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Four Strategies That Help Students Successfully Learn

October 12, 2014

Daniel Willingham, a prolific writer and thinker in the field of education, wrote an interesting article in the most recent edition of Educational Leadership.  Strategies That Make Learning Last explores Willingham’s four suggestions that if implemented will help students succeed in their academic studies.  He begins the piece by suggesting that conversation about research-based strategies has jaded our appreciation for a certain clarity that educational research offers into leveraging the classroom to support student learning.  In his article, he shares four research-based strategies that students and teachers can use in their efforts to learn.  What he doesn’t overtly say in the article is that if students are to successfully implement these strategies, teachers will need to incorporate them in their lessons and instruct students on how to use them.

Here are his four strategies:

Elaborative interrogation and Self-Exploration

Distributed Practice

Interleaved Practice

Practice Testing

He points out that the strategies students typically use when they study, read a chapter or book, highlight important statements, studying at the last-minute, and rereading highlighted sections, are not effective strategies according to the research.  At the University of Virginia, when he asks his psychology students if they were taught how to study int their secondary school, 80-90% say they were never instructed on how to study.  How many teachers in K-12 schools actually know the research on optimal study strategies and take the time to teach them to students?  I know I wasn’t trained or aware of what was best practice.  I think we leave it up to students to “figure it out.”  Some do and then some don’t.

In elaborative interrogation and self-exploration, Willingham explains students are taught to “consider the relationship between what you’re reading and what you already know (page 12).”  In self-exploration the student frequently explains to him or herself why ideas they are reading are justified.  The student allocates time to reflecting on the meaning and justification of the material being read.  The student is more deeply interacting with the ideas and concepts rather than “skimming” over them.  The point Willingham makes is that students need to understand the material they are reading before they can connect to its meaning and relevance.

In distributed practice, Willingham explains that distributing study time into short bursts for longer stretches is better than cramming all the time into one block before a test.  Cramming can be OK if all the student and teacher care about is having comprehension in short-term memory for the next day’s test; however, if the teacher and student want the understanding to be more enduring than distributing one’s studying over a longer stretch is more productive.

With interleaved practice, the student focuses on the whole rather than the parts.  The example Willingham uses is studying a vocabulary list.  Instead of focusing on one word at time until the student has mastered it, he or she should focus on the whole list, studying all the words in relationship to one another.  Many math textbooks are written in such a way that a chapter presents one concept with sample problems illustrating the concept followed by dozens of similar problems at the end.  If the student reads the chapter, follows the examples, and successfully completes ten problems at the end of the chapter, he or she has “mastered” the algorithm.  However, the student might be unprepared to reason through a novel problem requiring a different approach or a related but different algorithm.  Interleaved practice suggests a better approach would be to practice different concepts or approaches in the same lesson.  In this way, students’ minds are exercised in a deeper way.  They are being expected to think associatively, drawing connections between different concepts and having to decide when to use one approach versus another when solving a problem.

As I sit in Starbucks writing this post, I am watching a tutor working with a young boy.  She is having him develop a set of index cards on the material so that he can self-test.  Most of us are familiar with this strategy and have used it in our own schooling.  Willingham suggests that practice testing is a great strategy for learning.  He writes:

But rooting around in memory, trying (perhaps struggling) to remember something, is actually a great way to ensure that the memory sticks. (page 14)

He references studies which show that taking brief quizzes, using flash cards, and testing oneself are better strategies to embed concepts into memory than rereading material.  The value of these practice testing strategies is that they give students immediate and corrective feedback that help them learn.  Willingham points out that “it’s trying to remember that drives the practice-testing effect.”

In the final paragraph of the article, Willingham cautions that using any one of these strategies indiscriminately is probably not a good idea.  He advocates teachers using their instincts and personal experience, along with research-based strategies, to help students learn.

One takeaway for me after reading his article is that we have a responsibility to teach these techniques to our students.  It is insufficient for us to teach the material in class, assign homework, and assess them, expecting students will magically have the study skills needed to master the concepts.  Our role and responsibility extends to teaching them the research-based strategies that will help them be successful learners.  It demands that we become curious learners and understand and value these strategies.

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