mind from memory) actually causes learning? Hundreds of studies over the past decade (like this one, for example) have demonstrated that retrieving information from memory is a more effective method of studying than rereading or even rewriting one’s class materials.
How can teachers include retrieval practice activities in the classroom?
- Make sure that when questions are asked in class, all students have a chance to write down their answers, rather than relying on one student to answer the question.
- Make use of free self-scoring apps to give frequent, time-efficient quizzes. (There are many of these apps; examples include Socrative, Memrise—for foreign languages—and Google Forms.)
- Have students grab a piece of paper and write out the key points from last week’s class—this combines both retrieval practice and spacing.
Good Study Strategies Are Hard and Can Feel Bad
Other than being supported by hundreds of research studies, spaced practice and retrieval practice have another thing in common: They may not feel very good to the learner. For example, when students reread a text over and over again, they will predict better performance than when they put the text away and try to write it out from memory (here’s a description of the study). This is because reading the same text gets easier and easier, whereas writing the text from memory feels hard. But it is this effort—known as a “desirable difficulty”—that actually promotes learning. The same can be said for spaced practice. When a student encounters material after a long gap, they will have forgotten some of it and will have difficulty engaging with it again, but this extra effort of relearning the slightly forgotten information will boost learning over time.
If you’d like to learn more about these strategies as well as four additional strategies from cognitive psychology, you can find free downloadable posters and other materials here. You may also enjoy watching this video or listening to this podcast.