Our Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

Click each question to see the answer. Don't see your question here? Please submit additional questions through the form below! 

 

+ Help! I’m a student, but I have no idea how to study. Can someone please teach me how to study?

Relax. Breathe. We are here to help! Start by watching this video – it’s about 8 minutes long, and it tells you all about 6 really good ways to study. If you like these, and want to learn more, try watching our other videos and looking over these posters. Next, decide what you are going to study. Are you working from a text? Then you can use this method for studying a textbook. Do you want to use flashcards in the most effective manner? Use this tutorial. Would you like to try dual coding (combining words and visuals), now that you know how helpful it can be? Here’s a step-by-step post on how to do that. If you have trouble concentrating, you can use the Pomodoro technique. Good luck!

Questions about the 6 strategies for effective learning:

+ Why are the six learning strategies the core strategies? Is it because they’re the most effective ones?

Yes! About 10 years ago, a report was published summarizing the research from cognitive psychology applied to education (1). These strategies in particular were found to have solid evidence and were suggested for implementation. Unfortunately, a recent textbook report suggests that they have not really made their way into teacher-training textbooks (2). However, it’s important to note that not all 6 strategies have equal amounts of evidence behind them. In particular, spaced practice and retrieval practice are most strongly supported by decades of research. On our downloads page, we’ve organized the strategies roughly in order from strongest (spaced practice) to least strong evidence (dual coding). This doesn’t mean that the evidence for dual coding is weak; but there are some important caveats to bear in mind when implementing this technique, as discussed in a recent blog post by Megan Smith.

(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) Pomerance, L., Greenberg, J., & Walsh, K. (2016, January). Learning about learning: What every teacher needs to know. Retrieved from http://www.nctq.org/dmsView/Learning_About_Learning_Report

+ How can I integrate the 6 study strategies into a study routine or regimen?

Spaced practice and interleaving help you figure out when you should study. Retrieval practice is the most important study strategy, and you should engage in this activity every time you study; it answers the overall question of how you should study. And finally: elaboration, concrete examples, and dual coding provide additional techniques that can be used in conjunction with retrieval practice. Good luck!

+ It sounds like there is a lot of overlap among the strategies. How do we know which is which? Should we try to use just one at a time?

Yes, there is definitely a lot of overlap among the strategies. This is not necessarily a bad thing! They are not meant to stand alone and can (and should) be used together. Here are some examples:

Spacing needs to be used with other strategies, because spacing is only about when to cover material, and not how to cover material.

Retrieval practice can and should be integrated with all of the strategies. With elaboration, students can work their way up to being able to describe and explain how and why things work from memory. With dual coding, students can work their way up to being able to sketch out what they know from memory, and describe those sketches in words from memory. By using dual coding with retrieval practice, you encouraging multiple contexts and representations of the information AND retrieval of those representations, which both help learning! With concrete examples, students can work their way up to creating examples on their own from memory.

Dual coding really works well with all of the other strategies. The idea behind dual coding is that we will remember things better if we have both visual and verbal formats. (This isn’t the same as learning styles! See this post.) Students can be encouraged to utilize dual coding while using elaboration and concrete examples. When using elaborative interrogation, students need to generate how and why questions and then find the answers to those questions (see this post for examples). This can be done without any visuals. However, it may help the students to refer to both visuals and text while trying to find the answers. It also would be very helpful for students to sketch pictures to show how things work as they answer the questions for themselves. The same is true for concrete examples. The example could be represented in a visual way or a verbal way. But you can leverage dual coding by presenting examples in BOTH formats!

+ Retrieval and spaced practice sound great, but are they just for memorization? What do these strategies do to students’ abilities to make inferences, apply what they know, and think creatively?

Fortunately, retrieval practice does not just enhance memorization, or rote recall of information. Though, students do need to be able to remember facts in order to apply them in new situations.The good news is, research has shown that retrieval practice improves students’ abilities to think more deeply about the content they’ve learned and apply the information to new situations that they have not seen before (1). In other words, retrieval helps students transfer what they’re learning (2) to these new contexts. Thus it seems that retrieval practice, especially repeated and spaced retrieval, helps students improve their ability to reconstruct and flexibly use information.

Given this, we would make the educated guess that retrieval practice would encourage students to creatively apply what they’re learning. However, we need more research to fully answer this question!

