I’m in a three day mini-conference right now, with a bunch of psychologists, and a ton of undergraduate education reformers like me. The psychologists are all cognitive psychologists (i.e., they deal with how people think), and they’re part of a consortium called Applying Cognitive Psychology to Enhance Educational Practice (ACPEEP). It’s a star-studded show, including Henry Roediger (though he actually couldn’t make it this week), Robert and Elizabeth Bjork, and Janet Metcalfe, among others. We’re spending three days talking about how undergraduate education reform can take tips and tricks from what we know about how people think and learn. I’m sure I’ll have more than one blog post from this conference, but let’s start with the main principles that they communicated to us in the first day.
Testing helps you learn
I’ve blogged about this before (here and here). The act of taking a test can be a learning experience, not just a way to assess you on what you already know. One of the main reasons, they hypothesize, is that the act of retrieval strengthens the neuronal connections. That seems to fit with the fact that multiple choice tests aren’t as strong of a learning experience as are short-answer tests (McDaniel et al, 2007). Another concern of multiple choice tests is that there is some evidence that getting the wrong answer can introduce wrong information (Roediger and Marsh, 2005). So, Elizabeth Bjork said, this suggests that we have to construct our alternatives to our multiple-choice tests carefully – so that the alternative, “wrong” answers require students to recall information in order to reject them. This has obvious implications for both the use of clickers, and the construction of the alternative answers on clicker questions.
2. Spaced studying
A ton of evidence shows that you remember things longer if you space out your study sessions. That means studying for the exam for a week or so, in multiple sessions, rather than cramming the night before. But how long of a gap is optimal between study sessions, to increase how long you remember the information? The current research seems to suggest that the longer you want to remember something, the longer the study gap should be. So, if you want to remember something for a few years, you probably need a few months’ gap between study sessions. This suggests that cumulative finals are probably a great thing, since you have to study for the midterm, and then for the final, with a gap of several months.
But there must be a point of diminishing returns – spaced testing/studying helps you learn, but at what point does this testing take up more time than it’s worth in terms of how much more you’re learning? As Kathryn Rawson told us, “More is better, but more is increasingly less better.” So, to be efficient, you don’t want to over-study. If she had to give tentative quantitative numbers, she suggested that students should study until they’d been able to correctly recall the answer three times in their initial study session, and then follow this with three more spaced sessions over time.
3. Desireable difficulties
The idea of “desireable difficulties” is that you don’t learn if something is too easy. Certain difficulties help you learn. For example, if you study in the same place all the time, then your learning might be highly contextualized, and thus you won’t do as well on the test. A desireable difficulty is to study in multiple places. Another desireable difficulty would be spacing out your study sessions, instead of cramming. However, a lot of these strategies don’t produce quick learning, so people don’t use them. We cram for a test because it does work, at least to be able to recall the information in the short-term. But these “easy” strategies (like massed practice/”cramming”) don’t create long-term learning.