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For effective learning, teach students how to learn

I have this recurring dream in which I need to take my final high school exams again. The clock is ticking, my mind is blank, and the words on paper don’t make any sense. I am now in my late twenties!

We can all empathize with the many students sitting through exams today. They feel the pressure of standardized tests and some spend many days and nights studying. For some, it pays off and they earn a good grade. For others, it seems like no matter how much they learn, the results are average at most. Grades aside, they don’t seem to retain information for long periods of time.

Because of this, researchers have tried to find out what makes learning “stick”. So much so that even pseudoscientific theories such as “learning styles” have gained some ground and people still believe in them to some degree.

This fact is astounding given that there’s so much evidence that points us in the right direction and that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Passive or ineffective learning methods are a very underestimated problem in our schools. Think about it: when students revise for exams, what do they do? While not all of them use highlighting, summarizing and re-reading, it seems that students actually prefer these prefer these studying techniques because they are pretty easy to use. Highlighting, for example lulls them into a false sense of security: they feel as if they’re getting so much done!

highlight everything is important

Even worse, students carry these study habits with them through college. So, what’s the solution then? Should we throw in the towel and call it a day? As you’ve probably guessed by now, that’s not the case. As a teacher, you have the opportunity to teach them to ditch that highlighter and adopt better study strategies (without drastically changing your lesson format).

What science has to say about effective learning methods

Active retrieval is an effective but undervalued strategy for promoting meaningfullearning. (Source)

Researchers have given undue attention to the way we encode information, assuming that if we use the right methods to store knowledge in our brains, learning will stick. That’s far from the truth!

The brain constructs knowledge, but fails to retain it for a longer period of time if we don’t actively retrieve that information, filling in the “gaps” as we inevitably forget things. In other words, if a student learns something and does not recall that piece of information a few times, the brain thinks it’s useless and will get rid of it eventually. Active retrieval is based on how the mind actually works.

Read more: How learning shapes a student’s brain. Literally

We know this because of Hermann Ebbinghaus and his very important theories on memory such as the forgetting curve, which essentially explains why students forget new information at an exponential rate.

Spaced repetition is the enemy of forgetfulness since it essentially disrupts the process of forgetting things. For example, let’s say that if students learn something today, they might forget 25% the following day. However, distributing learning into day 1, day 3, day 6 and so on makes our brains go: “oh, they want me to remember this often, it must be important!” That’s why active retrieval should be coupled with spaced repetition.

We’ve got plenty of examples for the power of spaced repetition. Students that play an instrument intuitively know that rehearsing for 15 minutes each day is better than doing so for one hour per week. Applying spaced repetition does take discipline and cognitive effort, which might explain why they generally also do well in core subjects such as English, Science and Math.

To summarize,

  • Active retrieval is the practice of recalling information that your students have learned instead of passive re-reading and memorization
  • Spaced repetition is the act of repeating what they’ve learned at intervals of days and weeks that enhances long term retention

The science says so, but where do we go from here?

6 ideas on teaching students how to learn

To teach students how to learn is one of the most important things that a teacher can do. Although the research is clear, many teachers don’t know what are the most effective, science-backed learning strategies, even if they might already employ some of them. Here are 6 ideas on replacing bad studying habits with great ones:

  1. Flashcards instead of highlighting

    Flashcards are relatively popular among students, especially those who perform significantly better in exams than their peers. In fact, this technique is the most basic example of active retrieval! Flashcards are very versatile as they are structured using questions about the material, fill in the blanks, definitions, formulae, etc.

    For great results, you can show your students how to create a flashcard. Students often make the mistake of creating too many flashcards, that are impossible to get through. With a teacher’s guidance, they’ll also learn how to focus on the most important concepts. Students can use them to study individually or during classes. For example, set aside just five minutes of classroom time to work in pairs or in groups. Students use the flashcards to quiz each other and explain topics in their own words.

    Make this easier for them with a flashcard building app or software such as Anki or Brainscape.

  2. Understanding instead of summarizing

    Note-taking during class is great but it’s not so good when students are just copying what they read in a textbook. Students think or have been taught to think that if they write something and re-read it passively, they’ll learn better. Sure, they can still do this, but it’s just not as effective.

