Learning Methods

For years, students with examinations looming have spent hours reviewing and re-reviewing their course material and readings, in order to fix the information in their minds.   More recently, some newer theories of education have suggested that the best methods of learning are more active, “constructivist” approaches; one popular device is the concept map, in which the student creates a diagram showing key concepts and the relationships between them.  Now the New York Times has an article about some intriguing research from a team at Purdue University, suggesting that a third method, which the researchers call “retrieval practice”, produces better results than either of the other alternatives.  The study was published this week in Science [abstract].  There is also an article on this research at the PhysOrg.com site.

The study used a sample of 200 college students, in two experiments.  In both experiments, the first step had the students read a few paragraphs on a scientific topic, in a five-minute period.  In the first experiment, the students were then divided into groups.  The first group simply read the material,  The second group was given the opportunity to study the material for three additional five-minute periods.  The third group create concept maps, with the material in front of them, in ten minutes; and the fourth group wrote a brief  essay summarizing the material, also in ten minutes.  A week later, all four groups were give a test on the material, assessing their recall of the facts, and their ability to draw logical conclusions from what they had read.  The second test was similar, but each student completed both a concept-mapping exercise, and an essay-writing one.

In both cases, the students in the essay-writing group performed best on the later test; they even did better at producing a concept map, a week later, than the students who had produced such a map in the first place.  It is also noteworthy that the students in the essay-writing group were least confident initially about how well they had learned the material, despite performing best on the later test,

“The struggle helps you learn, but it makes you feel like you’re not learning,” said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College. “You feel like: ‘I don’t know it that well. This is hard and I’m having trouble coming up with this information.’ ”

This is perhaps another piece of evidence that we are not necessarily all that good at evaluating our own learning and thought processes.  (I have written before about research that suggests that people who think they are particularly good at multi-tasking tend to be bad at it.)

Beyond that, though, it seems to me that these results are not all that surprising; I’ve always found that the very best way to get my head around a subject is to teach it to someone else.  In preparing a summary of the material, the students in this experiment were going through a somewhat similar exercise, in essence explaining what they had just read.  Something in that process seems to solidify one’s mental framework for retrieving the information.

Update Sunday, 23 January, 11:35 EST

The “Wired Science” blog at Wired also has a short article on this research.

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