We know more about the science of learning than ever before. But do our students know which strategies to focus on?
Some strategies have been proven to enhance students’ memory retention and, ultimately, exam performance. But often, they don’t know which to use or how to use them. So, in this blog, we’re covering five evidence-informed techniques that can make a significant impact on your students' learning outcomes:
- Retrieval Practice
- The importance of a good study partner
- The Zeigarnik Effect
Spacing is the practice of spreading out study sessions over time instead of cramming them into one long session. For example, revising for an hour a day across eight days is more beneficial to long-term memory than an intense eight-hour cram session in just one day.
But why is that? It is because the intervals between study sessions allow students to almost forget and then relearn information, which strengthens their long-term memory retention. Indeed, a study found a 10% to 30% improvement in students' final exam scores when they used Spacing instead of cramming.
There isn’t an ideal gap to leave between study sessions, but a good estimate will depend on the length of time before the test. Researchers suggest that this gap should be around 10% to 20% of the total time your students aim to retain the information (though this is a very rough guideline). For example, if a test is a month away, students should review the material roughly once a week. If the test is in a week, they should create time to revise once a day.
Using Interleaving to enhance revision
If Spacing is all about the time between study sessions, Interleaving involves mixing up different concepts during study sessions to enhance learning and retention. While most students may study for a test by covering concepts one by one (which is known as Blocking), studies have shown that Interleaving, mixing up the different topics within each study session, is actually more effective for long-term memory retention.
According to a study, students who used Interleaving in their revision outperformed those who used Blocking by threefold when the test was more than a day away. By mixing different topics, interleaving deepens understanding, helps students remember information for longer and can even improve grades.
Mixing up different concepts helps students see the differences and similarities between them and improves their ability to tell them apart – but it also allows students to benefit from the effects of Spacing by creating a time gap between revisiting the same material. However, there are some important quirks of Interleaving to know about so it isn’t causing more harm than good – read about the dos and don’ts of Interleaving here.
Retrieval Practice accelerates student learning
Simple tools like low-stakes tests, quizzes or past papers have a powerful impact on enhancing memory. This approach is called Retrieval Practice, which is the act of generating an answer to a question, and it's one of the most reliable strategies in educational psychology. Research has shown that students who test themselves remember substantially more than those who just re-read the material.
Exams can also be stressful, which can have a negative impact on your students' memory. But here's the good news: Retrieval Practice can actually help alleviate this problem. Recent research discovered that students who were simply re-studying the material showed the usual signs of memory problems related to stress. However, students who were practising using Retrieval Practice were not as impacted by the stress of the test. So, not only does Retrieval Practice strengthen memory, but it also provides extra benefits during stressful situations. Quite a win-win!
To maximise the effectiveness of Retrieval Practice in your school, book our CPD workshop now.
Choosing a good study partner
Studying in groups can be distracting, especially for teenagers who are going through ongoing brain changes and may struggle with self-control. However, the right study partner can bring numerous benefits. Vince Lombardi, a famous football coach, once said that "Confidence is contagious." – and it turns out, so is effort. Research indicates that when a student sees a peer working hard, their own work ethic improves, regardless of whether they're engaged in the same activity.
Furthermore, studies have discovered that students working together on problem-solving tasks tend to exhibit more exploratory behaviour and learn more quickly from feedback than those studying alone. So, it's a great idea to encourage your students to select their study partners thoughtfully. Ideally, this should be someone who compliments their study habits and exerts a positive influence.
Making the best of the Zeigarnik Effect
The Zeigarnik Effect, named after psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, suggests that people remember unfinished tasks better than completed ones. According to studies, about 75% of students consider themselves procrastinators, often due to low self-belief and poor self-regulation. However, the Zeigarnik Effect might hold the key to overcoming this.
Zeigarnik discovered this phenomenon when she noticed a restaurant waiter remembering multiple orders without writing them down, only to forget them as soon as they were served. This led to extensive research revealing that an internal tension helps keep an uncompleted task in mind, fuelling the motivation to complete it.
But what does this mean for your classroom? It means that encouraging your students to start a task, even if only for a short three minutes, can be beneficial. Once they've taken that first step, the Zeigarnik Effect will come into play, enhancing their motivation and increasing their chances of completing the task.
As an educator, you have an amazing opportunity to guide your students to make great choices when it comes to their learning. You may not be able to help them all study individually, but by knowing more about these strategies, the best ways to use them and the research behind them, you can help give them the tools needed to guide their revision more effectively.
If you're looking to learn more about effective learning strategies, check out our guide on the best ways to study. For a deeper understanding of the latest research and practical tips, don't miss our CPD workshop on Memory and Learning.