See this post to read about retrieval practice, spaced practice, and applying knowledge. If you’re interested in teaching creativity, check out this digest. You can also read about fostering creativity in the classroom in the 20 principles from psychology to enhance pre-K to 12 teaching and learning. A similar guide for college and university instructors is forthcoming!

(1) Smith, M. A., Blunt, J. R., Whiffen, J. W. & Karpicke, J. D. (2016). Does providing prompts during retrieval practice improve learning? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 30, 544-553.

(2) Butler, A. (2010). Repeated testing produces superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 36, 1118-1133.

+ How much space should I leave between teaching or quizzing the same information? What’s the “optimal lag”?

While there’s been lots of research into this question (1), it becomes quite tricky to try to figure out the “optimal” amount of time between opportunities to revisit and/or retrieve information. In general, if opportunities to revisit are too close together, that’s too much like cramming and won’t be very effective. On the other hand, if they are too far apart, so much could be forgotten that it would be like re-learning information from scratch. Some apps programmed with complicated algorithms might be able to approximate optimal lag for a number of situations (2). We also produced a beta version of a tool for teachers to help schedule review and retrieval opportunities. Teachers have also written, like here, as well as on many other blogs, about their experiences with trying to figure out the ideal lag. However, our advice would be to keep it simple: give students more opportunities to review and retrieve the important information and material that needs to be remembered for longer.

(1) Cepeda, N. J., Vul, E., Rohrer, D., Wixted, J. T., & Pashler, H. (2008). Spacing effects in learning a temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. Psychological Science, 19, 1095-1102.

(2) Lindsey, R. V., Shroyer, J. D., Pashler, H., & Mozer, M. C. (2014). Improving students’ longterm knowledge retention through personalized review. Psychological Science, 25, 639-647.

+ In my class, I have students read before class, and then I give a lecture. Where should I place quiz questions for optimal learning – before or after the lecture?

It depends on your goals, and the overlap in content between the reading and the lecture. If there is total overlap between the two, then students will quickly figure this out and stop doing the reading, unless you quiz them on it before the lecture. If there is not total overlap, then a better solution would be to pull out some information that is only in the reading, and quiz them on that in addition to what’s covered in the lecture. In that case, you can vary up the position of the quiz questions to maintain test expectancy throughout each class. In a previous post, Yana discussed her research on the placement of quiz questions throughout or at the end of a lecture (1); it didn’t much matter for long-term learning.

Having some unexpected quizzes at the beginning of some lectures, and some at the end might be a good way to ensure that students arrive on time and stay for the whole class. If you can, consider including some quiz questions from previous lectures/readings in each class, to provide students with built-in opportunities for spaced practice!

(1) Weinstein, Y., Nunes, L. D., & Karpicke, J. D. (2016). On the placement of practice questions during study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 22, 72-84.

+ What type of retrieval practice should I use? Are there retrieval formats that are more effective at producing learning than others?

There is a fair amount of research pitting various formats of retrieval against one another to see which is better, and some research has found differences. For example, when comparing short-answer and multiple-choice questions, researchers found a benefit of short-answer over multiple-choice, but only when corrective feedback after retrieval was provided (1). However, other studies have found very little or no differences between various formats (2, 3). In general, learning differences between various retrieval practice formats tend to be very small, if there at all, whereas the effect of retrieval practice is quite large (2). So, the key seems to be to provide opportunities for students to retrieve, and the format of retrieval is unlikely to make a huge difference. That said, if success is extremely low, then students may need their retrieval activities to involve more scaffolding. See the question below about retrieval with students of different ages and abilities.

See this blog and this blog to read more about different retrieval formats.

(1) Kang, S. H. K., McDermott, K. B., & Reedier, H. L. (2007). Test format and corrective feedback modify the effects of testing on long-term retention. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19, 528-558.

(2) Smith, M. A., & Karpicke, J. D. (2014). Retrieval practice with short-answer, multiple-choice, and hybrid formats. Memory, 22, 784-802.

(3) Smith, M. A., Blunt, J. R., Whiffen, J. W. & Karpicke, J. D. (2016). Does providing prompts during retrieval practice improve learning? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 30, 544-553.

+ If I ask ten questions about a topic, does that reinforce knowledge of the whole topic, or just the things I asked about?

