When do the 6 Strategies for Effective Learning Work Best?

When do the 6 Strategies for Effective Learning Work Best?

By Megan Smith & Cindy Wooldridge

We have written a lot about the 6 strategies for effective learning (spaced practice, interleaving, elaborative interrogation, concrete examples, dual coding, and retrieval practice). For example, in this piece Cindy discussed the powerful combination of spacing, retrieval practice, and sleep. In this guest post, Yana’s student tried out the 6 strategies on her own and documented her progress.

We have written so much about these strategies because decades of cognitive evidence suggest they are effective ways to learn (1). However, using these strategies does not automatically mean students will get an A. Evidence suggests they’re effective, but they’re not a magic learning pill. (A magic learning pill doesn’t exist, as much as we, as students, sometimes wished it did. Anyone who tells you otherwise is likely trying to sell you something to turn a profit. But, who knows, maybe someday.)

If using the strategies doesn’t mean an automatic A, then how should students use these strategies to produce learning? We have written about all of these things before, but this blog is intended to serve as a guide to give you the information you may need, along with plenty of links where you can find more information on each of these topics within our website. In this piece, we briefly review the 6 strategies for effective learning from cognitive psychology and suggest an order for utilizing them together. Then, I discuss other factors to consider in order to maximize learning.

6 Strategies for Effective Learning: Planning

The first two strategies, spacing and interleaving, involve planning. If you want your learning sessions to be maximally effective, then you need to use spacing and interleaving. However, this isn’t something you can do at the last minute.

Spacing involves planning your studying so that it is spread out over time. This is the opposite of cramming. The same amount of study time spaced out is much more effective than putting it all together into one study session. To read more about utilizing spacing, see this blog.

Interleaving involves switching among different topics while you’re studying. Switching between topics allows you to make connections among the different ideas you’re studying. To read more about utilizing interleaving, see this blog.

During the planning phase, you will want to block off chunks of time to study, making sure to spread out the chunks of time so that you’re studying regularly throughout the week. (Don’t just block off time before the exam, that is the same as cramming!) During each study session, make sure you are reviewing older material as well as newer material. Doing this will make sure you maximize spacing and interleaving.

Of course, these strategies tell you when to study, but not how to study. Make sure to use effective strategies during each of your study blocks.

6 Strategies for Effective Learning: Understanding

The next three strategies, elaborative interrogation, concrete examples, and dual coding, involve making sure you understand the material. Use these strategies during your planned spaced study blocks!

Elaborative interrogation, a specific method of elaboration, involves asking yourself questions about why and how things work. Questions might include: why does x happen? How does y happen? What are the similarities and differences between x and y? As you ask yourself questions, find the answers in your class materials. Doing so will help you to make connections among topics, and help you to see whether you truly understand the ideas you’re trying to learn. To read more about using elaborative interrogation when you study, see this blog.

Concrete examples are specific examples to try to understand abstract ideas. While you’re studying, try to find concrete examples in your class materials about the ideas you’re studying. Make sure you understand how the examples are similar, and what makes them good examples of the idea. You can also try to come up with concrete examples of your own. Again, make sure you understand why the example is a good example. To read more about using concrete examples when you study, see this blog. This blog also contains a few concrete examples of concrete examples!

Dual coding involves the depiction of ideas in multiple formats, most often words and pictures. When you are studying, look at the diagrams or images in your textbook. Try to explain these pictures in your own words. Then, look at the words from your class materials and draw your own pictures to represent the ideas. To read more about dual coding when you study, see this blog.

6 Strategies for Effective Learning: Solidifying Knowledge

The final strategy is retrieval practice. This strategy can be extremely effective if used well. Put away your class materials, and try to write or sketch everything you can remember about the ideas you are studying. Then, when you have produced everything you can remember, go back to your class materials and check for gaps or incorrect information. It is very important to find out what you’ve missed or what you don’t understand. Once you have identified this information, go back to the previous three strategies (elaborative interrogation, concrete examples, and dual coding) to make sure you understand the ideas you missed or did not understand. Then, practice retrieval again!

