Combining Effective Learning Strategies

Combining Effective Learning Strategies

By: Megan Sumeracki (formerly Megan Smith)

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

Those of you who read our blog frequently are not strangers to the six strategies for effective learning. I’m sure you’ve noticed – we talk about these strategies a lot, and also the sky is blue. But for those who aren’t reading our blog every week, here’s a bit of history so that we’re all on the same page. If you’re well versed in all of this, please feel free to skip the next section and get “onto the main point”, how can we combine the strategies to maximize learning?

About the Strategies

The six strategies for effective learning, as we call them on the Learning Scientists Blog, are spacing, retrieval practice, elaboration, interleaving, concrete examples, and dual coding. (The table below briefly describes the strategies and gives one application example. You can also learn about each strategy individually on this page.)

Strategies table.png

These strategies have been identified by cognitive psychologists as having the most evidence to back their effectiveness at improving learning. The research dates back in some cases over a century! Take retrieval practice as an example. Early retrieval practice papers were published in 1909 (1) and 1917 (2). In 1989, Glover (3) wrote a paper titled The Testing Phenomenon: Not Gone but Nearly Forgotten. So even in the late 80s researchers were writing about “old” strategies and were surprised that they weren’t being picked up in practice. 28 years later, this is still largely the case. In 2016, Pomerance, Greenberg, and Walsh (4) investigated how many of these 6 key strategies that are based in evidence show up in teacher training textbooks and wrote a report. They found that very few teacher training textbooks cover these strategies. If teachers aren’t often learning about the strategies during training, then it isn’t a huge surprise that they’re not widespread in the classroom. Yana and I decided we wanted one of our primary goals to be to engage in conversations and spread evidence-based practice and to focus on these well-established strategies from cognitive psychology.

Onto the Main Point:

The 6 strategies can be extremely helpful for learning, and so we have tried to provide as much information as possible about them, and provide free resources for students and teachers to utilize. But, not all students and teachers know about them. For this reason,  this semester I am teaching a first-year seminar at Rhode Island College all about the science of learning. The purpose of the seminar is to introduce the students to college life and help them learn to guide their own independent learning in an effective and efficient way. They are also learning about behavioral research and the importance of evidence-based decisions. My students are just now starting to learn about the different strategies and the evidence behind them. After each class, I ask the students to write a brief reflection:

  • The most important thing they have learned
  • One question they have about
  • One way the material applies to their lives

Two types of questions have come up repeatedly in these first two weeks. 1) Will we get to practice using the strategies? (Yes, that’s on the schedule for the next few weeks!) 2) Which one strategy should I pick most? Is there overlap between the strategies, and what are the differences between them?

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

First, students definitely don’t have to pick just one strategy and use it! There are really effective ways to combine them. And, 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. This question has come up in discussions with teachers and other educators too. So, here are some examples of how to combine the strategies:

Spacing needs to be used with other strategies because spacing is only about when to cover material, and not how to cover material. So right away, you can incorporate spacing with multiple strategies.

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 then 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. Students with a fair amount of background knowledge may even be able to create their own concrete examples and trade them with peers. The peers could then describe and explain how the example fits the concept. Now we’re combining retrieval, concrete examples, and elaborative interrogation into one group activity.

Image from Flickr UBC Library Communications

Image from Flickr UBC Library Communications

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!

While the strategies can be used in isolation (aside from spacing, of course), they really can and should be used together. One thing to note, though, is that there is not a lot of literature directly testing the effectiveness of the combination of strategies compared to using them in isolation. There is a lot of evidence supporting the combination of spacing and retrieval practice, but not much with the combination of other strategies. But for the others, this research just hasn’t been largely conducted… yet. Based on what we know combining the strategies ought to be one of the best ways to maximize effective learning, and to keep students interested and engaged.


(1) Abbott, E. E. (1909). On the analysis of the factors of recall in the learning process. Psychological Monographs, 11, 159-177.

(2) Gates, A. I. (1917). Recitation as a factor in memorizing. Archives of Psychology, 6 (40).

(3) Glover, J. A. (1989). The “testing” phenomenon: Not gone but nearly forgotten. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 392-399.

(4) Pomerance, L., Greenberg, J., & Walsh, K. (2016, January). Learning about learning: What every teacher needs to know. Retrieved from