Unfortunately, there is no straightforward answer to this question. It is a somewhat complex question that has to do with the notion of “transfer” of learned information to a new question or situation. While transfer is possible in some situations, it is quite hard to achieve. In fact, a study by Cindy Wooldridge and co-authors (1) tested a similar scenario to the one suggested in this question: they tested students on new information that they had not practiced, and found no improvement on that information relative to the ineffective study technique of highlighting (see this post for a more thorough description of the study). For the best chance of reinforcing knowledge of the whole topic, it does appear that retrieval practice on as much of the information as possible is preferable.

(1) Wooldridge, C., Bugg, J., McDaniel, M., & Liu, Y. (2014). The testing effect with authentic educational materials: A cautionary note. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3, 214-221.

+ If testing helps learning correct information, then doesn’t it also reinforce misconceptions when incorrect answers are retrieved?

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the answer is usually no: testing generally does not reinforce misconceptions – as long as there is feedback after the incorrect answer. Incorrectly retrieving an answer and then receiving feedback is more beneficial than simply reading the correct answer without making a retrieval attempt. In one set of studies with vocabulary learning, students made guesses on items they had no idea about – their guesses had no basis whatsoever in any knowledge (1). After these guesses, they then saw the correct response as feedback. At test, students were much more likely to identify the correct definitions of the studied words if they had previously made an incorrect guess and then seen the correct response, compared to just seeing the correct response without making a guess.

(1) Potts, R., & Shanks, D. R. (2014). The benefit of generating errors during learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 644-667.

+ How does retrieval practice work with students at different ages or different abilities? Can elementary/primary students learn from retrieval practice?

Retrieving information seems to work well across the board. However, the way one approaches retrieval practice may need to be different depending on the students’ abilities and background knowledge. If the students are unable to retrieve anything, then retrieval is unlikely to be very helpful. Some research has found that students around 10 years old (4th grade) needed more guidance during retrieval compared to older students (1). For example, in that study, the 10 year olds were unable to write out on a blank sheet of paper much of what they could remember from something they had just read. But, they were able to more successfully answer questions with the text in front of them and then move to answering the questions without the text. Maximizing benefits of retrieval practice seems to be about balancing the difficulty of the retrieval and the ability to successfully retrieve (2). Retrieval practice is hard, and the difficulty is helping to improve learning. However, if it is too difficult and students are unable to retrieve, then the opportunity won’t be as beneficial as it might have been. (Note, less successful retrieval will likely still have some benefit! This will still give teachers and students feedback on what the student does and does not know, and unsuccessful retrieval attempts can still increase the benefit of subsequent study (3).) Scaffolding retrieval opportunities for students who are new to a topic or struggling to produce what they read can improve the effectiveness of retrieval for these students. Try spacing out retrieval over time to help the students work their way up to better performance.

See this blog for more information on promoting retrieval practice for younger children.

(1) Karpicke, J. D., Blunt, J. R., Smith, M. A., & Karpicke, S. S. (2014). Retrieval-based learning: The need for guided retrieval in elementary children. Journal of Applied Researching Memory and Cognition, 3, 198-206.

(2) Smith, M. A., & Karpicke, J. D. (2014). Retrieval practice with short-answer, multiple-choice, and hybrid formats. Memory, 22, 784-802.

(3) Potts, R., & Shanks, D. R. (2014). The benefit of generating errors during learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 644-667.

+ Does retrieval practice also help students who have poor memories, or is it more helpful for students who are already good at tests? What about students with severe memory problems, such as brain damage?

Actually, there is some evidence that if anything, retrieval practice helps students who have trouble with memory (e.g., poor working memory) even more than it helps students without these issues; Megan summarized a study (1) demonstrating this effect a few weeks ago. In addition, there is even some promising research showing positive effects of retrieval practice in people diagnosed with ADHD (2), traumatic brain injury (3, 4), and multiple sclerosis (5)!

(1) Agarwal, P. K., Finley, J. R., Rose, N. S., & Roediger, H. L. (in press). Benefits from retrieval practice are greater for students with lower working memory capacity. Memory.

(2) Knouse, L. E., Rawson, K. A., Vaughn, K. E., & Dunlosky, J. (2016). Does Testing Improve Learning for College Students With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder?. Clinical Psychological Science, 4, 136-143.

(3) Sumowski, J. F., Coyne, J., Cohen, A., & DeLuca, J. (2014). Retrieval practice improves memory in survivors of severe traumatic brain injury. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 95, 397-400.

