GUEST POST: Putting the Six Strategies for Effective Learning Into Practice – A Learning Project From a College-Level Learning and Memory Course
By Marianne Fallon
Marianne Fallon, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychological Science at Central Connecticut State University and has taught undergraduate Research Methods (among other things) for over 10 years. She is the author of Writing Up Quantitative Research in the Social and Behavioral Sciences by Sense Publishers. A cognitive psychologist, Dr. Fallon conducts research in learning, memory, perception, and motivation. Her most recent research examines how developing growth mindset and character strengths help college students learn and succeed. She received her B.A. from Bucknell University and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. You can find her on Twitter @MarianneFallon1. Read her previous guest blog post here.
“The key to be successful is studying and if you don’t know how to study, this project is the way to learn.” This sentence concluded one student’s Learning Project in my Learning and Memory this Spring. As an educator, that quote is what I live for – to know that students could take assigned material, apply it to their life, develop skills through deliberate practice, and become better learners. In this guest post, I’ll describe The Learning Project and summarize students’ takeaways. I will also suggest ways that educators (myself included!) could use students’ insights to inform our practice and subsequent research.
Description of The Learning Project
The goal was for students to apply and reflect upon the Six Strategies for Effective Learning (heretofore referred to as “The Six”) in a course that had reasonably high memory demands.
The Learning Project was worth 25% of students’ final grade and consisted of three components spaced across the semester: Summary and Course, Implementation, Outcomes and Evaluation.
At Week 4, students summarized The Six (integrating across videos, blog posts, PowerPoints, and posters) and described the course to which they were going to apply them. I expected submissions to include an introductory paragraph describing what students hoped to gain out of the project as a learner, six individual paragraphs summarizing each strategy, and a concluding paragraph detailing the course they chose, why they chose it (which could include apprehension about their prospects of “doing well”), and the course’s evaluation structure (i.e., how many tests, what type of questions, etc.). I expected approximately 4 to 5 double-spaced pages. My feedback clarified misunderstandings and confirmed that the course they selected would provide ample opportunity to practice these techniques.
At Week 7, students specifically and explicitly explained how they incorporated The Six into their studying. For example, students described at least one concrete example that they generated. I instructed students to devote one substantive paragraph to each of The Six resulting in approximately 3 double-spaced pages. My feedback helped students refine their implementation moving forward.
At Week 13, students evaluated their outcomes. I emphasized that students should assess the strategies as honestly and objectively as possible, even if it meant owning up to poor implementation or questioning whether the strategy was really effective in that context. I instructed students to devote a paragraph exploring each strategy. I also requested at least one concluding paragraph summarizing what worked and what did not and reasons supporting those conclusions. I directed students to Syeda Nizami’s guest post for inspiration. (Neat aside: Syeda’s post got me thinking about creating The Learning Project in the first place!) I expected approximately 4 double-spaced pages. My feedback encouraged critical commentary, probed arguments underlying conclusions, affirmed individual differences within the context of normative trends, and acknowledged the difficulty in isolating effectiveness when implementing many strategies at once and to varying degrees.
Students generally LOVED this project. All of the students noted that implementing these strategies improved their learning and their well-being: “After doing this project I do believe that my learning has improved... I now don’t spend three or more hours a night for a week straight cramming in as much information as I can… I can now spread the studying out so I don’t feel so burnt out and defeated every week.” Some students measured their learning in summative outcomes, effort, and confidence level: “Overall I think the fact that I was consciously aware of how I needed to study and what strategies are statistically shown to improve memory had a large part to do with my getting a higher grade, because I just felt like I was more prepared and that I had put much more organized effort into studying for this test, and that made me feel pretty confident. Although I did not get the grade I was hoping for which would have been in the nineties, I am improving on the tests and I think if I keep up with the techniques that I thought were helpful I can reach that goal on the next test.” The general tenor of students’ conclusions was resoundingly hopeful.
Students derived enjoyment or fulfillment from deliberately practicing some strategies. One student remarked that retrieval practice “was like a challenging game, seeing what I could and could not remember just from my memory with no hints. Just me writing down everything I could on a piece of paper was actually kind of thrilling to see how much information I could recall from my brain.” Students were aware that the process was effortful and felt empowered and energized.
