Our Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

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+ 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!

+ 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.

+ 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.

(4) 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!

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.

+ 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 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.

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