(4) Pastötter, B., Weber, J., & Bäuml, K. H. T. (2013). Using testing to improve learning after severe traumatic brain injury. Neuropsychology, 27, 280-285.

(5) Sumowski, J. F., Leavitt, V. M., Cohen, A., Paxton, J., Chiaravalloti, N. D., & DeLuca, J. (2013). Retrieval practice is a robust memory aid for memory-impaired patients with MS. Multiple Sclerosis Journal, 19, 1943-1946.

+ What tips do you have for parents to assist with learning strategies?

We’ve published two posts that are specifically aimed at helping parents help their children to use effective strategies. One is on spacing – how can you encourage your child to space out their learning? And the other is on homework (a controversial topic in many homes). If these posts for parents are useful, we would be delighted to write more in the future. Please do let us know!

+ How does retrieval practice fit in with direct instruction, discovery or inquiry-based learning, and learning by doing?

This type of question tends to come up a lot. Learning by doing, or active learning, is definitely a hot topic. However, not all “active learning” is the same. For example, students can actively make a concept map, but if they are doing so with their course materials in front of them the activity will not be nearly as effective at improving learning using retrieval practice to create the concept map (i.e., create the concept map from memory)(1). Similarly, in our workshops we use a simple demonstration to show that not all active processing strategies are good at producing good memory. Counting the number of vowels in a word is not going to help you remember the words nearly as well as imagining how the words would help you in a survival scenario. (And, of course, this is of course supported by controlled empirical research, and not just our workshop demonstrations (2, 3).) So, while actively retrieving information produces more learning than passive reading, not all active learning strategies are created equally.

Similarly, retrieval practice might sound like discovery learning or inquiry-based learning. We have written about these concepts in this blog and compiled resources in this digest. The short story is that pure discovery learning does not tend to work for novices (4, 5). The students need at least some direct instruction to help them learn material, and they are highly unlikely to be able to discover complex principles and how they work themselves. Even when connecting concrete examples to abstract ideas, students need help making explicit connections. Retrieval practice is not a substitute for direct instruction. Instead, retrieval practice is a strategy that helps students reinforce information and helps them learn to use it more flexibly. Repeated retrieval opportunities improve learning, but the students need some basis to help them successfully retrieve. If the topic is particularly difficult, then the students may need scaffolding or guides to help them ease into retrieving the information. However, some direct instruction and feedback will still be needed.

(1) Blunt, J. R., & Karpicke, J. D. (2014). Learning with retrieval-based concept mapping. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106, 849-858.

(2) Nairne, J. S., Thompson, S. R., & Pandeirada, J. N. S. (2007). Adaptive memory: Survival processing enhances retention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 33, 263-273.

(3) Craik, F. I. M., & Tulving, E. (1975). Depth of processing and the retention of words in episodic memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104, 268 –294.

(4) Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction. American Psychologist, 59, 14-19.

(5) Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41, 75-86.

+ How does dual coding work with math components such as algebraic representations (equations/solving processes), tables and graphs. I have students go between different representations (equations, tables, graphs, algebraic equations, visual patterns) or represent processes using visual methods (area/box model for polynomial multiplication/division, completing the square for instance), would these be examples of dual coding in a math context? What are other math specific examples?

Yes, what you describe in your question would be examples for dual coding. Dual coding is simply the idea that you combine information in text with visuals. For instance, if you were to teach fractions to your students you could explain to them how to do it by showing them actual fractions in numbers and as an exercise you could have them draw items (e.g., fruits, cars, ufos,...whatever they like) above and below the fraction line and make up their own examples. For math equations that require multiple steps to solve them, you could have them draw a comic strip-like sequence with arrows displaying one step after the other. For more information regarding dual coding, check out this digest. Good luck!

+ How would interleaving work if you are only studying a language? For example, would interleaved language homework involve mixing some language point currently being learned with previous language points (e.g. on a worksheet, practicing unreal conditionals because it is the current language point but also adding in some adjective clauses because they were learned two weeks ago) or would it be more akin to mixing different forms of language learning (e.g. grammar practice, followed by pronunciation, followed by listening)?

All of the above! Mixing in different language “points” as well as different “forms” of language would be the ideal way of interleaving. But don’t forget to make sure you understand the current material before mixing in old information. You can read more about interleaving here.

Other questions:

+ Why does the Learning Styles myth persist, and what can we do about it?