Students recognized when professors gave them opportunities to practice these skills. This student made a direct connection between elaboration and her professor’s andragogy: “During PowerPoint slides my professor would include a ‘pair-think-share’ slide. This slide displayed a question that we would discuss with a peer and then talk about as a class. It was a way for us to not only reflect on the material but also gain others’ perspective on it.”
Students were sometimes reluctant to create their own concrete examples. Students thought they might be wrong or they thought that their professor did a tremendous job creating examples already: “Dr. XXX explained that Tarzan missed his window to speak correctly because he did not hear anyone speak a language during his Experience-Expectant Plasticity period... Concrete examples like this for abstract ideas help me encode the material since it is something I relate to… I know this is working because I would recall examples like Tarzan when writing the answers to my exam. I have not made any of my own examples of the material since Dr. XXX provides a bunch of them, but I will keep this technique in mind for the future.”
Students found interleaving most difficult. Difficulty with interleaving centered around feeling frustrated and confused during practice, which is expected (1): “It is easier for me to study with everything put together by topic because it helps me feel more organized. I didn’t enjoy this skill because it was out of my comfort zone… I would like to improve it.” Another student noted that interleaving did not help when the material was structured hierarchically: “The order Dr. XXX presents the material in class goes from simple structures of the nervous system to more complex structures. Studying in this order has helped me retain the information easier because they are all interconnected with each other. This also helps me visualize the structures of the nervous system since it goes from bottom to top.” Although some evidence suggests that disruptions from expected order compels learners to reconcile discrepancies and subsequently learn better (2), interleaved practice in this student’s case may have disrupted the inherent elaboration afforded within the hierarchical organization (i.e., why are the concepts related in this manner?).
Educators should explicitly inform students of The Six (with supporting evidence) and connect them to practices within the classroom. A common refrain in student evaluations was “I wish I knew about these strategies sooner!”. Some students spontaneously made direct connections between The Six and their professor’s practice (e.g., think-pair-share). I am delighted when students understand why I ask them to engage in a particular activity. Not all students will make this connection, but educators can help them along! I give my students explicit assignments asking them to “spot the strategy” in my practice.
Educators can scaffold strategies, especially when students are apprehensive about using them. Let’s take two strategies I mentioned earlier: concrete examples and interleaved practice. Although developing incorrect concrete examples can be counterproductive, students who do not generate their own examples may squander opportunities to develop metacognitive skills required to determine whether they have mastered the concept. Educators can create assignments to help students feel more confident about generating and evaluating their own concrete examples. When I teach about reinforcement and punishment, students create their own examples based on events that they directly experienced within the past week. As students work, I drift around offering immediate feedback. Students receive additional feedback when I review their submitted assignments. As for interleaved practice, educators can incorporate it through the back door. I start class with retrieval practice, and I interleave some previously encountered material into that practice – especially if I want students to make connections between previous and current content. Further, educators can interleave content within out-of-class practice quizzes. Win-win!
Educators can use students’ impressions as inspiration for future research. My students’ subjective impressions got me thinking about boundary conditions for these strategies. Can strategies compete with each other in counterproductive ways (e.g., elaborative interrogation and interleaving)? Does dual coding work better with content that lends itself to concrete examples (e.g., classical conditioning compared to existentialism)? Some of the most important work in psychological science began with informal and insightful observations of behavior or thought. Phenomenological experience may run counter to what is actually happening – consider that interleaved practice feels like you’re getting nowhere, but you are making great learning gains. Nevertheless, students’ impressions applying learning strategies can catalyze subsequent research and invigorate evidence-based educational practice.
Dr. Marianne Fallon wishes to extend sincere thanks to the students who allowed her to share excerpts from their Learning Project.
(1) Brown, P. C., Roediger, III, H. L. McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
(2) Mannes, S. M., & Kintsch, W. (1987). Knowledge organization and text organization. Cognition and Instruction, 4, 91-115.