La memoria es el residuo del pensamiento. La dificultad y la confusión mejoran la capacidad de recordar. La recapitulación sobre lo último explicado genera el llamado a la memoria y refuerza el conocimiento. La relación con otras cosas aprendidas genera nuevos caminos mentales para recuperar ese conocimiento. Interactuar con los estudiantes o que escriban anónimamente lo que no saben o entendieron es importante para saber dónde están en el proceso de aprendizaje y cuán lejos están del objetivo a cumplir.
Alternativamente, explicar los objetivos para que los alumnos tengan claro dónde poner foco y hacerlo fuera del feedback de los exámenes ya que no reparan en ello y se concentran en la nota. Una manera es resumir al final de una clase los conceptos más relevantes a ser incorporados.
What are some effective learning strategies for students?
Research in cognitive science has identified three that are particularly useful and easy for students to apply. They are retrieval practice, spaced practice, and interleaving. The nice thing is that with some planning, they all are also easy for our students to learn and use. Recall that learning we can transfer beyond the immediate involves not only encoding memories but also retrieving them. All three of these strategies, to varying degrees, involve getting information into students’ heads as well as getting it out. We’ll begin with retrieval practice. Retrieval practice involves calling information to mind that’s been stored previously in long-term memory. When we say calling information to mind, we mean bringing it into working memory. Before we go any further, let’s review the model of memory we have developed previously in this course. It’s important to understand that we encode memories through the dialogue between working memory and long-term memory.
We previously used the phrase you have to think to learn with regard to memory formation. That’s what active learning is all about. Importantly, and perhaps not immediately apparent, an active memory retrieval can actually improve memory and boost learning. For example, if a student is assigned a reading as a homework assignment, they often highlight or annotate the text or take notes, then they may reread their highlights or notes or maybe even reread the assignment. But cognitive scientists would urge us to reconsider this strategy. They have found a far more effective way to improve memory and learning through retrieval practice.
Retrieval practice involves the following: after students read an assignment for the first time and take notes, they would put the notes away, and try to recall the most important ideas and information they wrote down. Or if they annotated their text, they would keep the book closed and try to remember what they annotated and why. They could do both of these by trying to write down what they retrieved, talk out loud to themselves or someone else, sketch something or simply think about it in their head. That is, in their working memory.
Then they would go back to their text, notes or annotations and see how accurate and complete their retrieval practice was. Trying to simply recall information is a lot harder than rereading a text or looking at notes, but it’s precisely that struggle to recall that improves our memory.
How does retrieval practice work?
Well, at least in four ways. First, as we indicated, the act of retrieving a memory modifies it. We don’t store memories like little video and audio files. Instead, when we retrieve a memory of any complexity, we actually construct it from the memory traces that constituted it when it was first made. This means by struggling to retrieve a memory, we usually strengthen it, since it’s being reassembled. Second, when we go searching for a memory without the outside retrieval cues of our notes or the text or a teacher’s prompt, we’re usually creating a new retrieval pathway to find that memory.
That means the next time we can rely on our own retrieval cues to find it, not some outside source. Third, by searching for the memory, we’re also likely to activate related information, and this can organize and create links in ways that might make it easier to retrieve the target information next time. It’s sort of like going into a storage room and looking for something, and in the process, you tidy things up a bit. Fourth, when a student fails to retrieve the intended information, this failure is actually useful. It points out missing or inaccessible information that needs to be remediated with further study. All of this strengthens the memory and makes it more likely to be retrieved in the future.
Retrieval of memories is, therefore, a learning event and considerably more powerful than rereading notes or highlights or annotations. The most important reason for this is that simply rereading our notes, the retrieval cues come from those outside sources themselves, and there’s much less struggle, therefore, to find the information. This makes it seem easier. There’s less struggle, but the unfortunate result is that this ease of recognition makes us feel like we’re learning more, when in fact, we’re learning less, especially in a long-term way. The research is very clear about this for learners of all ages and is most pronounced for memories we want to retrieve weeks or months later. A few suggestions and caveats before we move on to the next learning strategy.