Learning Styles are ubiquitous.

Every day we see hundreds of Tweets from teachers rejoicing in the latest Learning Styles activity that they have implemented in the classroom.

So, Learning Styles are impossible to get away from. Indeed, surveys conducted across the world typically find that over 90% of teachers believe in adapting teaching to each student’s preferred learning style (1, 2). This statistic in and of itself might not be surprising, but the more surprising result is that greater interest in the neuroscience of education tends to be related to stronger – rather than weaker – beliefs in Learning Styles (1)! Why is this the case? A review of the literature (3) suggests that one factor may be the proliferation of research that uses Learning Styles questionnaires and then concludes that Learning Styles are important and useful (without actually demonstrating this in a scientifically sound manner). Any well-meaning teacher who searches the literature is thus going to find many positive references to Learning Styles.

The explanation for why we can’t conclude that Learning Styles are useful based on any of the published data is actually quite nuanced (see these resources for more details, and this excellent blog post by Carolina). In order to understand why Learning Styles aren’t useful, teachers would need to invest quite a lot of time into understanding the research methods involved in the studies that claim to demonstrate their usefulness. So, what we need is more open-access, clear explanations of the research – like this one just published by Paul Kirschner, @ P_A_Kirschner (4).

(1) Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3.

(2) Rato, J. R., Abreu, A. M., & Castro-Caldas, A. (2013). Neuromyths in education: what is fact and what is fiction for Portuguese teachers? Educational Research, 55, 441-453.

(3) Newton, P. M. (2015). The Learning Styles myth is thriving in higher education. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.

(4) Kirschner, P. A. (2017). Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers & Education, 106, 166-171.

+ Do different study strategies tend to work better for boys or girls? Are there gender differences in the learning literature?

This question comes up a lot. In our research, we do not typically see gender differences. There do not seem to be learning strategies that are more suitable for boys or for girls. Some research has found evidence suggesting females have better verbal abilities than males (1). However, as a general rule, differences between genders tend to be quite small. There is far more variability within gender than between. As an example, think about height. On average, males are taller than females. However, there is certainly a great deal of variability in hight among females. Some women are around 5 feet, whereas other women are closer to 6 feet. Males also have a lot of variability. It wouldn’t be uncommon to find some women who are taller than men, as well. So while there is a gender difference in height, there are many other factors that contribute to height, with a great deal of variability within the genders.

However, stereotypes about gender can affect performance. In some studies, activating the stereotype that females are bad at math led to females performing worse on math tests (2). This suggests that some observed gender differences may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, it is likely best to avoid worrying about gender differences and instead focus on other student characteristics that might help us tailor study strategies to individual students (e.g., scaffolding retrieval when learning new or difficult concepts).

(1) Halpern, D. F. (2000). Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities (3rd Edition). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, Associates, Inc. Publishers.

(2) Spencer, S. J. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4-28.

+ Does caffeine hurt or help learning?

There are lots of myths out there about nutrition and the brain, but the positive effects of caffeine you may have heard about aren’t one of them. A recent meta-analysis (1) suggests that coffee – in moderation, and particularly when you are fatigued – can increase the speed with which you react and your ability to persevere on a boring, repetitive task. In general, moderate levels of caffeine appear to help with attention. However, the research on caffeine’s effects on memory is more mixed; there doesn’t seem to be a consistent direct benefit of caffeine for memory. But to the extent that caffeine helps you stay on task while studying, that could be beneficial.

(1) McLellan, T. M., Caldwell, J. A., & Lieberman, H. R. (2016). A review of caffeine’s effects on cognitive, physical and occupational performance. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 71, 294-312.

+ How can we help students take more effective notes in class?

Our answer to this question comes not from cognitive psychology, but from an adjacent field: Applied Behavior Analysis. Research from this field recommends the use of “guided notes” to improve students’ note-taking and learning from lectures (1). The guided notes technique involves providing students with a framework with cues and blank spaces so that they are prompted to take notes about specific concepts covered in the class. This method of note-taking has been shown to produce greater learning than other learning conditions such as presenting students with key points on Powerpoint slides, and/or having them take their own unstructured notes (2).

(1) Barbetta, P.M. & Skaruppa, C.L. (1995). Looking for ways to improve your behavior analysis lecture? Try guided notes. The Behavior Analyst, 18, 155-160.

