Meta-study identifies the top five techniques to make learning stick
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Meta-study identifies the top five techniques to make learning stick

What are the most effective learning techniques – the ones that cause learning to stick?

Decades of cognitive psychological and educational research consistently point to five techniques, according to a recent meta-analysis.

The review looked at the evidence for teaching techniques going back for more than 100 years, zeroing in on 10 widely studied techniques.

The researchers gave the highest marks to two techniques that have proven especially effective across a wide range of tasks and educational contexts.

Another three were also found to be useful, though the evidence was more limited.

Here are the winners. You’ve heard us mention each of them before:

1. Spacing
Most trainers know that one-shot training events, such as a conference or class, don’t work. Most of what was “learned” is forgotten within a month.

But add in reinforcement events over the following days, weeks and months, and people are much more likely to retain what they learned.

The researchers concluded that the Spacing Effect is the number-one technique for making learning stick.

Yet it still gets short shrift in the real world of training, for reasons of time, money and logistics. Busy organizations want people back on the job quickly and view training as a distraction.

If you’re getting pushback on the need for follow-up, these findings give you new ammunition. Without follow-up, training investments are largely wasted.

2. Testing
Close behind the Spacing Effect is the Testing Effect. Testing is more than just a way to assess learning. It’s part of the learning. It forces learners to retrieve information from the brain.

Spacing and testing go hand in hand. Researchers have learned that intermediate quizzing – multiple short quizzes as opposed to a “final exam” – are much better at improving performance.

Testing formats matter too. Multiple choice works; it’s easy to design and easy to administer. Fill-in-the-blank and essay questions may work better, because learners have to come up with the answer instead of simply recognizing it.

Even if they fail to get the right answer, research has shown, struggling improves memory over the long term.

Remember, too, that testing can occur during a session. Researchers have doubled learning performance by regularly stopping and requiring learners to answer a question, then discussing the answers before moving on.

3. Interleaving
We’ve all struggled to learn something, only to set it aside and come back later, when the subject yields up some of its mysteries.

That’s the idea behind the Interleaving Effect. Learning is like exercise; you need to mix it up. That’s one reason intensive all-day training seminars often yield poor results.

You can interleave simply by spacing lessons on different topics within each other, similar to class schedules in high school. For example, you might introduce one topic on Monday, a different one on Tuesday, and then come back to the first topic on Wednesday.

4. Self-explanation
We’ve all had this moment: You stop trying to figure out what the trainer is telling you, and try to solve the problem for yourself. It’s a slight shift in the mind – the moment where you start to own the learning yourself. That seems to be a moment we remember.

Cognitive psychologists have found you can help trigger this moment by stopping periodically and asking learners:
• “What material is new to you in what we just covered?”
• “What steps did you take to figure this out?”

(Insist that they actually answer; don’t just toss the question out there.)

5. Elaborative interrogation
We’ve also had this moment: We’ve been following directions, and we suddenly see the big picture. At that moment, learning no longer depends on remembering the right answer. The right answer is the one that makes sense.

Researchers have found that “why” questions help trigger this effect. If you’re teaching a new sales technique, for example, ask, “Why do you think this technique works?”

Less effective
Here are five techniques that the researchers found to be less effective. They may work sometimes, but their usefulness is limited or they’re hard to implement: summarization, highlighting, mnemonics, mental imagery (e.g., imagining a queen to remember someone’s name is Elizabeth) and rereading.

Source: Dunlosky, J., et al. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, January 14, 4-58.

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