Image from Pixabay. Words are ours

Image from Pixabay. Words are ours

Retrieval practice is most effective when you use it repeatedly (2). We recommend that you try to practice retrieval at the end of each of your spaced study sessions. Try to retrieve the answers to your elaborative interrogation questions, the concrete examples you examined, and produce the diagrams all from memory! To read more about using retrieval practice when you study, see this blog.

You Must Avoid Procrastination

Procrastination can cause problems for even the smartest students. If you’re a procrastinator, then using a handful of the strategies mentioned above will not necessarily help you. That is why the first strategies mentioned are about planning. Specifically, you need to space your learning out in order to gain maximal benefits. Spacing your learning is also a more efficient use of your time. However, to use spacing you have to plan ahead! You can’t decide to space your learning on the day before the exam.

We know some people are more likely to procrastinate than others. If you’re a person who tends to procrastinate, you need to attack the problem head on! Check out this digest about reasons you procrastinate and what you can do about it. Try creating a schedule at the beginning of the semester, and holding yourself to that schedule. You can even try giving yourself little rewards or treats at the end of each week if you follow your schedule. If the schedule isn’t working out for you, you can adjust it. But, I would recommend asking yourself why it isn’t working out. Does the schedule really not work for you? Or, are you just putting things off? If you do make adjustments, make sure to be mindful of spacing.

Coffee image from Pixabay, words are ours.

Coffee image from Pixabay, words are ours.

You Need to Get Enough Sleep

Sleep is extremely important for learning. Sleep deprivation can produce a number of physical health problems such as increasing weight gain, and increasing chances for illness. Sleep deprivation can also cause impairments to attention, problem solving, and decision making (3). What is particularly important to realize is that even mild sleep deprivation can cause these effects. Some studies show that risk to health and cognitive impairments increases if you lose 1-2 hours of sleep each night! (In other words, if you’re only getting about 6 hours of sleep per night, your cognitive functioning, including learning, is likely to suffer; for more on this, see this blog about the importance of sleep for memory and cognition). Further, research shows that getting sleep after learning improves performance later, especially for understanding information and problem solving (4, 5). This is another reason that cramming (as opposed to spacing) can be so bad for your learning. When you cram, you often lose sleep the night before the exam.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Image from Wikimedia Commons

For more on sleep and learning, read this blog and this blog. You can also check out our weekly digest on sleep for even more resources.

Know Your Own Limitations

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

Using these strategies can be very difficult, and you may feel as though you’re not learning as much as when you do other strategies, like repeated reading. Unfortunately, our own intuitions about how much we’re learning are often wrong, and doing things like repeated reading often lead us to think we’ve learned a lot more than we really have. (Read this piece for more information on intuition and learning.) This may make us feel good when we’re studying, but when it comes time to take the exam, repeated reading isn’t likely to pay off (1).

One of the best things you can do to make sure you’re not overestimating how much you’re learning is to use retrieval practice at the end of each study session. This will help you learn, and will also let you know how you’re doing. Some students are stronger than others, and some content may be more difficult for some students than other content. Make sure you plan enough time to truly understand the material and work your way up to being able to retrieve the material. Be honest with yourself, and plan ahead so that you can work your way up to where you need to be.


(1) Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4-58.

(2) Karpicke, J. D. & Roediger, H. L. (2007). Repeated retrieval during learning is the key to long-term retention. Journal of Memory and Language, 57, 151-162.

(3) Smith, M., Robinson, L., & Segal, R. (2016, June). How much sleep do you need? Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/articles/sleep/how-much-sleep-do-you-need.htm

(4) Mazza, S., Gerbier, E., Gustin, M., Kasikci, Z., Koenig, O., Toppino, T.C., & Magnin, M. (2016). Relearn faster and retain longer: Along with practice, sleep makes perfect. Psychological Science, 27, 1321-1330.

(5) De Vivo, L., Bellesi, M., Marshall, W., Bushong, E.A., Ellisman, M.H., Tunoni, G., & Cirelli, C. (2017). Ultrastructural evidence for synaptic scaling across the wake/sleep cycle. Science, 355, 507-510.

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