How to optimize the effectiveness of learning?

One of the main issues, in optimizing the effectiveness of learning, is finding the best way to ensure the performance of the time spent learning, preventing the knowledge acquired from being forgotten over time.

A team of American cognitive and educational psychologists evaluated in detail the usefulness of the 10 most known study techniques, to quantify if they really work out to learn. For this, it was analyzed if its benefits were generalizable by means of 4 variables: the context of learning, characteristics of the students, the subjects to study and the typology of the exam to pass.

The 10 study techniques whose performance was evaluated were:

  • Elaborate interrogation (explain why a fact or concept is true)
  • Self-explanation (relate new information to the one already known, or with the steps to take when solving a problem)
  • Summaries
  • Highlight / underline
  • Reread texts
  • Keywords (mnemonics)
  • Associate texts with mental images
  • Practice with self-exams
  • Distribute study sessions in multiple days or weeks
  • Alternate several subjects

Curiously, some of the practices most used by students, such as summaries or underlining and rereading the texts, have shown minimal effectiveness.

Quite the contrary, the most efficient strategies were little extended techniques to practice what is known and what not yet doing exams, distribute the study in several days, and alternate several subjects within each short time dedicated to the study. Let’s analyze a little more each of them:


Practice with self-exams

This technique has been studied for more than a century, with more than 120 studies highlighting its effectiveness. One of the most interesting was the one published by Roediger (2008), showing that a group of English speakers learned better a long list of words in Swahili correlated with their English translation, studying through tests for a week, with 80% correct answers in the final exam, while those who studied continuously, focusing their attention on remembering the list, only scored 36%.

The more tests are done, the better the retention, but not in the same day, but as much spaced as possible. Brief and frequent tests work better than long tests at very distant intervals, both because of their usefulness as a reminder and because of student satisfaction; and it is important that there is a feedback of the answers so as not to perpetuate errors. The results are consistent in multiple profiles of individuals in the degree of basic knowledge or skill on a subject, and even in people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or multiple sclerosis.


Distribute the training over time

The majority of students concentrate their study hours in the days before the exam, despite having amply demonstrated that the reminder of long-term concepts is more efficient if they are distributed at the same time in the longest possible period. Its effectiveness is robust in more than 250 studies that in total involve more than 14,000 participants of very diverse profile, and in different subjects to study how mathematics, history, music, surgery, … It would not be useful in extremely complex subjects, how to fly an airplane.


When sufficient time is available, the final performance of the study is better

When sufficient time is available, the final performance of the study is better by intentionally distancing the sessions for periods of between 10-20% of the desired retention time: separated 12-24h to remember something during a week, or every 6-12 months if we want to remember it 5 years. Dr. Kerfoot’s studies in medicine learning were able to demonstrate an excellent reminder by revisions spaced at increasing intervals of time. The popular wisdom of many parents leads them to recommend their children to study a little each day instead of leaving everything for a marathon session during the exam week; and in 1985 Dellarrosa & Borne confirmed it by demonstrating that the reminder rates do indeed improve the longer this period of review sessions for the content to be learned can be.

A study published by Budé (2011) also showed that the conceptual learning of students who attend a course of statistics taught over 6 months is significantly greater than when the same syllabus and equality of total teaching hours is taught in 8 weeks. It contradicts this aspect, therefore, the popular belief that in intensive courses is where you learn the most, given that neuroscience points out that it happens exactly the opposite: once saturated our daily capacity of retention of new knowledge, expose the person to more training is inefficient, and is what is known as overlearning.


Alternate the subjects

Much less scientific research has been done on this technique than with the previous ones, but there is more and more literature that shows a similar degree of effectiveness. Alternating the subjects of study and the practical part associated with these has been especially effective in teaching mathematics or medicine, instead of organizing the classes by monothematic blocks.

A study published by Rohrer and Taylor (2007) showed that, although during a practical class the students instructed by monothematic blocks solve mathematical problems better and faster than interspersed ones, surprisingly if after a few days they perform an exam, which they learned through interspersed practice they scored 43% more. Another study by the same authors, published in 2010, found even greater differences in favor of alternated practice of subjects (77% vs. 38% of correct answers), since they were better at discriminating between the types of problems and in applying more consistently the correct formula to each one.

In learning of the electrocardiographic diagnosis, Hatala (2003) reported 47% of correct answers in clinical practice when medical students learned by alternated practice and 30% by practicing monothematic blocks.


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