    So how to break this bad habit? Teach them to actively engage with the learning content, especially while revising for tests and exams. At a very basic level, this means reading two paragraphs or watching a video and then reflecting on what they have just learned. They should be able to extract the main ideas out of a piece of content. Surely, this is far from rote learning since it’s better for them to use their own words when explaining things. When they get things wrong, that’s when the “magic” happens as they get a chance to go over and see what they’ve missed - effectively storing that information much better.

    For example, if you’re a Biology teacher, you can ask them to draw a cell structure by memory and explain the various parts without looking at their initial notes. Students can write by hand or use a note-taking app at school and at home, such as Google Docs.

  3. Spaced repetition instead of mass learning

    Bringing that information to mind will only strengthen their learning. However, it’s not enough to retrieve the information once or to cram everything into their memory one day before a test. Remember the forgetting curve and how your students have probably forgotten around 25% of what they’ve learned yesterday?

    This is not a cause for alarm if they learn the power of scheduling learning in a way that does not let them forget the content through spaced repetition. One way to make this kind of studying less intimidating is to use micro learning. Microlearning allows teachers to be as creative as they are with normal lessons.

    For example, students can watch a short video on a topic and then take a practice quiz. After three days, they can read a text concerning the same topic and write a short paragraph about what they’ve just learned. With proper reflection and feedback, students should get better and better at repeating information over time without having to re-read, highlight or rote learning.

  4. Practice quizzes instead of rote learning

    Small changes can make a world of a difference. A study involving a real classroom environment conducted by McDaniel et al. in 2011 shows that quizzing can take a C performance and transform it into an A-level one. Specifically, students remember topics better in a final examination when they’ve already been tested on the said topics.

    Low-stakes quizzing provide the best results since students get used to testing their knowledge for learning, and not just for getting a grade. Giving them a 5-minute low-stakes quiz at the end of each lesson also acts as a test anxiety reliever. Plus, as a teacher you don’t have to grade them! To save even more time, use a quiz app or your learning management system to create nongraded quizzes or tests that can auto-correct (for verifying answers).

    Read more: Is an LMS the best grading companion for teachers?

    Another example is the good old fashioned “explain the concept to a younger child”, based on the premise that if you can explain it in simple terms, then you know the answer. This can be a great activity for students during class in addition to quizzes.

  5. Asking questions instead of re-reading

    Speaking of tests, self-quizzing is just as important as low-stakes practice quizzes. The idea is that if students get used to asking questions, even for themselves, the practice of retrieval becomes a habit.

    Interesting things happen when we tap into our innate curiosity to fuel learning. As in project-based learning, a study session can start with a question. How does a single cell become a human or an animal? What is the difference between herbivores and omnivores? Students can write down questions and later on use them for revision or to find answers during class.

    Read more: The key ingredients for successful project-based learning [INFOGRAPHIC]

    Self-quizzing is different than flashcards, since students try to recall as much information as possible by writing it down instead of reading the back of a flashcard for the answer. As time goes by, they’ll learn that better and more detailed questions lead to better outcomes as well.

  6. Distributed learning instead of long hours of study

    Students know that they should learn throughout the semester, but still resort to cramming due to procrastination and poor time management skills. It’s such a common practice that no wonder they feel safe in using it. After all, their short term effort is most likely to be rewarded with a good enough grade.

    Spaced repetition takes less time, but is more spread out. Teachers can help their students by organizing learning materials and offering suggestions for a solid study schedule. Using a tool such as an LMS or a calendar, a schedule can look like this: Day 1: first lesson, Day 5: review material 30 minutes, Day 14: review 30 minutes, Day 20: group project, Day 28: final review Day 31: test.

    On the bright side, more effective learning strategies bring better results, and once they see that they don’t have to go through the stress of cramming, they’ll be more motivated to abandon the inefficient study techniques. Or, you know, use them less often.

Key takeaways

Active recall and spaced repetition can improve test scores and long term retention. Teachers can start by incorporating low stakes quizzes or teaching them how to schedule study time at home.

However, the biggest benefit is that students can apply this method in any area of their lives, whether they want to get into the college of their dreams, learn a foreign language, learn how to code, etc.

It isn’t guaranteed that they won’t have nightmares about exams as grown ups ‒ so far, nobody’s figured them out!