(2) Konrad, M., Joseph, L.M., & Eveleigh, E. (2009). A meta-analytic review of guided notes. Education and Treatment of Children, 32, 421-444.

+ Is there any evidence about typed notes being less effective as a learning process than handwritten notes?

Yes, actually, such evidence does exist – and it is somewhat counter-intuitive. We are generally faster at typing than at writing by hand. This means that we can type almost as fast as someone is speaking, typing out exactly what they are saying. This is actually less effective for learning than writing down a selection of key points (which tends to happen if you hand-write your notes). We had a student write a guest blog about the findings here. However, there is a way to make typed note-taking just as effective as handwriting. Those who have significant trouble with handwriting (a condition called dysgraphia) may prefer to use the alternative method proposed by another student in this post. This typed note-taking method includes effective study strategies of spacing and retrieval practice to consolidate memory of the material encountered in a lecture. These strategies can serve to compensate for the benefits you give up when moving from hand-writing to electronic note-taking.

+ Is there any evidence that regular practice of meditation and mindfulness have a positive influence on educational outcomes?

While it may seem like mindfulness is the latest fad, there is actually a growing set of evidence that this practice can have a positive effective on educational outcomes, particularly in K-12 settings (1). Some have argued that mindfulness practice can improve executive functioning and reduce anxiety, thereby improving academic achievement (2). Another possible explanation is that mindfulness reduces mind-wandering – that is, thoughts unrelated to what the student is trying to learn (3). Mind-wandering takes the student’s attention away from classroom material, which hurts understanding and memory (see [this blog post][1C] for a summary of the research on mind-wandering during a lecture). If mindfulness practice decreases the frequency and intensity of mind-wandering episodes while students are trying to pay attention, then this could be beneficial to learning.

(1) Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Oberle, E., Lawlor, M. S., Abbott, D., Thomson, K., Oberlander, T. F., & Diamond, A. (2015). Enhancing cognitive and social-emotional development through a simple-to-administer mindfulness-based school program for elementary school children: A randomized controlled trial. Developmental Psychology, 51, 52-66.

(2) Zelazo, P. D., & Lyons, K. E. (2012). The potential benefits of mindfulness training in early childhood: A developmental social cognitive neuroscience perspective. Child Development Perspectives, 6, 154-160.

(3) Mrazek, M. D., Smallwood, J., & Schooler, J. W. (2012). Mindfulness and mind-wandering: finding convergence through opposing constructs. Emotion, 12, 442-448.

+ Is the Flipped Classroom effective or a fraud?

The idea of the “flipped classroom” is so broad that it is hard to empirically test; John Hattie makes this point in a recent review (1). At its core, the idea is simply that students are supposed to “do something” (these days, often involving technology; e.g., watch a video) before coming to class. Then, the knowledge they gained from this independent studying will be consolidated in some way during the class – typically through engagement in activities rather than passive listening.

The confusing thing about the idea of the “flipped classroom” is that it is actually nothing new. Even in the traditional lecture, students are often expected to have read prior to coming to class. Whether most students do this is, of course, another story; we recommend quizzing students on the reading to encourage students to actually do it. Unlike the traditional lecture, the “flipped classroom” model tends to involve some kind of student activity during class time. As a result, the “flipped classroom” model may increase the likelihood that students will actually engage in the out-of-class activity, because often the in-class activity will be contingent on the out-of-class activity, perhaps more so than in a traditional lecture. Another way that the flipped classroom might differ from traditional instruction is that the role of the teacher is seen more as a guide to student learning, than as an instructor who transmits knowledge. Over the decades, cognitive psychology has shown this teaching method to be unhelpful to learning, particularly with students who are not yet experts in the topic at hand (see Megan’s post on this issue). All in all, however, it’s not possible to answer the question “is the flipped classroom effective”, because there are too many degrees of freedom in the definition of a “flipped classroom”!

(1) Hattie, J. (2015). The applicability of Visible Learning to higher education. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1, 79-91.

+ Is there any real magic to the “rule of 3”? That is, when we give students a set of instructions or introduce new ideas in a lecture, should we always try to stick to 3 steps?