First, it’s important that students receive feedback about the accuracy and completeness of their retrieval practice. This feedback can come through discussion with the teacher, through teacher-provided answer keys, from peers or by students referring back to their own notes, annotations, and readings. Another important aspect of retrieval practice is that it shouldn’t be graded. It’s a learning strategy that you want to encourage your students to use whenever they can. By grading it, the anxiety and other performance issues become attached to what should be a remarkably effective and flexible formative tool for learning. In fact, retrieval practice reduces test anxiety because students become used to and more confident retrieving what they know from their memory.
It’s also important that students have something in memory to retrieve in the first place. If they don’t know how to strategically read, for example, they may come into class with very little in their memory. This means knowing how to create an ongoing dialogue between working memory and long-term memory as they do homework and classwork. Finally, done appropriately, retrieval practice is difficult and involves struggle. We need to let students know that this struggle is good. Struggle and even confusion are signs that learning is going on, as long as you have created a supportive and feedback-rich environment for them to learn in. If I had one learning strategy to teach my students, it would be retrieval practice.
Our students’ most common way to study, and study habit surveys confirm this, is called massed practice, or more vividly, cramming. It usually involves students intensively studying, often the night before, and then taking a test or turning in a paper and hoping for the best. As we mentioned earlier, the problem from a learning standpoint is that it actually seems to work much of the time. Students will often do okay or even excellent on the test, but sad to say, they don’t remember much a few weeks later. In this way, an ineffective learning strategy is reinforced. This is because cramming, or massed practice, doesn’t work for creating long-term memories.
Unless we as teachers place a high value on enduring learning, it will be difficult to change this practice in our schools. One of the oldest and most powerful research bases in cognitive science has to do with the opposite of cramming, spaced or distributive practice. Over a century ago, studies demonstrated that spacing out learning sessions in shorter intervals is a much better way to develop long-term memories. The reason that spaced practice works so well for creating durable memories has several explanations.
The first is that it takes advantage of the usefulness of retrieval practice. The more often we practice recalling memories from long-term memory, the easier we are able to access it, and the more resistant it becomes to forgetting. In addition, each new retrieval probably occurs in a different context, unlike massed practice, which usually happens in the same context. These varied contexts of distributed practices also help with retrieval in terms of providing alternative recall pathways. Another important reason, as we discussed previously, is the act of retrieval is an act of memory modification and reorganization. Each retrieval consolidates in new memories and strengthens them. These implications for our students are clear. We need to help our students space their learning when they study. There are several questions that teachers often ask about helping students develop the habit of spaced practice.
First, how long should the spacing gaps be?
It mostly depends on how long you want students to remember the material. If the information needs to be remembered for a short time, then shorter gaps make sense. For longer retention times, involving months or even years later, the longer the spaced learning gaps the better. That is, as long as the gaps aren’t too long so that significant forgetting occurs.
Next, how frequent should the spacing gaps be?
Within the limits of classroom and student study time, the more the better. It is simply the nature of how our memory works that forgetting is going to happen. We know from our own personal learning experience as teachers, that the more we review something over time, the more enduring and usable the memories are, and the easier relearning becomes. Finally, how can we help our students practice spaced learning?
Besides our own distributed practice teaching strategies, which we’ll discuss in another session, helping students plan and manage their time so they can build in spaced learning events is key. You can even embed this as part of your homework regiment. However you do it, students will soon find that spaced practice is a powerful way to enhance their learning. It takes no more time than cramming, and it results in much better long-term results. Our third highly effective learning strategy for students is a variation of spaced practice called interleaving. This involves not only distributing practice over time, but also changing the order of materials studied across different topics.
As a consequence, an hour of homework in three subjects becomes six 30-minute sessions, alternating the different subjects. It may seem harder or less useful at first glance, but switching from one subject to another combines the memory advantages of both spaced practice and retrieval practice. A few caveats about interleaving, however. Don’t switch too much or have intervals that are too short. Twenty to 30-minute blocks are probably the shortest to use. Otherwise, the negative aspects of multitasking, as we’ve discussed previously, can come into play. In addition, being efficient in the transitions between study bouts that are interleaved is key. Much time can be lost if you’re not careful. Interleaving is the most complicated and counterintuitive of our three learning strategies, but once students try it, they will immediately see its benefits.
This ends our examination of three highly effective study strategies that our students can use to become more effective learners. We hope you will try these strategies in the coming days with your class. You will see in the next series of sessions how we will use these same strategies to design more effective learning experiences for students.