New APS Report Evaluates Effectiveness of Commonly Used Learning Techniques

October 14th, 2013 1 Comment Other

Most of the self-study techniques that are popular among students today are the very same ones that were used by their parents and grandparents years ago, even if these days they tend to be bolstered by sleek gadgets and clever apps.

According to a recent report published in a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, however, many of these strategies do little or nothing to improve educational outcomes, and some may even hamper the learning process.

The report, put together by a team of prominent psychological scientists, looks at ten of the most commonly used learning techniques that are meant to enhance academic performance, and the scientific evidence supporting each one.

“Schools and parents spend a great deal of money on technology and programs to improve student achievement, even though evidence often isn’t available to firmly establish that they work,” said the study’s lead researcher, Professor John Dunlosky.  

“We wanted to take a comprehensive look at promising strategies now, in order to direct teachers, students and parents to the strategies that are effective, yet underused.”

The researchers divided the learning techniques into three categories; high utility, moderate utility and low utility. Each technique was reviewed to determine how general its effects were, under what learning conditions it was most effective, and what possible issues may hinder its implementation.

As it turns out, some of the techniques that many students follow unquestioningly, such as rereading, highlighting, underlining or summarizing, are largely ineffective, while others, such as self-testing, may be more beneficial than originally thought.

The researchers point out that techniques may have been designated as low utility for any number of reasons, from the effects being limited to a small subset of materials to a lack of sufficient evidence to support it.

Amongst the moderate utility learning strategies were things like mental imagery, which involves coming up with mental pictures that help you recall the text, and the keyword mnemonic, where you make a connection between new vocabulary words and images involving related words that serve as the “key” to remembering the new ones.

For instance, a student learning French could associate the word for bread, ‘pain,’ with an image of a loaf of bread sitting in a pan.

However, only two of the ten learning strategies reviewed were found to be highly effective; practice testing and distributed practice. Practice testing is something most students will be familiar with, as it involves techniques like answering questions at the end of a chapter or using flashcards to recall key information before a test.

Distributed practice, on the other hand, isn’t a tool often employed by students looking to boost their test scores. It requires students to spread study sessions out over longer periods of time rather than trying to cram everything into one long marathon study the night before an exam.

Why are these strategies so effective? Because they benefit long-term retention in a way that most other commonly used study techniques do not.

So why aren’t more teachers encouraging students to use them? Professor Dunlosky believes that this is largely down to the fact that educational psychology textbooks don’t focus enough on these types of learning methods.

“These strategies are largely overlooked in the educational psychology textbooks that beginning teachers read, so they don’t get a good introduction to them or how to use them while teaching,” he said.

“As a result, teachers are less likely to fully exploit some of these easy-to-use and effective techniques.”

In order to give teachers a better overview of each technique and allow them to make a quick decision on whether or not it could be beneficial to their students, the researchers have organized their report in distinct modules.

The full report ‘Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology,’ can be found here.


Marianne Stenger is a London-based freelance writer and journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. She’s particularly interested in the psychology of learning and how technology is changing the way we learn. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneStenger.

One Response

  1. Andrew Calvert says:

    Great article, thanks.

    I just wrote on my home whiteboard the other day “more open book quizzes.” It’s something that is definitely left out of teacher training because it doesn’t have a progressive social agenda attached. And so it’s never in the front of my mind because it never pops up at ProfDev days either. Yet it’s so obvious! Facts are hard to retain without practice and whatever the topic/subject new info is a part of it. Spreading out basic recall tests throughout the unit makes so much sense when you think about it. I’m sure if I call it distributed practice instead of pop quizes people will listen.

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