To be perfectly honest, we hadn’t even heard of this rule. You might like to try Googling “rule of 3”, as Yana did – apparently, it has been applied to anything from marketing to reporting one’s sexual history (trigger warning: misogyny). When applied to learning, the “magical rule of 3” has been interpreted in terms of the number of times something needs to be presented to be learned, in addition to the original formulation of this reader’s question, which refers to giving students only 3 steps in an set of instructions. So, in the spirit of the “magical rule of 3”, Yana has 3 thoughts on this question:

  1. There are no truly “magical rules” in cognitive psychology. For an excellent discussion of this, see Roediger’s piece on the lack of universal laws in memory (1).

  2. “Magical rules” tend to originate from grains of reality. In this case, the grain of reality might be the finding that working memory capacity is limited. For example, visual working memory is limited to 3-4 simple objects (2), although this capacity varies between individuals (3). Funnily enough, this 3-4 item limit is actually an update to the original estimate of 7 plus or minus 2 items, which, confusingly, was itself coined as “magical” by Miller when he described it in the 1950s (4).

  3. Long-term memory, on the other hand, does not have this type of capacity limit (5). So, unless you want students to hold information (such as task instructions) in mind temporarily while working on something, the “rule of 3” need not apply.

(1) Roediger, H. L. (2008). Relativity of remembering: Why the laws of memory vanished. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 225-254.

(2) Awh, E., Barton, B., & Vogel, E. K. (2007). Visual working memory represents a fixed number of items regardless of complexity. Psychological Science, 18, 622-628.

(3) Vogel, E. K., & Machizawa, M. G. (2004). Neural activity predicts individual differences in visual working memory capacity. Nature, 428, 748-751.

(4) Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.

(5) Cowan, N. (2008). What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory? Progress in Brain Research, 169, 323-338.

+ I am 14 years old. My high school classes are between 75 minutes and 90 minutes in duration. Can you please tell me if this is too long, and if so, how long should they be? Also, do you have any resources to support your answer?

There is no simple answer to these questions unfortunately. However, there is some research that indicates that it is not necessarily the length of time that matters, so much as what is happening during that time. For example, as you learn new information, the old information builds up and you have a harder and harder time taking in new information. This phenomenon is called proactive interference (PI). So if you did nothing but try to take in more and more information, a long session would be a problem. However, research has demonstrated that a change in context (e.g. taking a break to walk around) or interspersed retrieval practice (i.e. quizzes) can release PI, such that you can have longer sessions with no problem. Essentially, long sessions are ok if you break them up into shorter sessions with a change in scenery or quizzes.

+ Where's the best place to start on your (excellent) website for general advice on teaching, in terms of explanation, planning, student interaction, etc.

The best way to start if you are interested in hands-on ideas on how to implement the different learning strategies would be to browse the downloadable material area where we have put together informative posters and power point presentations for your use in class. They can guide your explanations of the strategies and help you plan your teaching, too. If you feel you need further info regarding specific learning strategies, you can browse our blog archive for keywords and read more in-depth blog posts.

+ Is 'muscle memory' a thing? If it is, how does it work? If it isn't, what is it that people think 'muscle memory' is?

Yes, it is! Psychologists refer to this as “procedural memory”. It works for things like riding a bike, but also for other “procedures” such as the sequence of events you go through when getting into a car or the way you try to ]solve problems. This is part of a system of memory that we call “implicit” or “non-declarative” memory. What this means is that we don’t have to consciously bring this type of memory to mind in order to use it. When you get out of bed in the morning, you don’t think about how to walk; you just do it. This type of memory is also a bit different because acquiring these memories require a lot of repetition. You can be told once that the capital of Kansas is Topeka and remember it, but you have to practice procedures in order for them to be encoded. These memories also rely on different areas of the brain (i.e. the basal ganglia and cerebellum) than factual memories or memories for life events.

+ I'm wondering if being taught misleading or incorrect information can hinder later learning if this material becomes part of a schema. My understanding is that once a schema is formed it is inflexible, meaning that we ignore or don't believe information that contradicts it, even if that information is correct?

There are a lot of parts to this question. To get to your main point, you are referring to “confirmation bias” and you’re quite correct. Once we have an idea in mind, we tend to search for information that confirms that knowledge and reject information that contradicts it. You can read more about it here. Another aspect to this question is the idea of proactive interference. That is, prior learning can hinder later learning of related information. However, that’s not to say that memories cannot change. They absolutely can. In fact, every time we bring a memory to mind, it becomes malleable so that it can be updated with current knowledge and information. So, while we have a tendency to downplay contradictory information, we are very much able to change an existing schema. You can read more about this idea here.


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